The mantra of the last few years in the Silicon Valley has been that your company needs to be “design-led.” So here’s a question for you: Besides Apple, what are the design-led success stories?
I think that the basic answer is that there are none, and that we need to put a big asterisk near Apple, too.
The “design-led” label is hazy in that kind of productively-ambiguous-for-business-consultants way, so it’s hard to come up with a canonical list of what companies are design-led. But clearly the canonical example is Apple, an organization in which industrial design appears to initiate projects, veto initiatives from the product or engineering team, and be central to the brand of the company. Do any of the other big companies embrace leadership from design?
Google is an engineering-led organization. To the extent that it’s had a flirtation with unifying its diverse initiatives under a design manifesto, that flirtation was Google Plus, and it was a failure. Google has had a fairly successful “material design” initiative which ties its products together in a visual way, but material design is design as UI. It’s a coat of paint (a pretty and useful one, to my eyes) that you apply to your project before release, not a driving force within the company.
Facebook is also obviously engineering-led, famously and almost autistically reflective of its founder. It toyed with a more design-centric approach with Paper, a colossal failure, and perhaps more arguably with Home phone concept, another resounding dud.
Amazon is, I don’t even know. A set of loosely competing internal organizations integrated only by a shared digital language? Some of its sub-units might be design-led in some meaningful sense, but certainly not all of them, and one look at http://amazon.com makes it clear that design is not central to the organization.
Uber’s redesign was famously absurd and its major initiatives are technology or data-driven. Netflix is product and data-driven in a way that is actively hostile to designers. The big B2B success stories, from Palantir to SalesForce, make no concessions to design. AirBnB might be an example of a design-led organization, but it’s worthwhile to note that their head of design specifically disclaims the label. You can make an argument that Tesla is design-led, but if so it’s the company’s automotive side, not its high-tech side.
What’s left? Is there anything to address besides the elephant in the room?
I’m tempted to just wave Apple away. However successful design leadership has or hasn’t been for Apple, it’s the outlier of outliers. Generalizing from Apple is famously fraught.
But if Apple is to be the central example, we should at least consider how well design leadership has worked for them.
Apple is interesting to us only because of the iPhone. The revitalization of the company’s fortune through the iPod is certainly an interesting business story, but if they had never leapt from iPod to iPhone, nobody in the tech world would care about them. The iPad has settled into being a niche device. The Apple Watch is an accessory. Macs owe nearly 100% of their limited success to being part of the infrastructure of iOS development (at this point, despite their storied history).
The iPhone is perhaps the single most successful product of all time, certainly the most successful product of anything remotely similar: the consumer electronics space, or post-personal-computing high tech. Central to its brand is the idea that it is desirable, fashionable, and recognizable, and it wouldn’t do to discount that brand.
But the initial success of the iPhone was due to timing and technology, not design per se. The idea of an all-screen phone was dreamt of as the future five years and more before the iPhone came around. It just appears that nobody thought it would be possible for another several years, and Steve Jobs, through vision or luck, pushed for the creation of a device that was by no means impossible to conceive, but rather thought to be impossible to make. And when Apple proved that the iPhone was indeed possible, it certainly appears that its competitors started from essentially nothing in terms of trying to bring competing products to market. It was years before a credible iPhone competitor hit the markets.
During those years, the iPhone solidified its position as an iconic device, and again, it would be absurd to pretend that design was not central to that process.
And then the iPhone suffered a catastrophic loss in market share as Android caught up to the iPhone in unit sales and at least competed in terms of profits. And while the iPhone remains a uniquely successful product, it’s worth looking at what caused it to lose its utter dominance, its position without compare, that it had from 2007 to about 2010 or 2011.
Android, when it came on the scene, clearly had real design deficiencies compared to iOS. My first Android phone, the Motorola Droid, came onto the market two years later than the first iPhone and was clearly in almost every respect inferior to the first generation iPhone, as a consumer device if not in technical specs. It had none of the famous obsession with smooth scrolling or unified user experience that the iPhone did.
I owned that Motorola Droid because iPhones were, at the time, available only on AT&T, and my home got crappy AT&T coverage. It was worthwhile for me to deal with a worse user experience on the Droid in order to get a phone that, you know, worked in my apartment. iPhones were available only on AT&T precisely because of design: because Apple had wanted full control over the user experience of the iPhone, and had signed an exclusive contract with AT&T in return for that control.
My father got the next Android phone in our family, a Droid X the following year. Android still had considerably worse user experience than the iPhone, but my father was also having trouble with AT&T coverage, and the 4.3″ screen of the Droid X was also interesting to him as a man then in his 60’s whose short-distance eyesight was not as keen as it had been.
And screen sizes became the wedge that Android inserted into the iPhone’s dominance. The Droid X was one of the first generation of Android phones to have notably larger screens than the iPhone. It wasn’t until two years later, in 2012, that Apple increased the size of the iPhone screen from its original 3.5″ diagonal, and the iPhone 5’s expanded screen was still substantially smaller than the screens of Android phones from earlier generations. Only with the iPhone 6, in 2014, did Apple finally release phones with screen sizes competitive with Androids. By then, Android was firmly entrenched as a major competitor to the iPhone. Pent up demand for an iPhone with a modern screen size was overwhelming, making the iPhone 6 a high water mark for Apple.
Because, at the end of the day, the iPhone is a hugely successful, iconic product, and a uniquely profitable one, it’s tempting to imagine that Apple has had only successes with it. But it’s worthwhile to consider the counterfactual. In wealthy countries, iPhones have about 40-50% of the smartphone market share (Android does better in poorer countries). This number is up from a few years ago, when Android was competing more against iPhones with smaller screens. People really, really, really like large screens on their phones. Given the dominant position that iPhones enjoyed in 2007-2011 in terms of overall user experience, I think that an Apple that more rapidly embraced large screen sizes (and a variety of carriers) could have had a 60-75% market share today. Perhaps more. As big and as successful as Apple is today, it could have been 50% bigger.
With Apple’s famously secretive decision-making, I can’t say for sure what caused Apple to delay so long in making phones with large screens. But they weren’t technologically impossible: Android proved that. The fact that users were eager to purchase them was hardly a secret. Why didn’t Apple move faster? A plausible explanation is that their powerful design team stood in the way. Supporting a variety of screen sizes complicates a lot of the unified user interface that iOS was and is famous for. Screens that are too large for many users to reach with one thumb necessitate a rethinking of where to put controls. Larger screens may have been more difficult to get with obsessively perfect color balance. They involved rethinking the industrial design of the overall phone enclosure. These weren’t engineering challenges — again, Android proved that this was a very doable technological device. But they are the kind of thing that a design-led organization drags its feet doing.
This is worth considering if you’re a young organization that is thinking about being design-led.