Wednesday, December 25, 2019

My 3 takeaways from Ken Kocienda’s “Creative selection” at Apple

“How does this process compare with Apple’s design process?” is a question that I often get in my design thinking workshops. I talk about a few anecdotal incidents I have gathered from here and there. But quickly admit that I don’t know how it works at Apple. Thanks to Ken Kocienda’s “Creative selection: Inside Apple’s design process during the golden age of Steve Jobs”, we get some idea how the software design process worked during the first decade of this century, at least in the iPhone project. Ken is the father of the autocorrect feature of the iPhone and the book is also a biography of the idea from challenge to release. Here are my 3 takeaways from the book:

Importance of demo-culture: If there is one thing that Ken is trying to emphasize the Apple design process, it is the importance given to building and reviewing demos from top to bottom. Demos would get reviewed at all levels all the time. Selected demos would get reviewed by Steve Jobs and Ken begins the book with a detailed description of the drama associated with one of his demos to Jobs. That time Ken was working on the iPad keyboard and he was exploring how to provide the user with an option of two keyboards – one with bigger but fewer keys and the other with smaller but more keys. He had used a zoom key to toggle between the two keyboards. He was proud of the flexibility he was offering to the user. And yet the 2-3 questions that Steve Jobs asked him during the review played an important role in simplifying the design. Ken calls this iterative design process – demo – feedback – next demo – creative selection, the title of the book.

Role of challenge campaigns: In 2005, Ken was part of a small team of engineers working on the secret phone project called Purple. At one point, all the engineers were called for a meeting and it was announced that from then on all of them were keyboard engineers. It meant that the issue of software keyboard on a touch screen had become critical enough for all the engineering effort to be focused on it. The tactile feedback of a Blackberry-type keyboard was missing in their phone and hence typing accuracy was low. All engineers began to show their demos of various types of software keyboards. This is when Ken invented the autocorrect feature and his keyboard demo was selected for further development. This is an example of how challenge campaigns can be used to solve critical business challenges.  Unlike the keyboard derby example, not all business challenges need to be solved by stopping everything else. However, like the keyboard derby example, they need to emphasize demos and prototyping. And at the end, promising ideas need to be integrated into the roadmaps.

The intersection of technology and liberal arts:  In the chapter titled “The intersection” Ken says, “Apple valued expertise in both technology and liberal arts”. Ken is a history Major and pursued photography seriously for a few years before starting his career as a software developer. “Working at the intersection” was a topic of discussion among Apple employees and there was a half-day course on this topic at Apple University. In the technology industry, I am familiar with, this is hardly the case. People like to hero-worship Steve Jobs, but how many are willing to explore what it means to “work at the intersection”? I guess worshipping has always been easier than exploration in human history.
Apart from these concepts, Ken sheds light on many more areas associated with the Apple culture of his time such as the role of DRI – Directly Responsible Individual, the relevance of empathy & focus, the role of collaboration, the importance of asking oneself, “What do I really enjoy?” especially in the context of individual contributor vs management etc.

In case you prefer listening to audio to reading, I recommend Ken’s interview “Inside the Apple factory: Software design in the age of Steve Jobs”. It covers almost all of these points. 

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