What's missing from Apple's org chart?

by Thomas Brady

The Invisible Man

When Apple releases a new product, they often create a video presentation (like this one for the iPhone 4S), shown at the announcement event and perhaps available on their web site for a while afterward. This video usually features Apple executives and perhaps a few celebrities raving about the attractive design, ease of use and innovation in the new product. Jonathan Ive, SVP of industrial design (ID), is almost always present, discussing the decision-making process that resulted in his often breath-taking designs. Ive is an absolute celebrity in the world of design, probably due most to these videos.

Apple is also constantly releasing new software, and there’s just as much innovation and design packed into each byte and pixel. The odd thing is, we don’t normally see videos for these releases, and therefore we don’t really know who to thank for features like Exposé or multi-touch input or reminders with “geo-fences” or the additions/editions Apple made to Siri post acquisition.

When Ive comes up with a novel way to carve aluminum or fuse touch sensors to glass, we hear all about it - straight from the source. When someone at Apple devises a novel way to sense whether you’re typing with your fingers or your thumbs and accommodate for the differences in accuracy accordingly, though, that person (or those people) gets no face time. Often, as in this case, the feature never even gets promoted in any marketing materials.

We simply don’t know who to thank — or who to curse — when it comes to user experience(UX) design at Apple. I hear people praising Ive for the intuitive nature of iOS and OS X Lion all the time, not realizing, I guess, that he’s an industrial designer.

Isn’t that a bit odd?

Apple’s brand is just as tied to UX as it is ID. “It just works” has less to do with unibody construction as it does something like Bonjour. Notice that those links go to apple.com and wikipedia.org respectively.

Within the industry, Apple is famous for UX. Their Human Interface Guidelines documents are read by developers from every platform. Apple is reportedly the first company to employ someone with “user experience” in his title — Donald Norman, no less, in 1995. Norman has certainly become a celebrity within the UX realm.

Take a look at Apple’s executive bios page:

There are a few things of note here.

  1. There’s no one on this page that is responsible for Mac OS X, for one. You do see Scott Forstall, head of iOS Software. While interesting, and probably telling, this isn’t what I want to discuss.
  2. You also don’t see anyone responsible for most of the Apple software that runs on Macs: the iWork suite, the iLife suite or any of the more professional tools like Final Cut Pro and Aperture. This is even more interesting to me, but still only obliquely related to my topic.
  3. The only person on this page with a design title is Ive.

Who’s in charge?

While Steve was still with us, Fortune published this much more in-depth org chart (I can only imagine that many Bothers died to bring us this information) to accompany the article “How Apple Works: Inside The World’s Biggest Startup”. Here we see beyond the executive team to a couple dozen VPs. Even with this view, the word “design” is not showing up as much as you might think.

There’s Hiroki Asai, whose promising title listed in the image is “Creative Director.” Squishy enough to be related, but based on this Quora article (and subsequent Googling), he is the “Creative Director of Graphic Design. With over 200 creatives under his supervision, his team has been responsible for all of the packaging, retail store graphics, website, on-line store, direct marketing, videos, and event graphics for Apple globally for the past decade.” Okay, nothing to do with UX. Speaking of Quora, it appears I’m not the only person asking this question.

Moving on, there’s Craig Federighi, VP of Mac Software Engineering? Wil Shipley seems to describe him as a traditional software engineer - more interested in code than design. Bud Tribble, VP of Software Technology, who reports to Federighi? Appears to have been an early UI developer, per this Byte Magazine article, building UI toolkits, but not designing interfaces.

Well, who’s left? Looking around, we find Roger Rosner. Rosner is the VP of Productivity Apps, and he’s completely disconnected in this diagram. According to ZoomInfo, though, he’s probably a traditional engineer (one who isn’t likely to dabble in designing UX), too.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves. Here’s a search for “senior designers who currently work at Apple” on LinkedIn. Okay, so Apple does employ people with titles which include phrases like “user experience design,” “interaction design” and “user interface design.” So, are there any managers with those words in their titles? Yes, there are. What about “director” or “vice president”? None and none.

A rogue team of UX designers?

So who do these people report to? Well, as it turns out, the executive board, but not in the way you might think. Check out this Facebook thread from University of Michigan Informatics. In it, Apple UX architect Steve Cotterill pulls the curtain back a bit:

From a usability evaluation perspective, Apple doesn’t do much. We don’t use focus groups to inform our designs. And we don’t test our products with users before they are released. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything. Apple tests most of its products with the executive team. Steve Jobs and the VPs personally oversee and approve anything before we announce it and sell it. So in that sense, we do a form of (very specific) user testing. If the executives are unhappy with any part of a product, it doesn’t ship.

While they may not formally report into the executive team (no lines, dotted or otherwise, on the org chart, that is), they do use the executive team as their population sample for usability studies.

I don’t doubt that this worked well while Steve was at the helm, but take a look at that [executive bios page][BIOS] again. Who else on that board would have much to say? It’s impossible for us to know, really, but these titles don’t shout “user experience expert.” If you’ve ever read anything about Steve Jobs, you probably already know where I’m going:

Steve Jobs was the de facto SVP of UX at Apple

When Steve retired from Apple, and again when he passed away, stories came out of the woodwork about his every day interactions with co-workers, competitors, reporters and more. One of my favorite such stores is Brent Williams’:

When Apple introduced iDVD, they had purchased the company that developed the software platform they needed to provide the functionality. When the big meeting came for Steve Jobs to review the capabilities and recommended interfaces that the team had developed, they all got into a big room and placed all of their intricate interface designs, specifications documents, and user experience research all on the walls and prepared to wow Steve with their technical expertise and attention to detail.

When Steve Jobs got to the meeting, he looked around for a minute, then got up and walked to the board. Grabbed a dry erase marker and drew a box. He looked at the audience and said, “This is your interface” pointing to the empty box. He then drew a smaller file folder on the outside of that box. “This is the file you want to make into a DVD” pointing to the smaller file folder. He then drew an arrow from the small file folder to the box indicating the functionality, which is that you simply drag the file over the interface and drop it in. And then he walked out the door. The company was stunned and inspired, and the result is excellent.

In another story, Steve swipes an iPhone from an employee, while sharing an elevator, only to hand the phone back with the unsolicited UI design advice “the background needs more texture.” This employee had nothing to do with the production of the app, but the feedback found its way back to the designer, Neven Mrgan.

Amidst all the controversy over Apple’s skeumorphic UI designs, John Gruber (Daring Fireball) recently wrote, “I’m just saying there’s a very strong line of thought within Apple, which came (and I’ll bet still comes) from the top, that distinctive in-app textures are important.” Gruber did say, though, that he doesn’t necessarily believe that Steve was the sole defender of this style.

Now what?

If you’ve read what I have about Tim Cook, you’ll probably agree with my guess that this is not his strong suit. Tim Cook is an amazing operations man, and we have yet to discover all of his super-powers. I don’t see him taking on the design aspects of Steve’s legacy.

So the question I put to you now is this, can this board lead Apple in innovative user experience design? Or is it time for Apple close the loop between their UX designers and their leadership — time to hire a UX designer to serve on the board as a senior vice president of user experience design?

UPDATES: Some Twitter feedback:

@jamesallworth: …Always put “not knowing who to thank” down to Steve not wanting people poached.

@mrgan: … If a UX magician ever proves themselves at Apple the way Ive has, they’ll be SVP of UX. But, horse < cart.