As any good Apple fanatic should, I recently purchased the almighty iPhone. And the more I use it, the more I think (OK, obsess) about something that’s always confounded (and astounded) me: Why, with so many examples of the power of user experience in the marketplace, do so many pieces of million-dollar technology look like they were designed by a 3-year old with a learning disability? How can a major software player with years of experience and customer feedback under its belt continue to churn out products that have too many buttons, too many features and require an encylopaedic manual to use? If you can produce products with great design at almost no cost penalty, why do so few companies use design to grab market share?

So I ask you, dear reader: Why oh why oh why don’t they get it?

There’s a damn good reason the iPhone will dominate its category – despite a slow AT&T network, despite lack of 3G support, and all the other whining I hear on a daily basis from the competition: It’s an absolute pleasure to use. The iPhone user experience is, quite simply, superior on nearly every front.

Look, it would be easy to list all the functions and innovations of the iPhone and ooh and aaah over each one. Yes, it’s the first phone with visual voicemail messages, you can randomly move among voicemails, you control everything via an elegant, responsive touch screen…the list goes on and on. But here’s the thing to remember: none of this is new technology. Enterprise-level email and voicemail systems have had similar features for decades. Touch screens have been available in public products for 20 years now. So it’s not all the cool parts – it’s that is that this is the first time anyone has ever brought together so many great ideas and processes in one device – and then designed the whole thing for normal people. Every single component – from dynamic, responsive technology to beautiful visual and industrial design – works together to produce a truly rewarding experience using the product.

Right now we’re all watching the Verizons and Motorolas of the world scramble to release competing products. And it’s plain to see that the first order of business is to ape as many surface features as possible: Sleek thin shape? Check. Touch screen? Check. Minimal buttons on the shell? Check. But while they’ve certainly tried to emulate the look of the friendly, Web 2.0 interface and the clean lines of the phone’s body, nothing I have seen yet comes within a million miles. This is the most approachable, intuitive interface I’ve ever seen; it balances form and function equally, placing advanced features within easy reach of inexperienced users. And unlike my previous experience with the bloated cognitive overload that is Windows mobile, the majority of features are single-step processes that are smart enough to integrate with each other contextually, appearing when you need them and disappearing when you’re done.

Will competitors get some quick, short-term frenzy buying upon release? Sure. But I promise you it’ll be short-lived, because these companies are overlooking the most important part of what made the iPhone a success, the part that they are still unable to duplicate, the part that all the big players whose products I review on a daily basis seemingly pay very, very little attention attention to: the experience people have using the product.

Experience Matters

Coming from Steve Jobs, no one is really surprised by the revolutionary nature of the iPhone. But there’s something about Jobs that every CEO should take to heart. He has three important strengths: First, he knows how to gather teams of brilliant young minds who have the talent to innovate beyond any reasonable expectations. Second, he is fiercely dedicated to user experience research and great design, which allows him to know through experience what will ultimately find favor. Third, he has the “stones”, as my grandfather would say, to take a chance and roll with it.

Apple’s success comes directly from making sure that every minute aspect of their products work together to provide an overall positive user experience. So much so that technical and functional considerations – like the iPod’s slow connection speed or lack of 3G support – take a back seat to the touchy-feely experience issues that most CEOs cut from the chopping block at first pass.

It’s not that corporations don’t like or don’t want great design or great user experiences. I defy you to find me a company who doesn’t want to enjoy the benefit of fanatical, loyal customers who are delighted with the organization and the things it makes for them. The real issue is that a lot of companies are still run by folks who are in what I call a risk-averse age group. The Old Guard, the Old Boys Club, call it what you like. Doesn’t matter -– the point is they’re damn uncomfortable with the fact these things can’t be proven or tested with traditional business methodologies. Emotional experience can’t be measured quantitatively, so the variables that create it – feelings, associations, aesthetics – get dropped. Reliability-oriented questions are substituted in their place: “Can we prove this’ll work? Are we sure it’ll work?”

Look: it can’t be proven and you can’t be sure. Before Herman Miller launched the Aeron chair, nobody could prove it would succeed, let alone become the most successful office chair of all time. So experience and design gets undermined, subdued or removed from the process entirely without explicit intent. It becomes a victim of the corporate bias toward predictability and reliability.

Safeguarding User Experience

Every day I see a plethora of companies who think that hiring in-house designers or creating clever marketing that tells the world they’re “design-oriented” is enough. News flash: you need to go a whole lot further to even scratch the surface of what makes a successful product. And that starts at the top.

The C-level folks in the organization have to take on the role of safeguarding user experience. If the leaders of the company fail to do so, the natural tendency toward safe, predictable outcomes wins out. The company joins the mountainous stockpile of companies whose standard of excellence is really mediocrity.

Forget about quantifiable numbers and standards of proof. Forget about number-driven risk analysis.
Stop playing it safe. Stop second guessing. Stop treating failure as proof of incompetence – you’re showing your your employees that you value reliability over innovation. That’s precisely why they deliver safe, reliable solutions. Does Apple do safe and reliable? Does Dyson? Or Google? Or Amazon? The days where status quo was enough are long gone, and if you’re looking for that tide to turn you’re gonna be waiting a long time.

Focus your sights squarely on the trickier, qualitative aspects of a decision in addition to the hard numbers. Create a balanced standard of proof that accounts for complexity that treats failure as an accepted consequence of doing business in a risk-filled environment. That’s the reality of the marketplace we’re all doing business in. That’s the way it is. And that’s how the iPhone user experience came to be a reality.

My father always told me that what you put into life is exactly what you get out, and this is no different. If you place equal value on both innovation and reliability – if you understand the need to take risks in order to reap rewards, if you accept the truth that the experience people have using your product is just as important as what it costs to produce or what technology it utilizes – then you’ll produce innovative, reliable products that people will love using.

Just ask Steve Jobs.