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:
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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