My new project: Tact, a simple chat app.

Apple and Linux share the same design philosophy

August 23, 2009

I know. It sounds crazy. But hear me out.

One of my favorite Master’s professors, Bonnie John, said:

If there’s one thing you want to take away from your main course and your whole education, then it’s this: THE USER IS NOT LIKE ME.

In other words (my paraphrase): the designer is an impartial bystander who has no personal stake in the product. Their job is to study the user, their needs and their desires, and then make design decisions based on what they witnessed, while still standing aside.

Now, let’s compare it to what Apple and Linux say. I know, these two are antithetical. But I argue that they are antithetical not because of the philosophy, but simply because the nature of the products that they make. Linux makes “backend” stuff, while Apple makes “user-facing”/”frontend” stuff. So, they do not compete. And their philosophy is similar. Allow me to present:

For Apple, I refer to the Steve Jobs interview in Fortune:

We did iTunes because we all love music. We made what we thought was the best jukebox in iTunes. Then we all wanted to carry our whole music libraries around with us. The team worked really hard. And the reason that they worked so hard is because we all wanted one. You know? I mean, the first few hundred customers were us. … We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too.

Now, I am sure that this is a sugar-coated version of what happens in practice. I have been in big software organizations and I KNOW that reality is more complex than that. But the complexity is just details. The above is still the guiding force.

As for Linux, I refer to ESR’s famous The Cathedral and The Bazaar:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.

See what I mean? I will make a rough cut and say that Apple people develop frontend and Linux folks develop backend. But what unites them is that they both have a personal vested interest that the software succeeds, because they personally care about it. Which is opposed to the view of “professional designer” and “the user is not like me”.

In many Apple job ads, you need to show that not only are you good at design, but that you also have the domain knowledge. In other words, if you want to design Pro Music apps, you must actually know a thing or two about music and be able to play an instrument.

Can a designer make good design decisions and build a brilliant product design if they are not the users? And approach it purely at a professional level, vs being the target group and having a vested interest? I think the best products are still built if you have a personal vested interest and you care. The rest is “industrial”: industry-standard and boring.

What do you think?