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Design Thinking at Apple – Why Less is More

At the 2014 Inner City 100 Symposium & Awards, leading urban businesses from across the country will descend on Boston for a day of executive education with Harvard Business School faculty and leaders from industry including Seth Goldman of Honest Tea and Anne Hubert of MTV Scratch. One of these sessions, led by Harvard’s Stefan Thomke, will focus on Design Thinking and Innovation at Apple in an effort to pull back the veil of secrecy surrounding the tech giant’s incredible success. Among the topics attendees will be led through in this interactive case study are design thinking, product development strategy, CEO as chief innovator, and bold business experimentation. Here’s a small taste of what attendees can expect on design thinking before the session on October 16th.

Designing “Insanely Great” Products

Some have attributed Apple’s success to its clever ads. Their unique marketing, best represented by their famous “1984 Commercial” introducing the Macintosh during the Super Bowl, has left a distinct impression on viewers. Yet before products even come to market, Apple is hard at work focusing on product design. Indeed, much of the company’s success is due to its focus on “insanely great products”, a term coined by the company’s iconic founder, Steve Jobs, and used to motivate Apple staff to this day.

Pegged one of the most “innovative” companies in the world, Apple focuses its vast resources on creating products that reshape paradigms and create industries- Jobs conceived Apple as a place where people could come and do the best work of their lives in pursuit of life-changing products. Cordell Ratzlaff, an architect of the Mac OS X operating system, described their process as follows: “We focused on what we thought people would need and want, and how they would interact with their computer. We made sure we got that right, and then we went and figured out how to achieve it technically.” Rather than asking the engineers what was possible and relegating design to a secondary role as many of their competitors would, Apple urges its technologists to push the limits of what has ever been achieved in service of giving users what they want.

In many cases, this has led to product features that initially seemed counter-intuitive. When Apple removed the slot for inserting diskettes in its Mac computers, reviewers criticized the company for its arrogance and oversight of “must-have” features. Instead, the Mac thrived. Similarly, the iPad does not have a USB port, and later generations of the iPads were introduced with less storage capacity. Users have adapted to the much simpler, user-friendly products.

Indeed, Apple has become as well-known for what its products don’t contain as for what they do. If the past is any indication, the simplistic design of the new Apple watches, featuring just 1 Bauhaus-inspired knob and the cutting edge of wearable device technology, won’t impede its adoption among its global customer base.

Designing the Perfect Retail Store

Design innovation is also evident in Apple’s retail stores. In May 2001, just as the technology bubble was bursting, Apple daringly opened its first brick-and-mortar location after heated internal deliberation. Pushing his staff to work 70-80 hour weeks and recruiting leading retail executives like Gap Inc. legend Millard Drexler, Jobs worked unrelentingly on a top-secret model store near the Apple campus at 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California. When Drexler indicated after 6 months of tireless work that the store needed a complete reworking based on different principles to achieve the artistic maximum in design-led sales, many other CEOs would have clung to their work. Jobs however, after a period of distress, recognized that all of his efforts and the funds allocated to the project would need to be written off as a sunk cost and boldly accepted Drexler’s critique. The rest is history: Apple stores now generate the highest revenue per square foot in the entire retail sector, an unprecedented feat for a tech company with no previous experience in the space.

While other computer companies were moving herd-like towards online sales and customizable products, Apple’s distinctive process created stores that became a product in their own right at a time when the nation saw retail as a dying industry. The stores, which actually carry few products, are painstakingly designed to create a phenomenal user experience. Apple stores often command the highest rent per square foot of any other store in the same shopping center—but that hasn’t deterred Apple executives. The results speak for themselves:

Register now to see Dr. Thomke present the case study live on October 16th and learn about the other three drivers of design and innovation at Apple, Inc. 


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