Hiding in the Bushes with Steve Jobs

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Hiding in the bushes with Steve Jobs

Even the best product designers put people at the heart of what they do. It's a deadly mistake to believe in the myth of the lone genius innovator. Anticipating people's needs and big market opportunities years out into the future requires a deep understanding of our fellow humans. This does not come from innate talent, it comes from hard work by individuals who relentlessly put others at the center of what they say, think, and do.

Just last week Louis Corso, our customer service advocate, told us a story from his days working at the Stanford Apple Store in Palo Alto, CA. It's well known that Steve Jobs would frequent this store, but Louis offered another small insight:

We would find him hiding behind the bushes or around the corner outside, peering inside to see what was going on. We would go, "There's Steve! Everybody play cool." We thought he was evaluating us. It was nerve-wracking.

Steve wasn't observing just the employees, he was taking in the entire experience from as many sides and angles as he could. He was directly observing how customers acted around his products and teasing out what they believed about his company. He was staying in touch, albeit from a slightly comic distance from Louis' description.

A key insight here is that Jobs was not born with this instinct, he meticulously cultivated it through observation of people and enlightened trial-and-error with his product teams. The New York Times picked up on Jobs' approach recently:

Employees at Apple stores provide the company with a powerful window into user habits and needs, even if it is not conventional market research. "Steve visits the Apple store in Palo Alto frequently," said Mr. McKenna, a former consultant to Apple. The design decisions made by Mr. Jobs, Mr. McKenna said, are informed by his grasp of users' desires, technology trends and popular culture.

This same mentality is near and dear to us. We don't like heavy market research because it distances you from real people and the real interactions they have with your products. We like simple hands-on techniques that help everyone within an organization to cultivate that same rich mental model for their audience so they can imagine into the future just like Jobs.

This is one way we build culture into teams so they are capable of consistently designing things of value for people. It's simple little things like observing people on their laptops at a coffee shop, asking people on a plane what they think of their Kindle, or even just watching the various people in your office use everyday things related to your product. Do that enough and you layer in an intuition for people's expectations and beliefs.

Companies capable of doing this together have a powerful way to keep out-innovating their competition into the future.

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It has 7 comments.

Dmitry (ZURB) says

So true. People are tired of Apple and Steve Jobs example but so few people actually know the real story behind their success. It wasn't the genius of Jobs. It was his ability to connect people from cross functions at Apple to the design of products early on. That was the trick in creating killer product. It's not his genius of innovation, it's his ability of connecting people.

Joliet Jane (ZURB) says

Putting business aside, Steve Jobs is a great character in modern history. Just when you think he's a matured normal exec, you find him hiding in the bushes like a lunatic. <3 you, Steve.

Also: Regis McKenna is still hanging around with Apple? That's good to know.

Greg (ZURB) says

Great example of how Steve Jobs learns about his customers, what they think, and how they react to his products. I'm sure part of what made Apple so successful is that the man at the top stayed connected with his customers, something that seems to be fairly rare.

Observing people all the time, not just when they are using your product, will help you to understand how people think and what they want. Just paying attention in everyday life can help to develop the ability to predict what people will want. Then I like to put myself in the customers' shoes and assume the role of the critic.

You can do great things by asking yourself:

  1. How is my customer going to use this?
  2. What will they be looking for when they are using it?
  3. What are some problems they may encounter when using it?

Its impossible to predict everything, but designing for your customer means thinking and acting like them. And constantly reminding yourself (and your team) that it is not the developers who need to understand how to use your product, it is your customer.

Jeremy (ZURB) says

@Greg, you're right that you can't always predict everything, but observations, questions like you suggest, and even play acting your customers roles can tell you a lot--even most--of what you need to know. Plus it builds empathy.

Stephen Cox (ZURB) says

Good advice for any business. I my line of work (I (we - the company) design phone systems) it's all about customer service. I know everything about the customer - even down to their favoriate colors.

I once lost a contract cause the customer wanted black head sets and I quoted white head sets. You can bet that never happened again.

And Apple does the same thing. They watch. Take notes. And their products are better for it.