Summary: If Apple decides it’s a design company, it risks not being about to launch game-changing products. Apple should be a product company, and navigating the balance between engineering and design is the company’s secret sauce.

Neil Cybart from Above Avalon’s post on defining Apple as a design company got me thinking about the natural (and healthy!) tension that exists between design and engineering, what it means for Apple, and how that manifests itself in all tech organizations.

No matter the size company you work for, if there is a design team and an engineering team, understanding this dynamic is key.

Engineers focus on what’s achievable (and how), designers focus on what’s ideal, and a great product lies somewhere in between the two. Getting to that “somewhere” is where technology (engineering) and the liberal arts (design) meet.

Apple Today

I don’t think that Apple is a design company — calling Apple a design company doesn’t do the engineering team justice, and vice versa for calling Apple a technology company.

Apple is a product company. The product is where engineering and design meet, and Apple is world class in both. It’s succeeded because of its ability to manage this natural tension.

How? By having respected, opinionated, and visionary leadership that has the authority to make key product decisions. For many years, it was clear who had that voice at Apple.

Apple’s industrial design team shouldn’t have the final say on product, nor should engineering. They should constructively clash, and the final decision should be made by someone objectively removed from both departments. In Apple’s case that’s Tim Cook and his “inner circle” (Jeff Williams, Eddy Cue, Phil Schiller).

There are risks to having this structure in a product driven company. First, if the engineering or design orgs don’t fully buy in or respect the decision of that group, that will erode the culture. It also could result in decisions-by-committee, which can lead to numerous compromises since each member has their own point of view.

But the biggest risk is that products don’t get launched (more on that below).

This new inner-circle decision making structure is a dynamic that I think Apple is still adjusting to.

Too Much Design

Is it possible to focus too much on design? I think so, and if you do, the risk is that you never launch anything because what you’re aiming for simply is not achievable.

The reason a company aims for something not achievable might be because engineering isn’t as involved as they should be during the early stages of product definition.

The process of how you define what a product will be is key to shipping something you can be proud of.

I’m sure that the design studio at Apple creates lots of prototypes that never make it past prototype stage. The question is for the ones that do get the green light to move on — how successful is Apple in turning prototypes into successful products?

There Won’t Be Another iPhone, But…

The lack of a groundbreaking new product has been a familiar refrain from Apple critics.

Judging the success of the Apple Watch depends on what you compare it to. Personally I think Apple can call it a success, given that it’s introduced the concept of smart wearables deeper into culture than any previous product.

But there are numerous signs of trouble at Project Titan, Apple’s car initiative. Apple also reportedly wanted to ship a TV set and invested significant resources to do so, but that didn’t work out.

Designing a car or a TV set, while a challenge, might just be the tip of the iceberg.

If Apple is now considering itself a design company, I wouldn’t take that as a good sign — trying and failing to build beautifully designed products is not an efficient way to run a business.

What if You’re Not Apple?

Any great CEO, Product Manager, or other role focused on launching products should excel at navigating this balance between engineering and design.

It’s important to empathize with both teams, while ultimately keeping the customer or user in mind. Doing so takes listening, learning, making your opinion known, and building respect from all teams.

In technology, and specifically software, where your competitor is oftentimes just a click (or tap) away, having a superior product is key to building a long term business.


Apple 2017

by Ian Rosenwach 1.6.2017

When was the last time someone cared about Apple? It seems like Jony Ive is on his way out. The Apple Watch is doing ok. AirPods sound promising, but where’s the Apple hype machine? And do headphones have game-changer potential, representing a step forward for humanity? Perhaps in the promise of a better ecosystem…but in […]

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Five Predictions for 2017

by Ian Rosenwach 1.2.2017

Here’s my shot at predicting what 2017 will bring – 1. Privatization – Federal government programs from healthcare to social security will be under constant threat of privatization. It’s already been floated for the VA healthcare system. It’s not a fun year to be a federal government employee – our institutions will be scrutinized like […]

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What is “Fake News”?

by Ian Rosenwach 11.15.2016

Yesterday Google and Facebook both announced they were cracking down on “fake news” sites that are using their ad networks to make money. First some background: Google and Facebook have publisher networks that display ads sold by Google on their site.  The revenue from those ads is split between the Publisher and Google. For publishers […]

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AT&T, Time Warner, and Digital Convergence

by Ian Rosenwach 10.25.2016

“The question is, are people really going to watch what we make on a computer screen or not,” said Bewkes. “I think an awful lot rides on whether that happens or not.” – Jeff Bewkes in 2000 at the time of the AOL/Time Warner merger (to Kara Swisher) AT&T is in the process of acquiring Time […]

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Like Tweeting? You’ll Love Nuzzel Newsletters

by Ian Rosenwach 9.8.2016

I recently started a newsletter using Nuzzel and have found it to be one of the most well thought-out curation platforms out there. As a news junkie now I can curate my own daily newsletter instead of sharing links throughout the day using different mediums. For Curators – Nuzzel Newsletters Nuzzel Newsletters are a new […]

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The Impact of Apple TV Universal Search on Content Apps

by Ian Rosenwach 9.16.2015

Summary: If universal search for Apple TV is widely adopted there are implications for viewer behavior as well as media companies and their Apple TV content apps. They may no longer play the role of gatekeeper, and instead need to focus on the user experience and structuring data to appear high in Apple TV search results. There […]

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Curation, Algorithms, and Having a Point of View

by Ian Rosenwach 6.26.2015

With the emergence of Apple Beats 1 Radio, Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles, Twitter’s Lightning, and Instagram’s new Explore feature, content and curation are all the rage in big tech. Ben Thompson sums it up nicely on Stratechery in a post entitled Curations And Algorithms – It’s possible that algorithms will one day be superior to humans […]

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Apple News Format and the Custom News Feed

by Ian Rosenwach 6.8.2015

RSS will always hold special place in my heart. The first two web products I built were RSSColumns; an RSS feed aggregator with 1-click RSS subscriptions for your Google Reader or My Yahoo! pages, and a mobile RSS feed aggregator and syndicator called WordTube. (Warning: the sites do not meet modern design standards.) Today Apple announced Apple News Format, a […]

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2014 Predictions Revisited

by Ian Rosenwach 12.24.2014

It’s prediction season! 2015 predictions coming soon, but first I’ll revisit my 2014 predictions and see how I did. Here are my 2014 predictions and my self-assigned grade for each. 1 – A Big Year for Female Leaders I predicted that a female would be named CEO of a large company and generally women would rise […]

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