Challenging the Apple archetype

~ 19 December 2007 ~

It’s that time of year, wherein many of us gaze with luminous eyes into crystal balls of foresight and attempt to predict trends for the coming year.

Right. So, I’ll get to the topic of this article in a moment, but unlike bygone years, I refrain from offering predictions about aesthetics and techniques for the coming year. (Though as an aside, I find it sadly interesting the fieldset element still sees little usage today, more than three years after I expected we’d all be happily implementing them in our forms.)

Instead, I turn to a subject that’s been receiving increased attention the latter part of 2007, that of creating exceptional experiences. I’ve heard the terms “experience” or “user experience” quipped incessantly in presentations, articles, and the like, more so this year than previous ones. For the most part, this is a good thing. It seems we’re finally getting it as an industry — that after all the design polish is crafted, the slick interaction developed, and the copy carefully penned, what matters most is the complete experience of consuming and interacting with whatever it is we’ve produced.

On that note, I return to the topic of this article. Perhaps more than any other brand, Apple is and has been the predominant archetype in nearly any conversation I’ve been privy to — or fostered, for that matter — regarding branding, identity, experience, etc. “Apple does it best” is the claim, and frankly I’ve rarely disagreed.

As appealing as Apple is, however, there’s remains an aura about the brand that is undoubtedly Apple-centric, even Steve Jobs-centric dare I say. One cannot disagree iPhone offers one of the most enjoyable user experiences by any device on the market today. Likewise, one cannot disagree that the experience is undoubtedly a tightly controlled Apple experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. But it’s expected from a company so concerned about its image.

What isn’t always expected is an experience whose exceptionality is derived by the user rather than for the user. “You do it best” is the substitute claim, and it is this distinction that has left me seeking alternate archetypes. (Note: I’m not talking about social networking here, but instead great experiences created by individuals, whether or not those experiences involve more than one person.)

Admittedly, I’m still seeking these alternates. But one brand that has repeatedly come to mind as I’ve given this topic thought is LEGO. Those infamous Danish plastic bricks you used to play with as a kid (and probably still do)? Yeah, that brand.

As described on its site, LEGO is an abbreviation of the Danish phrase “leg godt” meaning “play well,” and it so aptly describes what LEGO is all about. You, the person who plays well. In fact, a couple years ago, advertising agency Blattner Brunner created a brilliant advertising campaign that captured the essence of this LEGO/You experience:

Lego ad showing a simple block with life-like shadow
Lego ad showing a simple block with life-like shadow

Deliberately simple block formations with high-fidelity shadows exaggerate the idea that one’s imagination, not the blocks, creates the experience.

At this point, you’re likely asking, “So, exactly how does this differ from Apple?” Ironically, in many ways it doesn’t. Quality is just as much a concern for LEGO as it is for Apple, and just as vital to the experience (if you’ve ever played with LEGO knock-offs, you know what I mean). Elegant simplicity is just as much a concern too, as probably only 100 basic shapes account for 95% of all LEGO kits. Yet, in the end, you create the experience from start to finish, and you’re free to modify that experience however you choose.

Think of it this way: We spend weeks, even months trying to figure out user needs and develop features to meet those needs. We often have to shoot for the middle or aim for the lowest common denominator to meet a widely varying set of needs for a given audience. What if instead, the individual user, who presumably knows his/her needs best, could create his/her own experience within a framework we provide?

Say you work for a bank and you’re tasked with building the online extension of your bank’s business. You’d probably start by providing the “basic blocks” such as account balance showing credits and debits, bill pay, and options for printing and downloading statements. What if that were all you provided, and then you allowed each user to extend and customize the capabilities of your system to their liking by merely providing a few plain-English commands:

  • “Text me whenever my account balance nears $500.”
  • “Transfer $1,000 to savings anytime I receive a direct deposit from my employer.”
  • “Send me a Quicken file with expenses for gas and groceries at the end of each month.”

Your app, therefore, does nothing more and nothing less than it needs to for each individual user. In essence, your app offers an exceptional experience derived by the user rather than for the user — or for one type of user, that is.

Do I expect this to happen in 2008? Certainly not. Probably not even in the next couple years. Is it economically and technically feasible to pull off? That remains to be seen. But I do I believe we should at least consider working towards this approach? Yes.

And don’t get me wrong, we definitely need the Apple archetypes among us. I just think we need a few more LEGO archetypes, too.



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1   Marla Erwin ~ 19 December 2007

At a toy store recently I saw that the Lego line seems now to consists mainly of “sets” that include prebuilt items: pirate ships, castles, moon rovers etc. The ad campaign images remind me of the original magic so brilliantly; I wonder how sales would be affected if these images were on the box instead?

2   Shannon ~ 19 December 2007

This is the closest I’ve seen to the text commands you mentioned:

As far as building blocks within a framework, I think that’s one of the things that has made Facebook apps so popular.

3   Hafiz ~ 19 December 2007

One thing came through my mind thinking about LEGO archetypes: iGoogle. Is this the kind of experience you have in mind?

Anyway I’m sure this is going to be the beginning of something new on the Web, so kudos for writing it!

4   Jim Jeffers ~ 19 December 2007

I think that’s a very interesting point. You could almost write a mySpace vs. Facebook user experience comparison along the same lines. As far as the UI is concerned Facebook follows Apple’s archetype where mySpace subscribes to Lego’s.

Both have their downsides. For instance, Facebook in the past and probably through the present will continue to simply implement revised UI or major new features without releasing a public beta, some sort of adjustment period, or explanation to adjust. I’ve been using Facebook since 2005 and it was significantly different back then. From my experience using it there were many days where you would simply log into Facebook and things would be different with no noticeable statement of any kind.

Myspace on the other hand has for the most part remained the same over the couple years. They’re effectively the opposite by simply giving the user the page and allowing them to informally control the entire UI. There are downsides here as well. For one thing, leaving too much control to the user can lead to user frustration. I think most sites that lack the narcissistic appeal of a mySpace profile will not be able to demand as much user involvement in the customization process. This also may allow users to hinder the experiences of other users as is the case with mySpace. Am I wrong on that one?

I think you need to find some sort of balance to offer the ideal amount of user control that makes sense. There are a lot of open source projects that probably offer too much control and are therefor too complicated for most users. But to your point the whole ‘Web 2.0’ trend over the last couple of years has led to a lot of dead-simple web services that may be following the we-know-best methodology you described here and might be too simplistic or inflexible for their own good.

5   Cameron Moll ~ 19 December 2007

One thing came through my mind thinking about LEGO archetypes: iGoogle. Is this the kind of experience you have in mind?

Could be, yes.

I think you need to find some sort of balance to offer the ideal amount of user control that makes sense. There are a lot of open source projects that probably offer too much control and are therefor too complicated for most users.

I don’t disagree. I think part of the reason Apple has been successful is precisely because they restrict the number of things you can do (think iPhone, iPhoto booklets, etc). There’s something to be said for the “Apple knows best” argument.

So it goes back to what I stated in the end, and what I think you’re saying, Jim: Let’s have both the Apples and the LEGOs, or a balance of the two.

6   david gouch ~ 19 December 2007

Wow. Excellent observation about the Apple experience: It’s very very good. But it’s also completely scripted.

A similar comparison could be between a video game where you progress linearly level to level, and a game like GTA where you are free to do whatever you want inside the environment the game creates for you.

But I’m not sure yet about your idea that software should be like that. Lego and GTA depend on their users using their imagination. The mood is play. People fiddling with their financial software might not be in a play mood, so their imagination might not let them craft the perfect features they need.

And in order for users to create the features from the blocks you give them, they have to be able to see the blocks. You could accomplish this by giving examples, but if you have to create an example for each feature, wouldn’t it make better sense (and be less error prone and frustrating) to just hardcode those in the app?

7   Mike Gowen ~ 19 December 2007

I think an obvious niche that is going in that direction is gaming (specifically MMORPGs). Second Life is a great example. The actual product is about 1% of the total experience. The remaining 90% is in the hands of the player. The name itself even speaks to that…its your second life (not ours).

In fact, its interesting that at that extreme, the actual product almost ceases to exist. The name “Second Life” almost becomes the mark entirely of your personal experience, as the feelings it draws are fabricated entirely by the player. If you hate Second Life, it is probably due to the outcome or your selected role within the universe (and vice versa).

8   Mike Gowen ~ 19 December 2007

Ack! Didn’t see the post above mine. Um so yea…what he said :)

9   Wilson Miner ~ 19 December 2007

That’s a great distinction, Cameron. The LEGO analogy makes a lot of sense.

I think an important reason why we don’t see more high-quality user experiences in the user’s control is that it’s at least an order of magnitude harder to create something sophisticated, seamless *and open-ended. Part of the delight of Apple’s experiences is that they lead you on a well-paved path and show you just the right thing at the right time. That’s very hard to do seamlessly in a more open-ended environment.

Well-designed experiences often feel effortless to the user. “Oh, that was easy, and it was just what I needed to do, or close enough.” It’s a lot of work to build something with LEGOs that looks like the pre-designed kits they sell with instructions (and you have to find a place to store all those giant bins of blocks you might need).

Most users don’t approach devices and interfaces prepared to do that much work, or exercise that much imagination. I like interfaces that let me customize the system (even rudimentary stuff like creating my own tag structure, or reconfiguring palette locations) but if there’s not a sensible, well-thought out default experience in place, I’m not likely to stick with it.

It’s also a lot of responsibility on the user. I don’t like to fail in games, so I don’t like to play games where it’s entirely up to me to make it fun. The Apple model tries to protect users from failure, and when it succeeds, we tend to enjoy the experience more. But we have to give up a lot of control in exchange.

I think we’ll see the Apple model win out for a while to come because it’s proven and relatively mature and a known quantity, but it’s always exciting to see more experimentation and new ideas.

10   Cameron Moll ~ 19 December 2007

No insider remarks allowed, Wilson! (Or formerly insider, that is?)

Kidding. Insightful reply.

11   Marc ~ 19 December 2007

Hm, that would have been a great segue into a pitch for open standards, exposing APIs, and even open source software. :-)

I guess Google would get a lot of credit if your vision ever catches on - they’re really opening things up and seem to be intent on pushing more control back to users.

A sorta-similar idea I had was to show power users a flowchart-like desktop where each node is a running application. You could zoom in on a node to work on whatever data it contains (photos for editing, text, whatever) then zoom out and adjust inputs and outputs to produce a workflow that does exactly what you want. Hopefully this would present an easy way to work on websites and allow for a project-centric UI model that really helps people save time.

12   Anthony Baker ~ 19 December 2007

Wow, wonderful post and great thoughts all around. It’s a very interesting topic.

Frankly, I think it’s a bit of a hard call. While I, as a geek, love the idea of having an open system that allows others to play, create, and build their widgets (and want to see more of this), I think that only flies for certain groups of people.

Watching my wife, who’s not a geek, on the Mac, she uses a bare minimum of what’s offered, keeps to a narrow path of functionality, and is just happy it WORKS and is SIMPLE. This seems to be precisely what Jobs goes for. And there’s a ton of merit to it, particularly in a world with too much choice, too many options, too much complexity.

Folks want a toaster that makes toast. If you don’t do that, all options are irrelevant. Much of the tech Apple has pursued is in an environment where the toasters didn’t make toast.

Who knows — with loads of users, maybe Facebook is the big testbed. One stat I heard from MSN a couple years ago was that on the MyMSN homepage, only 2% of users did any sort of customization, even though there were loads of choices available. Put aside the whole issue of “was it designed well”, Facebook seems to me to be now flying in the face of the notion that folks won’t go widget/customization-crazy, given the option. I’ve already seen folks I know on Facebook who I’d never think would be “the type”.

Oh, and while I love Apple’s design and simplicity, I do want an SDK and a widget-builder and all sorts of other craziness available for my phone.

13   James Robinson ~ 19 December 2007

This is a historically interesting observation, and in fact there have been a couple of noble attempts at modular software. Apple, for one, tried OpenDoc.

The problem is integration. The best software functions as a single piece, where as many features are aware of and interact with the application’s other features as is possible. LEGOs interact, but there’s no complexity: The interface is a simple raised bump, there are only a handful of heights and widths to match, and each block only needs to worry about how it interfaces with immediately adjacent blocks. If only software design were that simple! Despite the noble attempts of component-based software to make it so, the best stuff is still carefully hand tooled and strongly integrated.

14   Ben ~ 19 December 2007

I can’t even search my online bank statements (HSBC), how ridiculous is that? Each entry on the statement has a textual description, yet I have to manually look through each month’s set to find a particular one.

15   Steve W ~ 19 December 2007

Another thought provoking advertisement is Apple’s “1984” Macintosh Introduction. It depicted big business and most users as uninterested in individualism. I experienced this mindset during my years as a Lotus Notes developer.

Lotus Notes has a lot in common with a can of Lego blocks. Most businesses don’t want to give end users the full capabilities of Notes; most users don’t want those capabilities.

Hypercard and BASIC are other fine examples.

16   Jim Jeffers ~ 19 December 2007

Yes, I agree with you Cameron - it’s just my nature to question :) I think in the future it will be good to consistently question ‘How can I give the user more control?’ and ‘Where do they have too much control?’ as those are questions I haven’t been consciously asking myself during past projects.

17   Oxa Koba ~ 19 December 2007

While Lego is an excellent brand, and I love the bricks to death, they aren’t for everyone. And the CEO of Lego acknowledged that fact in this interview with Monocle.

He points out that the audience for Lego is actually restricted to a specific demographic and that their customer base is growing vertically (down through generations of family) not horizontally across class (or other segments).

And this points to a critical issue with web development and the notion of extensible sites built of conceptual bricks that can be fiddled with by the end user:

- Will most users be interested and able to leverage a kit of parts into a more sophisticated experience?

- Would most users prefer to get what they need pre-built?

- Is a modular, tinker-friendly, site the dream of users or developers (who like tinkering with things)?

I hate to give them more press than they already get, but 37signals may be right to ignore the power user and his dream list of features and focus on the 80% of features that 80% of their niche needs.

Wouldn’t building out a kit of parts require developing a more complex product that can address the 20% of power users rather than the 80% of average users?

18   Jim Whiteside ~ 20 December 2007

Lego is great for kids (of all ages) with the imagination to build things from first principles. But the most popular kits are probably those tailored to make one or two models with some specialised parts with detailed build instructions. Not everyone has the required imagination, or patience, or skill; for wider market adoption you need to make it easier.

Similarly with web apps - I wonder how many people use even 10% of the possibilities of Facebook or MySpace and instead rely on the default or common themes?

We all want to be different; to know we can - if we want to - have a totally customised unique experience, but how many have the skill, patience or imagination?

19   Stephanie ~ 20 December 2007

I think we need both the lego and the instructions.

I would love to see more customization options, especially ones that take the kind of text commands you have in mind. As we start to get this though, I hope we don’t end up with blank screens as our starting points.

My personal experience with customization is that I tend to use what is provided to me with one or two small tweaks. So I think there’s still room for brilliant designs (like Apple’s) to give us our starting points.

20   arturogui ~ 20 December 2007

iwantsandy looks cool, until you realise it has only a few more commands than Assistance on the Newton 12 years ago. You could write lunch mike wednesday and it would create the appointment.

we need much more than that. and why email based? why not make it system wide like Newton assistance was?

21   MiSc ~ 21 December 2007

Do I expect this to happen in 2008? Certainly not. Probably not even in the next couple years.

We could also have the vision to create environments that learn from the user, and give him a ‘default customization’, after we noticed that the first thing he always does in our (let’s say: bank-)application is sorting his bank statements by the highest expense -> we could start to give him this sorting by default.

22   Liam McDermott ~ 21 December 2007

How funny, I’ve been describing Drupal as ‘software lego’ for a over a year now.

That stuff about the bank sounds a lot like Drupal actions, or even workflow-ng (although they’re both GUIs).

The trouble with user Freedom is added complication, the views your espousing are very similar to those of the Free software foundation. Up until recently configuring a GNU/Linux system has been too complicated for the average user though, but it is getting easier. The difficult part of this is making something that’s easy for people to understand, visually coherent (see KDE for clutter), yet gives the user total power.

Anyway, suppose what I wanted to say is: what you want is being worked on. See: Drupal and Linux.

23   Michael Critz ~ 21 December 2007

I think a big issue with computers is that we *don’t* want them to run our lives. It’d be wicked creepy to have my computer transferring my money automatically. Even if it did so without my permission.

That being said, TiVO’s functionality of recording shows users may find interesting is a better example of how a computerized product tailors itself to the user’s desires.

24   Jim Jeffers ~ 30 December 2007

Would yahoo pipes be a good example of the Lego archetype online? I just messed around with it for the first time today and it reminded me of this post -

25   Peter ~ 31 December 2007

Amen to that. I love Apple, but it’s becoming mroe and more clear that the bigger the company gets, the more it’s trying to appeal to specific subsets, and kind of dropping everyone else out. It’s also becoming increasingly obvious that, in the case of hardware for example, they’re using the lack of choices to be downright greedy. Try buying a new video card for a Mac Pro, and then compare the card you find to the PC equivalent. Yes, it’s the same card and the same slot, but no, Apple won’t charge a fair price for it.

26   Scott Valentine ~ 01 January 2008

The content of your article, while well written and keenly observed, is nothing new to those of us who use Windows *only* because we can tweak it. What keeps folks like me from jumping to a Mac, especially given the nearly complete breakdown of application bias, is that we still want to know we can “do stuff” to our machines.

We are few.

That being said, it is the cadre of people who do tweak things that enable forward motion. Of the 80% estimated above, how many of those will innovate in any capacity at all? Adobe is very much aware that they don’t know the desires of every user, so they are working towards exposing tools that are meant to be shared.

Macromedia drove towards that with their Exchange, and many communities build on the idea of “that’s cool, but what if we…”. O’Reilly’s Make and Craft projects are smack in the middle of your topic, and they are gaining momentum.

So, I love the idea of Mac’s power and stability, but would like to be able to tweak and twiddle. And I’d like to run down to Nguyen’s OEM Nightmare and slap together a dedicated box for under $400 that runs the latest OS.

A big AMEN to the idea of modularity - just leave the default stuff to the sheeple and let power users and above play away.

btw - Drupal was mentioned, but virtually and modern CMS does exactly what you describe at an intermediate level. With a little AJAX, they can be configured by the user quite nicely.

27   imajez ~ 03 January 2008

“Another thought provoking advertisement is Apple’s “1984” Macintosh Introduction. It depicted big business and most users as uninterested in individualism.”

An ironic comment to my mind as the thing I find quite off putting about Apple is it’s Big Brother, we know what’s best for you attitude. Do they heck? For example, I want a wireless keyboard, but I don’t necessarily want a small keyboard with valuable oft used keys missing. Which is Apple’s current offering with it’s new style metal keyboards.
Actually I have a nice wireless and reduced size Keyboard with all the relevent keys still intact, but it’s made by Logitech. But at least with a keyboard you can buy from other companies, not the case with other parts or features.
Apple are control freaks to a ridiculous amount and long term I think it’s very damaging for themselves. They seem to be becoming an increasingly bullying company, a shame really as they do not need to do that.

28   ~ 06 February 2008

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