Business Week / The Tech Beat

Apple's design process

Posted by: Helen Walters on March 08, 2008

Interesting presentation at SXSW from Michael Lopp, senior engineering manager at Apple, who tried to assess how Apple can ‘get’ design when so many other companies try and fail. After describing Apple’s process of delivering consumers with a succession of presents (“really good ideas wrapped up in other really good ideas” — in other words, great software in fabulous hardware in beautiful packaging), he asked the question many have asked in their time: “How do you do that?” Then he went into a few details:

Pixel Perfect Mockups
This, Lopp admitted, causes a huge amount of work and takes an enormous amount of time. But, he added, “it removes all ambiguity.” That might add time up front, but it removes the need to correct mistakes later on.

10 to 3 to 1
Apple designers come up with 10 entirely different mock ups of any new feature. Not, Lopp said, "seven in order to make three look good", which seems to be a fairly standard practice elsewhere. They'll take ten, and give themselves room to design without restriction. Later they whittle that number to three, spend more months on those three and then finally end up with one strong decision.

Paired Design Meetings
This was really interesting. Every week, the teams have two meetings. One in which to brainstorm, to forget about constraints and think freely. As Lopp put it: to "go crazy". Then they also hold a production meeting, an entirely separate but equally regular meeting which is the other's antithesis. Here, the designers and engineers are required to nail everything down, to work out how this crazy idea might actually work. This process and organization continues throughout the development of any app, though of course the balance shifts as the app progresses. But keeping an option for creative thought even at a late stage is really smart.

Pony Meeting
This refers to a story Lopp told earlier in the session, in which he described the process of a senior manager outlining what they wanted from any new application: "I want WYSIWYG... I want it to support major browsers... I want it to reflect the spirit of the company." Or, as Lopp put it: "I want a pony!" He added: "Who doesn't? A pony is gorgeous!" The problem, he said, is that these people are describing what they think they want. And even if they're misguided, they, as the ones signing the checks, really cannot be ignored.

The solution, he described, is to take the best ideas from the paired design meetings and present those to leadership, who might just decide that some of those ideas are, in fact, their longed-for ponies. In this way, the ponies morph into deliverables. And the C-suite, who are quite reasonable in wanting to know what designers are up to, and absolutely entitled to want to have a say in what's going on, are involved and included. And that helps to ensure that there are no nasty mistakes down the line.