Design Innovation: What Apple Gained When They Put Users First

Ideated in the 1960’s, design thinking is now garnering attention as a highly effective business strategy. Due to its demonstrated success within the design industry, many companies continue to adopt  design thinking as a general approach to problem-solving due to its ability to inspire and enable innovation, a key factor at play for today’s most successful companies.

A significant shift occurred in the mobile phone market back in 2007 when the global market leader, Nokia, was displaced by a company that’s been putting design-centric thinking to use to innovate over and over again - Apple. Take this image that went viral on twitter a month ago:  


When this cover was published in November of 2007, Nokia’s CEO, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, was unabashedly optimistic about the company’s future. The Finnish company was expected to sell $430 million phones that year, equal to the combined total volume sold globally by Motorola, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson and was number one in China, Southeast Asia and India.

While Nokia struggled to dominate here in the U.S. due to a fragmented market owned primarily by Microsoft and RIM (Blackberry), Google released Android to the masses one month before the Forbes cover ran.  Earlier that year in the summer, the iPhone became available to consumers exclusively at AT&T in June after Apple CEO Steve Jobs declared in January that the iPhone is “a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone.”

Perhaps what Pekka-Kallasvuo didn’t know was that Apple was especially adept at putting design thinking into practice. Although the term had yet to be popularized and known to the masses, Jobs was undoubtedly using design thinking as a strategy at Apple.  Just consider how the company proved it isn’t a one-trick pony by upending not only the home computer market but music streaming and mobile phone markets.  

According to a 2012 Harvard Business School article titled “Design Thinking and Innovation at Apple,” design thinking has been in use at Apple since the early 90’s:

Helping people “love” their equipment and the experience of using it animated - and continues to motivate - how Apple products were and are designed today.  Cordell Ratzlaff, a major architect of the Mac OS X operating system (circa 1990), noted:

We did the design first.  We focused on what we thought people would need and want, and how they would interact with their computer.  We made sure we got that right, and then we went and figured out how to achieve it technically.  In a lot of cases when we came up with a design we knew worked for people, we didn’t know how we're doing to build it. We had a design target, and we worked with engineering to reach it.

As the iPhone gained popularity and became available at all major carriers in the coming months and years, other mobile phone manufacturers began using Google’s free and open-source Android operating system, resulting in the slow death of Nokia, which was gobbled up by Microsoft in 2016. The lesson here in today’s fast-paced digital economy; innovate or die.

The Why: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Often, as our expertise within an industry or at a company deepens with the passage of time, product managers and teams may believe they know what the consumer or end-user wants at any given time. They often become “too close” to the product and equate years of experience as enough to combat fast-evolving consumer expectations that change by the minute and hour. It’s a common problem.

This assumption can sometimes permeate the attitudes of an entire executive team, that may become numb to suggestions made to improve a product, service or process at the company by entry-level employees.  And, sometimes unless an idea positively impacts revenue - some CEOs or C-level execs may be unwilling to entertain suggestions at all.  At the same time, sometimes a loss leader can be a winning strategy to gain market share.

At Primal Loop, we often meet clients with the best intentions are on a product roadmap towards a solution that their company or stakeholders have in mind without considering if it solves the user’s problem at hand.  As an example, we began an engagement with a leading enterprise and consumer imaging solutions provider (think multipurpose printers/scanners) that needed to help a major organization reduce their carbon footprint and optimize their office supply spend through the efficient use of leased devices.

The client’s initial hypothesis was that in order to track the use of printers and accompanying resources, a custom built dashboard that aggregated printing and resource statistics would provide them with the data they needed. The risk we considered was that while a single dashboard could provide each group with relevant data, it would also provide each unique group data they didn’t need.

Instead of focusing on the dashboard as a solution, we conducted a series of interviews, contextual inquiries and focus groups, which helped us to identify three major user groups: leaders, directors and managers. We focused on what each user group needed to know in order to best manage their resources, budget and reduce their carbon footprint.  Rather than push everyone to one dashboard, we found a series of solutions that complemented the requested dashboard and provided each group with only the data they needed.

Our focus group research identified that the needs of the leadership were simply to monitor the success of the service license agreement (SLA). At their level, anything else than a stop light system (red, orange, green) would be noise in their day. As a result, they would receive a text message with a single performance indicator.  The secondary user group, comprised of department directors, needed actionable insights to help them either identify opportunities for improvements or continue positive actions.  For this group, a weekly email summarized the top five insights they needed to know, with tips on what actions to take in order to shift towards desirable outcomes.  And lastly, technicians, this group needed granular information in order to manage every device and guarantee that the SLA terms were being met.

By applying a human-centered and collaborative approach, we were able to understand the most complex dashboard desires of the users and assess the magnitude of the product-market delta between the users’ expectations and the business’ objectives. And with the collective help of all personas, we created a workflow structures to allow for feature access based on roles and permissions, all built with the same data used in the initial dashboard request.

A human-centered approach to innovation

Innovation isn’t just about having the best idea or the best technology, it’s about solving the right problem. It all starts with unmet customer needs. And what makes the difference is how well you understand and define their real-life challenges.

Successful companies who put innovation as a top priority know that new opportunities can only be found through exploration. They understand how solving existing real-life challenges through design thinking can transform opportunities into valuable offerings that people actually care about. And this is why companies like Apple grow faster and with higher margins and recover faster during economic downturns.

At its core, design thinking is a strategic approach for exploring a multitude of possible options, in order to reduce risk and develop the best strategy for an optimal outcome. It is a human-centered process to problem-solving through observation, ideation, and experimentation. And it can be used as a strategic human-centered approach to innovation.

It also incorporates principles of truth to help prioritize the development of a new product or idea by considering three things:

  • What is the catalyst for transformation?
  • What is the company’s underlying quest?
  • Does the company have the leadership needed to see it through?

This get-real approach can help teams determine whether it makes sense to create a new product or service.  You and your team might have a great idea or solution on your hands, but do you have the resources to develop, analyze and create it?  You’d be surprised at how many companies fail to ask themselves these questions.

This way of thinking also can save companies time and money. Back to the aforementioned Nokia example and Microsoft’s 2013 acquisition of the company. Just three years later, Microsoft unloaded Nokia to another buyer.  Now referred to as Microsoft’s $7.2 billion dollar mistake by Forbes and a slew of other publications, could the costly mistake have been avoided by applying design thinking?  Some say yes.

Why We Believe Design Thinking is the Future

In this customer-service centric era we live and work in today, technological advancements are happening at a dizzying pace.   If you consider the rapid developments happening now around  IoT, cryptocurrencies, virtual reality and artificial intelligence - just to name a few - it’s tough for companies to stand out and rise above the noise.

As consumer’s lives become busier than ever, they expect companies not to sell them products, but solve their problems.  Because a design-centered thinking approach aims to do just that, it’s a strategy that can be employed today to accelerate growth and innovation for continued success.