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Does every startup need a Steve Jobs?

What does Steve Jobs really do for Apple?
I had a recent conversation on Apple’s incredible design culture and what it would take to create that in a startup. In many ways, it seems like an insurmountably difficult challenge to play the role of Steve Jobs, with his god-like sense of product aesthetics and interactions.

And yet, Apple has hundreds of products and experiences – hardware, software, HR materials, commercials, etc. Steve Jobs certainly doesn’t have time to work on the design of every Apple product, and of course has 35,000 employees to manage. So what does Steve Jobs really do, to create the amazing design culture at Apple?

And more importantly, can a startup hope to even start to capture the same kind of culture?

Well, let me give you my best guess :-)

IDEO’s product framework for Desirability, Feasibility, and Viability
First, let’s take a quick detour and talk about IDEO’s perspective on new product development – this is documented as part of their 100+ PDF on human centered design, but also recounted to me by a friend who works there.

The idea is that all products ultimately come from an epic struggle between three perspectives: Desirability, Feasibility, and Viability. IDEO focuses on new products from the desirability side, which means they think about how to make sexy products with clear value propositions, and think technology and business goals flow from that. Most of their Fortune 500 clients do not act this way, of course, which is why they have to hire IDEO.

Here’s the diagram included in their HCD toolkit:

The way this was retold to me is that these factors map into functional parts of a business:

  • Viability = Business focus (marketing, finance)
  • Feasibility = Engineering focus (technologies, agile process, etc.)
  • Desirability = Design focus (customers, aesthetics, etc.)

Business-focused product perspective: Viability
For business-oriented products, the focus might be on any of the following:

  • “hot markets”
  • making money
  • funding potential
  • distribution
  • metrics

The idea there is that you get to a product via one of these first-order items. A business-oriented entrepreneur might identify a market, then try to come up with a product within the market – for example, “wow, Zynga is making $250M/year, and fish games are big. I should come up with a social gaming product too.”

I would also argue that “corporate” thinking (including MBAs and biz plan competitions) fundamentally revolve around this approach – the most important thing becomes the analytical discussion around the business, rather than the core user experience itself. Financial metrics and market sizes become the dominating point of discussion – I would argue also that most venture capitalists fall into this bucket.

The big “religions” in this perspective are frameworks like Built to Last, Crossing the Chasm, Customer Development, Blue Ocean Strategy, even Efficient Market Hypothesis. You might also count Six Sigma, all the stuff in McKinsey quarterlies, etc.

Engineering-focused product perspective: Feasibility
For technology-oriented products, the focus might be on the following:

  • programming language and development stack
  • cool technologies or libraries
  • engineering processes (agile or otherwise)

For people who use this as a first-order filter, you might end up with a line of thinking like, “BitTorrent is really cool, how do we build a business around it?”

I would also put engineering processes like agile into this, because that can easily become a first-order item in how to build a product as well. Agile won’t work for every team, for every product, in every situation, and yet it’s viewed as an all-purpose hammer – does that really make sense?

The big “religions” in this perspective are frameworks are agile, scrum, open source, etc. I might also count the “ecosystems” like Rails as a unique culture with its own set of beliefs and conventions. Frameworks like “Lean Startups” ultimately combine both Business and Engineering goals, via Customer Development plus Agile.

Design-focused product perspective: Desirability
For design-focused products, the focus might be on:

  • context, culture, and goals
  • customer goals and product experience
  • design aesthetics and interactions

The first-order filter in this case might be “Sick people go to hospitals and have a terrible experience – how do we improve that?” The tools employed at this initial stage might include user research, development of personas and user goals, and rapid prototyping to explore many product concepts.

The big “religions” here are led by Apple and their aesthetics and standards. And of course folks like IDEO and their “design thinking” ideas.

How business and engineering goals encroach on the desirability of a product
Reading through the above, perhaps you have identified yourself as prioritizing one versus the other. And in general, the prioritization of the three different goals drives what kinds of product experiences you can build.

From the perspective of making a sexy, highly desirable product, you’ll find lots of objections from business or engineering:

  • “spending money on visual design is too expensive”
  • “polishing a product will make the process too slow”
  • “this product is boring to implement”
  • “can you redesign this product so we can build it in 1 week sprints?”
  • “this target user is great, but we want the product to be more powerful and support more audiences”
  • “but Zynga doesn’t do this, can you just copy them?”
  • “why build so many prototypes that get thrown away? That’s costly and slow”
  • “if you added X to this product, it would put us into strategic market Y”
  • etc.

How do you handle questions like the above?

All of them are great questions, and of course the right answer means you have to find a balance in the approach. But what is the expense towards the core of your product experience?

Back to Steve Jobs – what does he really do?
Long story short, my hypothesis is that Steve Jobs is one of the rare CEOs who is very focused on product desirability. In battles with the business and technology goals, desirability will almost always win out.

So his role isn’t that of a designer, but rather Chief Design Advocate. This means:

  • he makes it clear that products should be “insanely great”
  • he recruits a top design team, and protects them from competing goals
  • he is willing to spend money, adjust technology processes, all for the goal of highly desirable products
  • he convinces financial analysts, industry pundits, etc. that product design is very important

To me, the amazing part about this is: Any company can do it.

Maybe not as good as Jobs, but they can decide to make it a priority – but few companies do. With the pressure of quarterly earnings, what competitors are doing, and employee aspirational desires, the focus moves off of killer experiences for customers – that’s no good.

If the above is true, then any of us can be the Steve Jobs of our team. Start by prioritizing design and desirability, and place it on a better footing relative to engineering and business goals. Learn the tools, develop your own religion, and start building great product experiences.

It almost sounds so easy!

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