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The One Question That Led to Apple's Success in Design

September 07, 2016

Apple products are famous for attracting loyal customers (or dare I say, fanatics) who happily lay down most of their most recent paycheck in exchange for a shiny rectangle. And while this new shiny rectangle is confusingly similar to the one already in their pockets, these raving fans depart with a deep sense of fulfillment. It’s apparent that Steve Jobs knew what he was doing when he created Apple; he knew he was selling more than a device.

For example, the iPod wasn’t the first of its kind, or even technically superior to the countless other MP3 players, but it still outsold every single one of its competitors. It didn’t promise battery life, sound quality, or hard drive size; it answered the question “why” with one simple line: 1,000 songs in your pocket.

Jobs understood that his customers needed something to believe in. They didn’t just want a “what,” they intuitively desired the “why.” This understanding led Steve to create a vision statement that guided his company to always search for the deeper meaning. He urged every employee to “Challenge the status quo, and think differently.” “Why” was the tool that built the Apple empire.

Ellie using her Mac

Forget the Why and Pay the Price

Most startups aren’t aware of their biggest foe. It’s not competitors or lagging technology; it’s a failure to create the right product for the market. Failing companies neglect the “why” and are left to focus on the “what.” Instead of getting to know their customers and creating a clear picture of why they make certain purchases, many startups and entrepreneurs focus on creating products they think will generate demand. Even if they sell a few units, they pay the price in the long run.

Without the “why,” entrepreneurs have no choice but to compete quantitatively. They tout the cheapest cost, the quality of the parts, or the turnaround time — value propositions that don’t give customers anything to believe in. Companies like Virgin are proof that users are more than willing to pay for an experience and a vision. Cost isn’t an issue when the experience is priceless.

The pitfalls of focusing on the “what” don’t stop there. Product development must be rooted in reason in order to succeed and “what”-based strategies lean on assumptions and gut-instincts. Inevitable pivoting and aimless shifts always follow such strategies, costing money, time, and morale.

iPhone and other pocket objects

Designing for the 'Why'

Research shows that successful companies have a deeply held core purpose creating a strong sense of identity and continuity throughout the business. The “why” holds companies together for the long term. But if you’re like many business leaders struggling to put theories into practice, the following tips are for you:

Step 1: Road Map With 'Why' in Mind

Simply asking "why" is a great place to start. Ask yourself, your employees, and your customers what drives them. Ask them why they make certain purchase decisions. Get to the core of their beliefs and use those findings to inform your vision. But it’s not enough to simply have a vision for your company. The “why” you’ve discovered must influence every component of your product design.

If a feature doesn't help users achieve their goals or doesn't serve the vision, then it's not the right feature. When building the virtual reality app Tiny Eye, we struggled to find the right content to capture with our 360-degree camera. We had a great idea, I-Spy for VR, but lacked the underlying vision. After digging into the “why” of the product, we decided the vision was to immerse users in miniature worlds. From there, our idea became a (virtual) reality.

Step 2: Work Backward to 'Why'

A product is not a “why,” it’s a “what.” It can be hard to articulate something as complex as a belief or vision; many businesses get overwhelmed and focus on the product instead. This leads to products without a market. Instead, start with a clearly defined problem and use this as the foundation for your product. Create a complete picture of the motivations and needs of the user, and you will find yourself arriving at the “why.” Einstein said it best when he declared that if he had just an hour to solve a problem (or save the world), he'd spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution.

At Yeti, we follow the work of Simon Sinek and establish a clear “why” we can stick to. When we miss the mark, we listen to our users to understand where vision is misaligned. For example, when working on Gotta Go, we realized the need for social sharing when users started taking screenshots of their excuses and posting them online. The problem (a lack of social sharing) led to user insight (they will go out of their way to share on social media) which reminded us to stay true to our “why” (have fun).

Step 3: Focus on Providing Value

Creating your vision doesn’t stop when it’s written on your lobby walls — it should be part of everything you do. From product design to marketing to copywriting, your vision and the value you create should be plain and clear. Many companies struggle to fully communicate their value and lean on clever marketing campaigns instead. With Tiny Eye, we wanted to make sure our vision of a completely immersive experience rang true as we designed the product. Before launching, we put the product in front of kids and watched to see when their attention dropped off.

From that research, we learned that putting the camera nearer to the ground and moving objects closer increased the depth and perspective, giving users the sense that they were actually standing in a miniature world. This study showed us how immersive worlds should feel and what content arrangements we should use in order to fulfill our "why." Steve Jobs created something beautiful during his reign at Apple. By sticking to his vision, he created products that not only solved problems, but products that also gave his customers something to believe in. Fan-favorite product design, Jobs knew, always begins with "why." 

is a Yeti Alum. He takes pictures of people on couches, paints unflattering portraits of his coworkers, and gets excited about the future of human computer interaction. Follow Geoff on Twitter.

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