The secret to design success? Invent something your customers can hack, remake, and customize—then let them run wild.
After selling 15 million iPads in 2010, Apple is expected to unload 30 million in 2011 with the release of the iPad 2. Not bad for a company whose stock traded under $10 just a decade ago. How have they done it? Much has been made of the company's unwavering control over the design of its user experience and the way people buy music and movies through iTunes and the App Store. But a big part of the company's success has to do with its knack for building customizable, hackable products.
Apple has recognized what many in the tech industry are still learning: that users are truly at the center of their business. It relies upon millions of hobbyists, developers, and hackers to transform its products from good to great by selling cool and useful apps in the App Store. Think about it: what would the iPad be without Flipboard and that fantastic Twitter app?* What would the iPhone be without Pandora and Angry Birds? In essence, Apple is allowing other people to determine the ultimate fate of its products.
This is a big shift from traditional product design strategy. It used to be that the best products—and indeed the best design—were borne of careful research, extensive user testing, and an elite team of skilled designers who knew more than anyone else. That's still somewhat the case. Few can argue that the success of companies like Apple, Google, and Twitter has nothing to do with the technology and design talent they attract (and try to keep). But given the breakneck pace of technological innovation, even the best in-house talent can't outpace the collective talent of the Internet. A recent article by Instapaper developer Marco Arment pointed out how Apple itself doesn't always seem to know what its products will become. Instead, it creates compelling tools and ecosystems and lets developers and users get to work. As long as Apple can supply the best tools, it can effectively crowdsource the details of its market strategy and win, regardless of the outcome.