Why Apple Succeeds: Users, Not Designers, Have the Best Ideas

The secret to design success? Invent something your customers can hack, remake, and customize—then let them run wild.

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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.

The role of the designer has shifted. The best designs will set the stage but stop short of fully defining the experience.

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.

What about companies with a great grasp on design but a poor history of making products that can be customized easily? There are many cautionary tales here. The author of a recent article in Make magazine lambasted Sony for its "war on makers, hackers, and innovators," and attributed this critical mistake to the Japanese company's fall from grace. And in fact, Sony has been tirelessly trying to keep their systems closed (everything from the AIBO robot to its PlayStation gaming console, perhaps its last relevant platform). This has ultimately cut them off from the people who could make their products fun, interesting, and relevant. Just this month, Sony pressed legal action against a PlayStation 3 hacker, whose house was raided in Germany.

There are still many elements in Apple products that are quite carefully designed, but the company still manages to strike a balance between stifling control and measured openness. In that way, it mirrors another massive Silicon Valley success story: Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has carefully constructed his online experience to be customizable—but only within certain boundaries—which together provides critical consistency of user experience while allowing anyone to download (and write) third-party apps. Companies like Zynga, the maker of the farming simulation Farmville, are riding this model to astonishing success. Others are still trying to get the ecosystem model right (they have the product, but they don't have the iTunes-like platform, or vice versa).

So where does this leave design? It's just as critical as before, but the role of the designer has shifted. The best designs will set the stage but stop short of fully defining the experience. Instead, designers will create open frameworks (with some restrictions) for legions of smart, young things to build the experiences that will ultimately set the best products apart. In that way, designers will continue to become the architects of a vast playground of services that connect people to great ideas, great experiences, and one another.

Image: frog design

This post originally cited the Flipbook app. We regret the error.