What’s the Secret to Being like Apple?

It’s a well worn quote that “Apple doesn’t invent new technology, they just redesign it.” Their storied success isn’t from merely creating pretty designs; it’s from helping the user succeed beyond their own capabilities.

Apple isn’t a product company; it’s a knowledge company. User skill and knowledge is highly variable and any design that relies on individual skill and knowledge can only succeed at a rate equally as variable as their users. Apple embeds their best practice knowledge into their products to avoid relying solely on their users’ knowledge.

Case in point. About 15 years ago, there were various MP3 players on the market and all were enjoying only a modicum of success. The reason for the slow sales, despite the cool factor of the technology, was simply the difficulty in using the technology. There were 4 main steps to using an MP3 player:

  1. Go to MP3.com, find some music, download it

  2. Use a playlist manager, such as MusicMatch, to create playlists

  3. Upload the playlist into the device using it’s proprietary UI

  4. Play the music

This required at least 4 separate techie User Interfaces and was rather cumbersome for the non-tech savvy user.


Apple didn’t invent digital music. They were a late entry into that domain and the iPod didn’t even do that well at first, either. For that matter, the iPod wasn’t the true genesis of Apple’s rebirth, either. Their meteoric success came from the integration of the Apple Store with iTunes, not the iPod. As I’ve said before, great UX is invisible and this is one example.

This integration didn’t just add a new product to the domain, it changed the usage paradigm so that mainstream users could use it easily. With the Apple Store and iTunes integration, the iPod reduced the number of interfaces and the number of steps:

  1. Go to iTunes to find some music, iTunes automatically downloads it and creates generic playlists (artist, album, genre, and decade)

  2. iTunes automatically uploads new music when you charge the iPod

  3. Play the music with the cool iPod jog dial interface

This basically reduced the process from 4 user interaction steps and 4 interfaces to about 1 1/2 steps and only 2 interfaces.

Apple is a knowledge company. They utilized their knowledge of user behaviors around digital music and optimized the task flow to reduce the dependency on the highly variable levels of individual user skill and knowledge. In essence, they embedded their knowledge into the design to make it easier for users to succeed beyond their own capabilities.

An example of a company failing to leverage their knowledge to aid the users is demonstrated in the CustomInk website. How frustrating it must be for a softball coach to go through the entire process of:

  • selecting a shirt style

  • choosing a color

  • creating a custom logo

  • entering names and numbers on the jerseys - only then finding out at the very end that the selected shirt or color doesn’t come in the sizes they need.

The coach is forced to start over, changing the selections to see if the required sizes are available in a different shirt or color. Again, they won’t know until the get to the end of the process if they can get them in their sizes. 

How do you become a knowledge company?

Personas are a common artifact in the UX process, but most UX teams create and use personas incorrectly. In order to become a knowledge company, knowledge must be the core component of your design effort. User personas must describe the knowledge that the users are likely to have when starting the task and the task description must describe the knowledge necessary to complete the task. The difference between these two knowledge components is the knowledge gap that must be bridged by the design.

Proflowers became the market leader of the e-florist business by using their knowledge of flowers and bouquets to organize their site around the occasion for the flowers rather than the flowers themselves. Our research clearly showed that users wanted the right bouquet for their occasion. They didn’t know enough about flowers to build a bouquet (a common website design, back then) or even which flowers were appropriate for their occasion. By organizing the bouquets into occasion categories, Proflowers relied on the one piece of information users would know, the occasion. By organizing the bouquets into occasions, Proflowers succeeded by becoming a knowledge company, not a flower company.

Bridging the Gap

The purpose of embedding knowledge into a design is to overcome the gap between what you can expect your users to know and what they need to know. The greater that gap, the greater the potential for user failure. 

Templates and intelligent defaults are two of the easier ways to embed knowledge into a design. You have the knowledge to know what kind of information is required. Providing a template avoids relying on the users to know how to structure a set of knowledge and includes the right kind of knowledge. Intelligent defaults are simply contextually accurate data filled in or reasonably appropriate choices preselected on an interface.  

There are three ways to accomplish a task, such as filling out a form:

  1. Use something that already exists, as is

  2. Edit something that exists

  3. Create something from scratch

The chances of an existing artifact perfectly fitting a user’s needs are pretty slim. Expecting the user to accurately create something from scratch relies on their highly variable level of skill and knowledge and not very successful. It is far easier and more effective for a user to edit an existing item. An existing item provides a template that users can modify to serve their needs.

Finding the Gap

Identifying that knowledge gap is not as trivial as it seems. I wrote about this in this blog post on SearchEngineWatch.com, A Knowledge Gap Analysis Will Tell You What Web Analytics Can’t. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. This is your chance to leapfrog your competitors.