Are Apple Any Good at Design?

Apple are famous for their design. From the stylish iPod and iPhone through to the stylish iMac and MacBooks, elegant design runs through everything Apple does. So, it seems almost churlish to ask: are Apple good at design?

But it’s worth asking anyway.

I used to use Apple computers from the early days – one of the first computers my family had when I was a child was the Apple II, before we moved on to an early Mac. I loved the Mac, and I used it for many an undergraduate university assignment, including producing an honors thesis replete with mathematical formulas.

Then I started working for companies that were commited to the Wintel (Windows and Intel) platform. Usually they were commited to this platform for two reasons: Wintel computers were cheaper and had a wider range of third party software available. On occasions a third reason mattered: there was a larger number of readily available software developers and technology support specialists than the alternatives. So, much as I disliked Windows at the time, I started up with Windows.

Microsoft, of course, were less than perfect at designing operating systems and applications for users. One of the first Wintel oriented companies I joined had allowed people to use whichever email program they liked. I was happily using Netscape. Some bright spark then decided we needed to standardise our in house software choices around Microsoft software, so I dutifully went off to use one of the first versions of Microsoft Outlook for my email. All went well, until I wanted to send my emails. I couldn’t find the ‘send and receive’ button. No one could help me, so I got the tech department on to the matter. After 5 hours of research and trawling through MSDN help files, they were embarrased to report that there was no send and receive button. Yes, Microsoft had released an email product to mass market without including a ‘send’ button for email!! The techies helpfully advised that the recommended way to send or receive email was by pressing the ‘F5’ button.

And that is exactly the value of putting an early version of your product or service before actual users, before releasing it. Users will tend to pick up minor oversights such as releasing an email program without a ‘send’ button!

This brings me to my major point: there is a difference between what I call aesthetic design and user design. Aesthetic design is developing something elegant and slick that would look spectacular on the appropriate sort of runway for whatever product you are developing. The iPod, iPhone and iMac for example are all spectacular examples of good aesthetic design.

Then there is user design – designing a product or service with users in mind, so that users ultimately love the experience of using it. And I’m not so sure Apple are as good at user design.

I recently purchased a 24″ iMac.

And I love it.

But some things have me scratching my head, and wondering: ‘what were the designers thinking?’

Take for example the ports on the back of the computer:

For a start, there are only three USB ports (note: I believe the new iMac released this week has four, which is still too few), and one of these is taken up by the keyboard, and another by the mouse, leaving only one available USB port for any user tasks. What were Apple thinking?

Secondly, the USB ports are all on the back. Stylish, yes. Practical, no.

It means everytime one wants to plug in or take out a USB memory stick, one has to turn the whole iMac around. Why not put them on the side?

Thirdly, notice that the external sound plug is right next to the USB ports. That means that everytime someone is plugging in or taking out a USB device from the one available USB port, it’s easy to brush up against the sound cable and jostle it which then may make an (ugly) noise. Why not put the sound cable on the other side of the iMac rear?

Another example: on Windows everyone is used to using mouse left clicks to do things and mouse right clicks for context sensitive menus. It’s a great idea. Correspondingly, Apple also provide this functionality with their mouse. But they turn it off by default when they ship you a new computer! The user experience is that there only appears to be one button, for left clicks only. What were the designers at Apple thinking?? All this achieves is causing frustration for new users and for users switching from Windows to Apple, as they need to twig to the fact this core functionality is available but just not turned on.

Microsoft Windows was based in part on the Apple user interface concepts: perhaps Apple can also learn in parts from some successful aspects of Windows. For example, in Windows all the open application windows can be viewed and accessed from the bottom of the screen. On the Mac, I can’t (yet) see how to see a list of which aplications are running and their windows. Instead, the Mac will show which applications are available to run, and which documents are open (which may not be the same thing as which application windows are open). Why not make this kind of functionality part of the Finder?

We all know Apple are great at aesthetic design. The question is whether they are good at user design. Your thoughts?

2 Responses to Are Apple Any Good at Design?
  1. Frank Connolly
    April 15, 2009 | 12:07 PM

    Some of the design related stuff is difficult when viewed from a PC perspective. Eg: the "shortage"of USB ports ceases to become an issue if one considers that so many peripherals are now wireless and the Macs are very well set up for this.

    Aspects such as the weight of the macbooks and macbook pros are clearly superior in terms of user design given their slimline shape lighter body than their PC colleagues.

    Clearly there'll always be aspects on PC's that are preferable, depending on the user, but overall (as I suspect you appreciate) there really is no comparison.

    I've ran PC's and Macs in parallel at work and home for nearly fifteen years and can confirm that once you go Mac – you never go back.

  2. Anonymous
    April 20, 2009 | 6:06 PM

    The keyboard has 2 USB ports. So you need one on the back for the keyboard, then you plug the mouse in the keyboard and have a second one in the front (for USB Keys?).

    Plus they have Bluetooth for the mouse, which es even better.

    It always depends on what you like and what your preferences are. I use PC and Mac, and PC still have to learn a lot till they get to the mac level.

    But thats just my opinion.

    Cheers,

    Tom

Are Apple Any Good at Design?

Apple are famous for their design. From the stylish iPod and iPhone through to the stylish iMac and MacBooks, elegant design runs through everything Apple does. So, it seems almost churlish to ask: are Apple good at design?

But it’s worth asking anyway.

I used to use Apple computers from the early days – one of the first computers my family had when I was a child was the Apple II, before we moved on to an early Mac. I loved the Mac, and I used it for many an undergraduate university assignment, including producing an honors thesis replete with mathematical formulas.

Then I started working for companies that were commited to the Wintel (Windows and Intel) platform. Usually they were commited to this platform for two reasons: Wintel computers were cheaper and had a wider range of third party software available. On occasions a third reason mattered: there was a larger number of readily available software developers and technology support specialists than the alternatives. So, much as I disliked Windows at the time, I started up with Windows.

Microsoft, of course, were less than perfect at designing operating systems and applications for users. One of the first Wintel oriented companies I joined had allowed people to use whichever email program they liked. I was happily using Netscape. Some bright spark then decided we needed to standardise our in house software choices around Microsoft software, so I dutifully went off to use one of the first versions of Microsoft Outlook for my email. All went well, until I wanted to send my emails. I couldn’t find the ‘send and receive’ button. No one could help me, so I got the tech department on to the matter. After 5 hours of research and trawling through MSDN help files, they were embarrased to report that there was no send and receive button. Yes, Microsoft had released an email product to mass market without including a ‘send’ button for email!! The techies helpfully advised that the recommended way to send or receive email was by pressing the ‘F5’ button.

And that is exactly the value of putting an early version of your product or service before actual users, before releasing it. Users will tend to pick up minor oversights such as releasing an email program without a ‘send’ button!

This brings me to my major point: there is a difference between what I call aesthetic design and user design. Aesthetic design is developing something elegant and slick that would look spectacular on the appropriate sort of runway for whatever product you are developing. The iPod, iPhone and iMac for example are all spectacular examples of good aesthetic design.

Then there is user design – designing a product or service with users in mind, so that users ultimately love the experience of using it. And I’m not so sure Apple are as good at user design.

I recently purchased a 24″ iMac.

And I love it.

But some things have me scratching my head, and wondering: ‘what were the designers thinking?’

Take for example the ports on the back of the computer:

For a start, there are only three USB ports (note: I believe the new iMac released this week has four, which is still too few), and one of these is taken up by the keyboard, and another by the mouse, leaving only one available USB port for any user tasks. What were Apple thinking?

Secondly, the USB ports are all on the back. Stylish, yes. Practical, no.

It means everytime one wants to plug in or take out a USB memory stick, one has to turn the whole iMac around. Why not put them on the side?

Thirdly, notice that the external sound plug is right next to the USB ports. That means that everytime someone is plugging in or taking out a USB device from the one available USB port, it’s easy to brush up against the sound cable and jostle it which then may make an (ugly) noise. Why not put the sound cable on the other side of the iMac rear?

Another example: on Windows everyone is used to using mouse left clicks to do things and mouse right clicks for context sensitive menus. It’s a great idea. Correspondingly, Apple also provide this functionality with their mouse. But they turn it off by default when they ship you a new computer! The user experience is that there only appears to be one button, for left clicks only. What were the designers at Apple thinking?? All this achieves is causing frustration for new users and for users switching from Windows to Apple, as they need to twig to the fact this core functionality is available but just not turned on.

Microsoft Windows was based in part on the Apple user interface concepts: perhaps Apple can also learn in parts from some successful aspects of Windows. For example, in Windows all the open application windows can be viewed and accessed from the bottom of the screen. On the Mac, I can’t (yet) see how to see a list of which aplications are running and their windows. Instead, the Mac will show which applications are available to run, and which documents are open (which may not be the same thing as which application windows are open). Why not make this kind of functionality part of the Finder?

We all know Apple are great at aesthetic design. The question is whether they are good at user design. Your thoughts?

2 Responses to Are Apple Any Good at Design?
  1. Frank Connolly
    April 15, 2009 | 12:07 PM

    Some of the design related stuff is difficult when viewed from a PC perspective. Eg: the "shortage"of USB ports ceases to become an issue if one considers that so many peripherals are now wireless and the Macs are very well set up for this.

    Aspects such as the weight of the macbooks and macbook pros are clearly superior in terms of user design given their slimline shape lighter body than their PC colleagues.

    Clearly there'll always be aspects on PC's that are preferable, depending on the user, but overall (as I suspect you appreciate) there really is no comparison.

    I've ran PC's and Macs in parallel at work and home for nearly fifteen years and can confirm that once you go Mac – you never go back.

  2. Anonymous
    April 20, 2009 | 6:06 PM

    The keyboard has 2 USB ports. So you need one on the back for the keyboard, then you plug the mouse in the keyboard and have a second one in the front (for USB Keys?).

    Plus they have Bluetooth for the mouse, which es even better.

    It always depends on what you like and what your preferences are. I use PC and Mac, and PC still have to learn a lot till they get to the mac level.

    But thats just my opinion.

    Cheers,

    Tom