Some remarks on politics and strategic decision making

by Ivar Slavenburg

It was some time ago that I stumbled upon an article called "Hey, Designers: Stop Trying To Be So Damned Clever" (Randy Hunt, 2013) written by Randy Hunt, Creative Director of Etsy. In all honesty, I initially only read the title and didn’t thought about it much. I was convinced that the Design competence was crucial to getting the flow of innovation in many organizations going again. Surely, not everybody would agree with that. Reading more articles and books about all kinds of issues surrounding innovation and writing some introductions on these subjects for this blog, some doubt started to creep into my mind. That didn’t get any better when when I started to read the book "Inside Steve's Brain" (Leander Kahney, 2008) by Leander Kahney . As the title suggests, in this book Kahney tries to explain how Steve Jobs thought about running a company like Apple and how to innovate in particular.

Innovation should be a joint effort

There is no doubt that reading Kahney’s book it is again confirmed what an important role Design can make when developing a product or service. Though the book is describing the period between Jobs return at Apple and launching the first iPhone, already it is clear that the Design team of Jony Ive is involved from day one until launch. That already is a situation not found in a lot of organizations. The way the iPod came about is described extensively. Most remarkable may be the fact that one of the most praised interaction designs of the original iPod, the wheel on the front, was in fact not designed by a designer, but suggested first by Marketing boss Schiller. It makes clear how cooperative the development of a product within Apple is. It is truly a joint effort.

Politics can disturb the desire to work side by side

However, for some reason I have the feeling Kahney is leaving something out, something called politics. That nasty phenomenon where individuals or small groups use the organization for personal gain. Maybe it is because of Jobs stature of having the final say in everything that politics were not a significant problem at Apple. Maybe it is because Apple and Jobs in particular would never accept to cooperate on a book which potentially exposed the dirty laundry of the company. Who knows? I don’t, but for some reason I have difficulty to believe that the Design department was very happy with the decision to go for a wheel on the iPod, instead of what they came up with. In the end, it was the idea of the Marketing guy, what does he know about designing great experiences? Well, maybe not that much, but apparently he was capable of convincing Jobs that this was the best way forward. Fortunately for everybody, the customers loved it and the iPod became the success that Apple needed to survive after a long, dark period of serious decline, almost leading to its bankruptcy.

Another question is why didn’t the excellent design team of Ive came up with the wheel solution itself? What did they came up with and what happened with those ideas? An iPod Touch like solution maybe? Again, the book isn’t very clear about that, though it goes in lengths to explain how great the Design team is. No doubts about that, but nevertheless it would have been very interesting to hear not only about the ideas that made it, but also those that didn’t. In particular, why they didn’t made it! The iPod Touch has a totally different interface than the original iPod, so why wasn’t this implemented from day 1?

The most easy answer would obviously be to blame technology. It was simply not capable of delivering the hardware and software needed to deliver the proper touch screen experience that the Design team had in mind. That could be, but it can not explain everything. Touch screens applications were already on the market. Companies like Nokia where putting touch screen interfaces on mobile phones. Since the iPod was borrowing heavily from mobile phone technologies of those days, why not copying this technology as well if you want to go in that direction? in other words, why not build a simplified touch screen experience, so people can get used to it and expand it when technology eventually catches up to deliver to full thing?

As it is Apple, we will never know. The company and its management will tell us only what they want us to know. However, maybe Hunt’s article can give some potential reasons why an advanced touch screen based experience, though technically possible, did not make it in the original iPod, if even suggested in the first place.

Prioritize effective over clever

Reading Hunt’s article his message is already in the first paragraph of his article, where he states that „you should prioritize effective over clever”. He mentions several areas where designers tend to go for clever, fancy solutions, instead of effective ones: naming of features and buttons, new interaction designs for the sake of new, pressure to create a marketable product, personality mismatches (serious application gets a bright and funny interface) and using the wrong actions for a specific application (like swiping for storing, when a button would be better). In line with his statement in the first paragraph he advises to „un-design the experience before you design it”. This is in line with what the famous interaction design consultancy Nielsen has stated for years, that you have to have a very clever idea to design an interaction differently from what customers are accustomed to. If they are used to pressing a button to save their work, you have to come up with something a lot better to make your customer invest time to learn something different. Fortunately, it can be done, because in many applications, e.g. Apple’s Pages used to write this article or the famous note application Evernote, don’t require you to save at all, as it is done automatically.

Also, the above is not so much different from what Ive says in his videos and interviews as well. The core objective of Design is simplifying things and then simplify them even more. A difficulty with this is that simplification is not a objective thing, it is in the eye of the beholder. The background of the user has a significant influence on determining whether something is considered simple. That might explain the reason why Apple waited with releasing a touch controlled iPod. Though the technology could deliver something like that, it wasn’t a model many people were much accustomed with at the time. Though it proves to be simpler now, back then in the eye of the beholder it was strange and new and thus potentially not as simple as possible.

The key to strategic decision making

Still, after all of this reading my more fundamental question wasn’t answered: how to decide to build the iPod in the first place? Yes, the book of Kahney is saying something about it, Walter Isaacson makes some remarks about it in his article for Harvard Business Review, based on his biography of Jobs. For me, these explanations are not clear enough. And worse, the explanation of Kahney is different from the one Isaacson gives in HBR. And they certainly will not work in a more regular organization, missing an icon like Jobs that could force Apple to go where he wanted it to go.

So, going for Cardiff I had mixed feelings. Could Service Design be offering an answer to these type of questions and thus provide a way to make strategic innovation decisions?

Further Reading

  1. Randy Hunt (2013), Hey, Designers: Stop Trying To Be So Damned Clever. Retrieved from
  2. Leander Kahney (2008), Inside Steve's Brain.