Apple and The CXO

by Thomas Brady in , , , , ,

Previously, on Bash Modern Quantity…

Coming up on a year ago, I asked the Internet "What's missing from Apple's Org Chart?". My premise went…

  1. Apple's biggest advantage over its competitors is its superior user experience,
  2. this superior user experience is the result of having a strong UX team at Apple and that
  3. a key to maintaining or growing this team and its strength would be strong, empowered leadership.

After lots of digging I could only find evidence of a director-level position within the UX discipline at Apple (also here). No vice presidents. No senior vice presidents. Nobody with a C in their title. It seemed obvious enough that Steve Jobs would have seen himself as the C-level representation of UX concerns at Apple, but it seemed equally obvious—to me, at least—that Tim Cook is not similarly capable of wearing that hat. It seemed to me it was time to appoint a high-level head of user experience design at Apple.

This week, on Twitter…

I read, via Crystal Ehrlich, Reuben Steiger's article, "Who's the Chief Experience Officer?", in which he described the need for such high-level representation thusly,

The crux of the problem is that building great experiences is everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s job.

If anyone was to have a CXO, wouldn't it be Apple?

Well, I think they do have a CXO, of sorts, and I'll tell you who it is. Well, actually, I'll let Steve Jobs tell you what he told Fast Company:

Think of it this way. If you look at your own body, your cells are specialized, but every single one of them has the master plan for the whole body. We think our company will be the best possible company if every single person working here understands the whole master plan and can use that as a yardstick to make decisions against. We think a lot of little and medium and big decisions will be made better if all our people know that.

John Siracusa, if he's reading this, just thought the phrase, "hippie-dippy," and who can blame him? This sounds like idealist, weirdo, airy Steve Jobs rambling, doesn't it? But here's the science behind it.

Business science.

James Allworth thinks "Steve Jobs Solved The Innovator's Dilemma." I think he's right. And I think this is a big part of how he did it.

In case you aren't familiar with The Innovator's Dilemma [yes, that's a dirty, dirty affiliate link], it was the 1997 Harvard Business School Publishing release by Clayton Christensen wherein he coined the term "disruptive innovation." Disruption theory is beyond[me and] the scope of this post, but it describes the vicious cycle in which what we would call a startup can become a big, slow-moving beast of a corporation, and can, therefore, stagnate, stop innovating, and fail to thrive while another startup comes along and steals its market. In short, it's not enough to come up with an incredible product. You have to keep coming up with incredible products, even if the new ones threaten sales of your old ones, or even your current, successful products. It means taking some risks, getting into markets you don't have any proven ground in and not holding onto anything too tightly. It's being able to change what your company is and does when the market changes, or, preferably, before the market changes. Like turning "Apple Computer," manufacturers of Macintosh personal computers into "Apple," the consumer electronics and media company.

I'll leave it to the Harvard guys'n'gals to go any further with that line of thought, but there's a nugget within there that's germane to our topic (no, I haven't forgotten what it was). How do you keep your finger so close to the pulse of the market that you know how and when to change what your company is and does? This is where the Venn diagram of "User Experience Design" and "Business Model Innovation" overlap, and I'm not the only one who thinks so.

In "The hiring and firing of milkshakes and candy bars," episode 19 of Horace Dediu and Dan Benjamin's "The Critical Path," Dediu describes his own independent arrival at Christensen's theoretical solution to the innovator's dilemma, while observing user experience researchers at work:

The idea is that rather than asking people what they want—showing them things and asking, 'What do you think of that?' you would observe them using the product… It was very useful in identifying why people were clicking in the wrong places. This was a process of cleaning up the interface and finding out where people might be led astray. And I remember trying to actually suggest that method—and I was learning about this at a time before I knew job-to-be-done theory at all, I mean, it was actually before the second book was published, which I think is where it was introduced, in The Innovator's Solution [TQB: yes, another affiliate link]—and so it sort of clicked in my mind… that observation of actual behavior is more important than asking wishes, or asking of people what they want."

This is job-to-be-done theory: the idea that you can predict a market's behavior by looking at why your customer wants your product—what your customer hires your product to do—and optimizing your product to do that job well. If you're really good at this, you can figure out that customers are hiring unlikely products to do certain jobs because there are no better options, in which case you've just found an invisible untapped market. Or you might figure out that a sizable portion of the market is hiring a particular product because it's the best suited to do the job for which they've hired it, but that it's not really getting the job done. It's a "successful" product in terms of metrics such as sales or brand recognition, but customers may ultimately be very frustrated with it, even if they aren't aware of their frustration. This is how RIM's wildly "popular" BlackBerry could be toppled, among several others, in such short order by such an inexperienced little company such as Apple.

And how do you find out what your customer has hired your product to do? As Dediu said, you do user research, in the tradition of the user experience designer.

Obviously, then, I'm all the more justified in my cry for a C-level representative of the UX discipline at Apple, right?

I don't think so.

I think I was right when I said, "Steve Jobs was the de facto [head] of UX at Apple," but I think I was only half right. Whereas Steiger put it so poignantly, as quoted earlier in this article, "building great experiences is everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s job," I think at Apple building great experiences is everyone’s responsibility and everyone's job, especially if you have a C in your title. I think this is what Steve Jobs was talking about with his each-cell-knowing-the-master-plan analogy.

The executive leadership at Apple has been in charge of this for years. Think about keynote events. Who does the demos? Sure, while he was alive, Steve Jobs did the lion's share (yes, an intentional pun), but come on. Steve Jobs doesn't sit on the bench. More and more, though, even while he was still doing the majority of demos, executives of the top several levels demoed their hardware and software. As far back as 2000 you'd see these guys in the promotional videos released alongside the G3 Cube or the first aluminum PowerBooks. Yes, I realize that even Microsoft executives demo their own software, but I challenge you to compare those demos favorably. On one side you'll get a lot of boilerplate, stiff, clearly-rehearsed deliveries of speeds and feeds. On the other you'll hear someone speak with obvious first-hand, deep knowledge of the practical benefits of what they're showing you—the improvements to the user experience.

Not enough to convince you that the executive leadership at Apple is the apparent co-CXO of the company? How about this one, quite possibly the most important UX design datail in the history of Apple, the feature that could be credited for bringing Apple back to life: the iPod's click wheel? It was invented by Sr. VP of World Marketing, Phil Schiller.

This is the body-and-cell analogy quoted above. I don't think Steve Jobs tried to hide his solution to the innovator's dilemma, I think he just phrased it in ways he knew his competitors would never even try to understand. Here he is spilling the beans in Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson,

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It's a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything.

Sounds a lot like one of Steve Jobs's heroes, Walt Disney:

We don't make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies.

It also sounds a lot like something one of the other cells in the Apple body—Jon Ive—was quoted saying to Wired:

We are really pleased with our revenues, but our goal isn't to make money. It sounds a little flippant, but it's the truth. Our goal and what makes us excited is to make great products. If we are successful people will like them and if we are operationally competent, we will make money.

That's good user experience design summed up quite nicely by someone who neither came from a UX background nor occupies a UX role at Apple. People often credit Ive with all things design at Apple, but he and his team are industrial designers. To be sure, what he does is a major part of the experience in an Apple product, but he doesn't work alone, or even head the division. Ive doesn't likely call any shots when it comes to pixels.

At most places, a user experience designer, if that title even exists, works in the domain of pixels. If it's a really enlightened company, they might get to sit at the table when decisions about hardware or services are being made. At Apple, they don't stop at pixels, they don't stop at power buttons and they don't stop at unibody construction. They don't stop at the packaging, and they don't even stop at the store display. They keep going. It's why you can buy most items in an Apple store right from your phone, without having to stop and wait in a checkout line. It's why you can get first-class support in person at the Genius Bar. It's why I haven't had to call them more than once in a decade, and why I never heard hold music that one time I did.


It's way too late for that header, isn't it?

This seemingly fussy little organizational detail may hold half of the secrets to Apple's wild success. They don't have a CXO because they don't need one. They don't need one because they've infused their very business model with the concerns, the metrics and even the techniques of user experience design.


Horace Dediu, responding via Twitter:

@thomasqbrady That's right. The CXO's job description is a "value" or priority that should be embedded in every employee.