Creative Selection

After making the shift from computers to personal technology, Apple emerged as one of the most successful enterprises in the world. In his book, Creative Selection, Ken Kocienda—an engineer who worked on the software teams that created the Safari web browser, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch—reveals the secret of Steve Jobs’s leadership and Apple’s magic: the ability to push people to think for themselves and to empower them to turn their best thinking into reality.

Kocienda argues that the unique magic in Apple’s products is attributable to the software and identifies seven elements essential to Apple’s software success:

  1. Inspiration: thinking big ideas and imagining what might be possible
  2. Collaboration: working together well with other people and seeking to combine your complementary strengths
  3. Craft: applying skill to achieve high-quality results and always striving to do better
  4. Diligence: doing the necessary grunt work and never resorting to shortcuts or half measures
  5. Decisiveness: making tough choices and refusing to delay or procrastinate
  6. Taste: developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance to produce a pleasing and integrated whole
  7. Empathy: trying to see the world from other people’s perspectives and creating work that fits into their lives and adapts to their needs

Of course, the Apple style is not a matter of following a checklist. These seven elements were blended with each teammate’s personal touch in an approach Kocienda calls creative selection.

The Importance of Demos

The most significant strand of Apple’s product development DNA was to meld technology and the liberal arts—to take the latest software and hardware advances, mix them with elements of design and culture, and produce features and products that people found useful and meaningful in their everyday lives. Demos were fundamental to this creative and technical process. Apple’s software team used them to highlight the potential, explore the concepts show the progress, prompt the discussion, and drive the decisions for making their products. The software team produced demos in a steady stream, and whenever there was interesting new work, Jobs found the time to attend a demo review so he could see it. His involvement kept the progress and momentum going. Jobs’s constant demand to see a succession of demos spawned numerous other demos, each with their own presenters and deciders, and all these demos helped the entire software team stay focused on making great products.

Demo reviews were also part of Jobs’s effort to model the product development behaviors he wanted Apple to use when he couldn’t be present. Jobs’s brand of decisiveness permeated Apple. He surrounded himself with people who could make good decisions without long deliberation. The whole software organization kept meetings and teams small to maintain efficiency and to reinforce the principle of doing the most with the least.

Jobs also used demo reviews to judge for himself whether features met a basic usability standard. Jobs looked carefully at the software and always asked if it could be made simpler. This push for simplicity had a purpose. Jobs put himself in the shoes of customers, and he never wanted Apple software to overload people, especially when they might already be stretched by the bustle of their everyday lives. He believed stripping away nonessential features made products easier for people to learn from the start and easier to use over time. He wanted products and their software to speak for themselves. He realized that, in most cases, nobody would be standing over the shoulder of a person who is having their first experience with software, carefully describing every nuance of every feature.

Apple rarely had brainstorming sessions or whiteboard discussions. These things can feel like work, but they can often devolve into a form of sneak procrastination since it’s too difficult to talk productively about ideas in the abstract. Whenever an Apple employee had a new concept or product idea, they created a demo to communicate what they were thinking. They literally had to demonstrate their idea. They couldn’t get away with just telling. They were required to show. They combined some inspiration, craft, taste, and decisiveness, and shared their results. They worked like this because the team didn’t accept anything unless it was concrete and specific. Then they tried out each other’s demos, said what they liked and what they didn’t, and offered suggestions for improvements, which led to more demos and more feedback. Direct feedback on one demo provided the impetus to transform it into the next. Demos were the catalyst for creative decisions, and making a succession of demos was the core of the process of taking an idea from the intangible to the tangible.

Making demos is hard. It involves overcoming apprehensions about committing time and effort to an idea that you aren’t sure is right.

What Makes a Good Demo?

Software demos need to be convincing enough to explore an idea, to communicate a step toward making a product, even though the demo is not the product itself. Those things that aren’t the main focus of a demo, but are required to create the proper setting, must be realized at the correct level of detail so they contribute to the whole rather than detract from the vision. No time should be spent on irrelevant details, and the combination of important/passable/ignorable features should be chosen carefully to maximize impact, minimize distractions, and fit the work schedule to meet any deadlines.

When making a demo, we should think about the intended audience and make a specific decision about what features to include. We can draw a conceptual ring around those key details—the demo points inside the ring are the focus and depicted with the highest fidelity. Leave outside the ring other less important details that will eventually have to be addressed, but not immediately. Pay these details s little attention as possible and omit them from the demo if you can get away with it. Take extra care at the boundary—some elements are right on the imaginary line. These are details that need some attention since they help get your audience to suspend their disbelief. Ultimately, we want our audience to think they’re looking at something real, even though they aren’t. We know the demo isn’t an actual product, and our audience knows it too, but creating the illusion of an actual product is essential during the development process to maintain the vision of what we’re actually trying to achieve, and so our colleagues can begin responding and giving feedback as if the demo was the product. This attempt to build continuity throughout a development process highlights how software demos are elements in larger narratives.

Cut corners to skip unnecessary effort. Remove distractions to focus attention where it needs to be. Start approximating your end goal as soon as possible. Maximize the impact of your most difficult effort. Combine inspiration, decisiveness, and craft to make demos. It will change the way you work.

Inspiration vs. Perspiration

Demos are extremely important, but ideas are nothing without the hard work to make them real. We want to believe geniuses—such as Thomas Edison—can conjure world-changing inventions out of thin air. Easy explanations are alluring, and Edison-like inspiration seems magical. However, the actual story was more about the drudgery. As Steven Johnson says in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, “Folklore calls Edison the inventor of the lightbulb, but in truth the lightbulb came into being through a complex network of interaction between Edison and his rivals… Edison built on the designs of at least a half dozen other inventors who went before him, including Joseph Swan and William Sawyer.”

Edison’s large-scale success was likely built on a foundation of tending to small details. Edison himself described his approach for constructing the foundations for his innovative work, specifically, how he solved problems as follows: “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” For Edison, it was more important to build on missing ideas and keep working and working until an invention was made real. In deceptively brief terms, Edison tells us: “I make trial after trial until it comes.”

Edison and his team were willing to perspire, but he also knew what he would be doing with all those hours: trial and error. For the lightbulb, filaments were the key, and bamboo was the most promising material, so Edison tested every kind of bamboo to find the best. There were twelve hundred varieties of bamboo, and Edison tried each one. It sounds simple, and it was, but the way Edison defined the project also gave it shape. He crossed off items from a to-do list. Each one he tested was an item crossed off and brought him closer to finding which one was the best. Hard work is hard, and inspiration does not pay off without diligence.

Connecting Words to Actions

The key to excellence in any field is taking words, turning them into a vision and then using the vision to spur the actions that create the results. In the early days of their browser project, Steve Jobs articulated a vision for a fast web browser, and with a single-minded emphasis on never making the browser slower, Apple’s software team connected their words and actions by focusing on this one simple rule. Words and actions can connect in sports too, and when they do, as in the head coaching career of Vince Lombardi, the link becomes illuminating and Apple-like.

Upon arriving at training camp as the new head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 1959, Vince Lombardi sat his players down and began to speak: “Gentlemen, we have a great deal of ground to cover. We’re going to do things a lot differently than they’ve been done here before… We're going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because perfection is not attainable. But we are going to relentlessly chase it because, in the process, we will catch excellence.” Of course, any coach can hold a miniature pep rally, but Lombardi soon followed up on his rah-rah cheer with a clear-cut description of the specific thing they would perfect. It was one play that was the focus of his intense quest for perfection: the Power Sweep. John Madden described attending a coaching clinic where Lombardi talked about the Power Sweep, and only the Power Sweep, for eight hours. Through practice after practice, drill after drill, game after game, and season after season, the Packers honed and refined Lombardi’s Power Sweep. Even though opposing teams knew the play was coming, they couldn’t stop it. In a seeming attempt to disprove Sun Tzu’s dictum that “all warfare is based on deception,” Lombardi built his victories and Super Bowls all on the foundations of one humble running play, initially described on a blackboard and then executed exquisitely on the field over and over again.

In any complex effort, communicating a well-articulated vision for what you’re trying to do is the starting point for figuring out how to do it. And though coming up with such a vision is difficult, it’s unquestionably more difficult to complete the entire circuit, to come up with an idea, a plan to realize the idea, and then actualize the plan at a high standard, all without getting bogged down, changing direction entirely, or failing outright. Perhaps the most unnerving and fear-inducing source of anxiety is that your ideas, words, and resulting vision might not be any good to start with and wouldn’t yield success even with a faithful follow-through.

Empathy

Empathy is a crucial part of making great products. Empathy can be defined as trying to see the world from other people’s perspectives and creating work that fits into their lives and adapts to their needs. The people at Apple sought to be as empathetic as possible in both the initial and the ongoing experiences with the product.

Steve Jobs once said, “Design is how it works.” Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what a product looks like. However, making software and products visually attractive only goes so far. Shallow beauty in products doesn’t serve people. Product design should strive for a deeper beauty rooted in what a product does, not merely in how it looks and feels. Form should follow function, and the appearance of a product should tell you what it is and how to use it.

The added benefit of this is that it removes the arbitrariness from taste. It gives taste a purpose, a rationale beyond self-indulgence, an empathetic end. People can type on an iPhone keyboard without thinking about it. The keyboard can melt away, it can recede, and when it does, it leaves a space for what people really care about. A properly judged mixture of taste and empathy is the secret formula for making products that are intuitive, easy to use, and easy to live with.

Convergence

Convergence was the term used to describe the final phase of making an Apple product, after the features had been locked down and the programming and design teams spent the last three or four months fixing bugs and polishing details. Entering a convergence period was the moment that Apple employees had a clear picture in their minds about how they wanted their finished software to work. It also meant that the hardest part was over—they had been largely successful in navigating the course from idea to product.

However, it’s fair to say that Apple employees were always in a convergence period of sort—their forward movement always had a destination, and they were constantly converging toward the next demo. Concrete and specific demos were catalysts for creative decisions. They forced employees to make judgments about what was good, what needed changes or improvements, and what should be deleted. They habitually converged on demos, then they allowed demo feedback to cause a fresh divergence—one that they immediately sought to close for the follow-on demo.

Apple employees were continuously producing fresh rounds of software to test their latest ideas and assumptions. As a whole, a succession of demos, feedback, and follow-up demos created a progression of variation and selection that shaped their products over time.

It’s a Darwinian process that harvests the power of adding up incremental modifications down a line of generations. In the first chapter of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote of what separated his then-radical concept of natural selection from the process of artificial selection that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom: “The key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him… It is the magician’s wand, by means of which he may summon into life whatever form and mould he pleases.”

Apple sought to wield a similar magician’s wand to mold their products, building variation into demos, keeping the strong aspects and discarding the weak, and making the next demo based on those decisions. With their Darwinian demo methodology, Apple had a huge advantage over artificially selecting breeders and the glacially slow accumulations of genetic improvements that drive natural selection. Apple employees created new demos that were concretely and specifically targeted to be better than the previous one. They gave each other feedback, both as initial impressions and after living on the software to test the viability of the ideas and quality of the associated implementations. They gathered up action items for the next generation, and then they forged ahead toward the next demo. Kocienda calls this continuing progression of demo  feedback  next demo: creative selection.

Apple took a page right out of Darwin, recasting his concepts to suit their product development goals. They always started small, with some inspiration. They made demos. They mixed feedback. They listened to guidance from smart colleagues. They blended in variations. They honed their vision. Employees followed the initial demo with another and then another. They improved their demos in incremental steps. They evolved their work by slowly converging on better versions of the vision. Round after round of creative selection moved them step by step from the spark of an idea to a finished product. From its beginnings, Apple always had a characteristic sense of what to select for, a viewpoint on which ideas were strong, and this helped to define the conditions under which the creative selection process unfolded.

The Intersection

“The Intersection” is an idea that speaks to the way Apple valued expertise in both technology and liberal arts. Apple engineers used this notion to guide their efforts as they developed and lived on their gadgets, so that they turned out to be more than an agglomeration of the latest CPUs, sensors, and software manufactured at scale. Apple hoped to make their products meaningful and useful to people by getting the best of both worlds. Apple made extremely advanced products form a technology point of view, but also made them intuitive, easy to use, and fun.

The notion of working at the intersection goes back far into Apple history. Steve Jobs used it to explain why the original Macintosh in 1984 had proportionally spaced fonts instead of the monospaced teletype-like characters typical on computers of the day. From that time forward, working at the intersection became a summation of the qualities Apple aspired to instill in its products. It went beyond fonts, colors, and the visual design elements you might think of when you hear the word “art” in liberal arts. The effort extended to all the senses.

Working at the intersection is not only about honing details so that an individual icon, animation, or sound achieves an aesthetic ideal in isolation. Liberal arts elements and state-of-the-art technology must combine, and the end result can be judged only holistically, by evaluating how the product fits the person.

One of the key concepts of the iPhone user interface is its direct manipulation. This idea refers to giving software objects some of the same attributes and behaviors as physical objects, enabling people to interact with digital bits as if they were real-world items. Acting directly on an object produces a result, and there’s a constant flow of sensory feedback—visual, tactile, auditory—to help you monitor your progress. For decades, computers compelled users to type text commands to interact with digital objects, and this conceptual distance made it more difficult to get things done. An example of this is command line interfaces, which make computing abstract, distant, and nonintuitive. Back in the 1980s, Apple had helped to change this with the Macintosh. The graphical user interface of the Mac, with its mouse and icons, offered a more direct experience. Interacting with an object meant moving the mouse to the object you wanted. Picking it up was done with a click and hold on the mouse button, a gesture that evoked grasping the object with your hand. Dropping the object into a folder meant moving the object on top of an icon of a folder and releasing the mouse button. All these conventions made computing friendlier, and they helped to introduce the concept of direct manipulation: You could see icons on the screen that represented the objects available to interact with, and you could point at them with the mouse.

This concept had a purpose. It decreased your mental load. It allowed you to forget about the technology and focus on the experiences the device opened to you. Our working memory has hard limits. In 1956, Harvard’s George Miller wanted to quantify the constraints on our short-term mental capacities. He found we can hold only around seven items in our working memories at once. That’s it. Trying to handle more than sevenish things in our minds simultaneously requires us to start making chunks or, as Miller puts it, to create “groups of items that go together.” However, if we can’t free up slots in our mind by making chunks when a lot of information is coming at us, we become overloaded, and once our working memory is filled, we begin to make more errors and less accurate judgments. Our ability to function falls off fast.

Interacting with technology, especially when it’s new or tricky, creates the same kind of burden. We soon hit our mental boundaries, and it doesn’t take much to knock our minds off course when we’re navigating in a sea of complexity. We can easily get lost in software features, and if that happens, we don’t have enough intellectual capacity to find solid ground and focus on what we’re actually trying to do. To make products more approachable, designers must lighten the load on people trying to use the things they make. Even small simplifications make a difference. The good news is that it’s almost always possible to streamline tasks to make them less taxing.

Determining comfort levels, pursuing smoothness, and reducing mental load are the kinds of ergonomic, perceptual, and psychological effects Apple often aimed for, and honing and tuning technology to a high level became the means to achieve people-centered results. For example, the original slide-to-unlock feature helped to prevent you from unintentionally activating features when the phone was in your pocket or bag. This feature was so intuitive that a designer’s three-year-old daughter was able to slide the control and unlock the phone without prompting. The physical home button is another example in that it had a comforting secondary role as an always-present escape hatch for people who got lost or confused in an app.

Conclusion

Why do some products, like the iPhone, turn out as well as they do? It comes in three parts. The first part is the demo-making creative selection process. When an Apple employee or team got an idea, they cobbled together a first cut to illustrate it. Then they pulled together the supporting resources—code, graphics, animations, sounds, icons, and more—to produce a demo. After they showed the demo and shared some feedback with each other, they made decisions about changes that might be an improvement. Whatever it was, the concrete and specific modifications they chose to make led to the actions items that justified making the next demo. Repeat, then repeat again. Doing this over and over again set their projects on the slow path to accumulating positive change. This is how they started with an idea and finished with software for a product.

The second part is the seven essential elements of the Apple development approach: 1) Inspiration, which means thinking big ideas and imagining about what might be possible; 2) Collaboration, which means working together well with other people and seeking to combine your complementary strengths; 3) Craft, which means applying skill to achieve high-quality results and always striving to do better; 4) Diligence, which means doing the necessary grunt work and never resorting to shortcuts or half measures; 5) Decisiveness, which means making tough choices and refusing to delay or procrastinate; 6) Taste, which means developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole; and 7) Empathy, which means trying to see the world from other people’s perspectives and creating work that fits into their lives and adapts to their needs. Apple tried to be tasteful and collaborative and diligent and mindful of craft and the rest in all the things they did, all the time. Everything counts. No detail is too small.

After creative selection and the seven essential elements, Apple needed one more intersection to make great work: a combination of people and commitment. Creative selection and the seven essential elements were the most important product development ingredients, but it took committed people to breathe life into these concepts and transformed them into a culture. The culture they created is inseparable form the products they created.

This manner of culture formation works best when the groups and teams remain small, when the interpersonal interactions are habitual and rich rather than occasional and fleeting. Ten people edited code on the Safari project before they made the beta announcement of the software, and twenty-five people are listed as inventors on the patent for the iPhone. There was a pragmatic management philosophy at play here, which started from Steve on down. Apple’s leaders wanted high-quality results, and they set the constraint that they wanted to interact directly with the people doing the work, creating the demos, and so on. That placed limits on numbers. This had a follow-on effect as well, in that keeping development groups small fostered feelings of personal empowerment and a sense of team cohesion.

A small group of passionate, talented, imaginative, ingenious, ever-curious people built a work culture based on applying their inspiration and collaboration with diligence, craft, decisiveness, taste, and empathy and, through a lengthy progression of demo-feedback sessions, repeatedly tuned and optimized heuristics and algorithms, persisted through doubts and setbacks, selected the most promising bits of progress at every step, all with the goal of creating the best products possible.

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