Creative Selection: Book Review

Looking at Apple's Design Culture for Lessons

This month we’re looking at the book Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda.

You can probably tell by some of my previous articles and posts that I’ve long been intrigued by other organizations and how they work. I’ve written recently about the style of Amazon’s product culture. I’ve had the opportunity to work for several executives from Amazon, so I’m familiar with the culture, and books written about it really jibe with my experience.

But I’ve never worked at Apple or for any former Apple executives. So I hoped that Creative Selection would give an idea of how the product process works at Apple, especially since they create some of the best products and experiences there are.

In some ways, Creative Selection pulls back the curtain. In others, it falls short for me as a product manager. But let’s dive in.

Overview

Kocienda was a principal software engineer at Apple, working on software such as Safari and the iPhone and iPad keyboard.

He highlights some of the key design and engineering principles that Apple espoused during his 15 years (though never explicitly named), such as inspiration, collaboration, craft, taste, and empathy. These permeated the products they built.

He also describes how heavily they relied on demoing their products regularly. Demos ran up the chain, starting with teams and getting feedback there. Then moving to managers and leaders. Then eventually going up to Steve Jobs, who gave his feedback and eventually his support or changes.

Insights

The book has some great stories and insights.

In Chapter 5, it talks about Apple’s use of DRIs, or directly responsible individuals. These are people who are on the line for a product or feature, and have responsibility for it. Kocienda talks about “signing up” for being a DRI. You could take on the responsibility or not, but once you did, Apple expected you to deliver.

This is similar to Amazon’s principle of having a single-threaded focus. Leaders need to be responsible for a single area if they are going to be successful. And projects or products need to have a single point of contact if they are going to succeed. A product simply can’t be successful if no one owns it.

In a similar vein, Kocienda shares the story of Safari and the single measure of success. In Chapter 4, he talks about the page load test for the browser, and how everything they did was measured against the speed of the browser. Speed was the single measure for success as defined by Steve Jobs and by the team. So as they created Safari, every improvement and addition had to make the browser faster. If it didn’t, they had to find speed improvements in some other way.

Again, having a single focus or single measure of success is critical. In the case of Safari, creating a fast browser, it was clear what the outcome needed to be—a fast browser. Browsers at the time (namely Internet Explorer) were slow. So Apple’s browser need to be much faster.

Design is how it works -Steve Jobs

Finally, the obsession with how it works and simplifying. Kocienda shares the story of taking out multiple keyboard selections in the iPad because having more than one was unnecessary. There was room for two, but Steve Jobs knew that having options added layers of complexity for users. And making it simple and intuitive was what Apple was all about.

Shortcomings

While Creative Selection has some interesting stories from behind the scenes at Apple, it falls short for me in a few ways as a product person.

First, I was expecting a higher level view of product at Apple. This is a book about a single engineer creating features within products. There is the browser within the OS and the keyboard within the iPhone and then the iPad.

Those are critical things, and interesting in their own rights. But don’t give a good look at the overarching product strategy for the Mac or the iPhone or the iPad at the time.

As a product person, I was really hoping to see how everything came together, from the design to the technology to the business, to create a few of the products. Or at least get a mid-level view. In the Steve Jobs era, we’re all familiar with how things were at the top. I was hoping to understand more of a product-level view. But this is a very in-the-weeds level view of some of the features. If that’s what you expect, you probably won’t be disappointed. But It won’t give you an idea of how things fit together more broadly.

Additionally, there isn’t much additional perspective. It stays strictly within the area of the author. It would have been interesting to compare and contrast how they were working compared to some of the other engineering teams throughout Apple. Were they all the same? Were they different?

Maybe the author wasn’t privy to such information, but getting additional perspective into the narrative would have been interesting, along with a higher level view of the product strategy.

Conclusion

Creative Selection had some interesting stories from Apple, especially around the creating of Safari and the iPad keyboard. While it didn’t offer as much insight as I was hoping for regarding broader product strategy and product development at Apple, it pulled back the curtain a little regarding some of the development of the features that made the iconic products we know.

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Other Good Links

It Doesn’t Fucking Matter (article) - In hindsight the name meant nothing, the logo meant nothing, the design meant nothing. It grew because it was a great product and customers raved about it. No business ever failed to take off because they used Quickbooks instead of Xero, or because they chose the wrong free CRM or because they chose chose logo A instead of logo B. The reason your business is not taking off is because your product is not good enough. Period.

How Ableist Federal Laws Allow Discrimination Against the Disabled Community (articles) - If you personally know anyone with a disability, you know how challenging it can be. And our laws, technology, and work environments don’t make it any easier. In fact, we often make it so complicated and difficult that it amazes me how anyone can navigate the complexity. The link above is a series of articles on this topic. As a product person, I’m always trying to think about how to create products and experiences that are inclusive. But we need to go beyond that as a society and do better.