What Apple Can Teach Us About Making Products That Just Work

One of Apple’s more recognizable taglines from several years ago was, “It just works”. There was a time when that was mostly true. Arguably, it is still true today when compared to the competition. Out of the box, Apple products tend to just work more often than the products from other companies.

That doesn’t mean that Apple does not sometimes release the occasional stinker. The iPhone 4 went from, “It just works” to “You’re holding it wrong”. Even more recently, Apple Maps was off course in more ways than one. 

Naturally, both these problems were played up by Apple competitors. Steve Jobs had to come back from his vacation in Hawaii to show the world that almost every major phone at that time was subject to the same kind of antenna attenuation as the iPhone 4. And anyone who ever used Google maps as a serious navigation tool has more than a few horror stories about poor navigation. 

But what all that negative attention did was highlight the exceptions that proved the rule. When Apple products fail like every other product on the market, that, in and of itself, is news. Apple products make news when they don’t work perfectly, not when they do.

How Apple does this comes down to a lot of secret sauce to which we are not privy. But there are quite a few lessons we can imply from the information that is freely available. Here are three:

Testing for as long as it takes

Because of Apple’s insistence on high levels of secrecy, we know very little about their testing methodology. We only know for certain that they are highly committed to software testing. 

But even Apple does not represent the highest level of testing.  We know a lot about the kind of functional testing that other well-established companies use to insure their software integrity and compatibility. Companies that make software for governments, institutions, and other enterprises use sophisticated tools that allow them to:

  • Focus on innovating at the speed you’re accustomed to
  • Achieve automation rates as high as 90% while driving risk coverage to above 95%.

Apple would rather let competitors steel the thunder in a new product category such as wrist wearables, while they take as much time as necessary for the product to be fully baked, and pass all of their usability tests. This is one of the most difficult things for a company to do in a fast-paced, highly competitive industry. 

For Apple, this strategy pays off in products that work well and delight customers out of the box. Also, for every such product release, their brand value grows. Apple is branded as a company that makes products that just work, and delight customers. Others are branded as companies that make products. That is a huge benefit of testing for as long as it takes.

Only make the products that matter

Apple could sell millions of anything with an Apple logo. This fact is often used to denigrate Apple fans as if to say, they will buy anything with an Apple logo without critical thought. This criticism, however, falls flat against the reality that Apple does not just paste their logo on every kind of product they are capable of producing. 

I, for one, wouldn’t mind having some nice Apple-designed polo shirts with pockets wide enough and deep enough to hold an iPhone. They could sell millions. They don’t. Apple only produces a few items that they consider essential. 

When Steve Jobs returned as CEO of Apple after his exile, he simplified the product line with a basic grid. On that grid, there was room for the professional and consumer desktop, and professional and consumer laptop. There were four major products. Everything else went away. This may have been the secret to their phenomenal comeback. 

Today, that grid looks more like a chess board. But compared to the competition, it is still very small and highly disciplined. Focusing on only a few products means that they can give each product the attention it deserves.

Solve human problems, not marketing problems

Have you ever noticed how some products seem to be the answer to a question that no one is asking. The Amazon Fire phone is a perfect example of this. It has a dizzying array of features that no one is asking for. The product only seems to be a solution for Amazon’s problems. They offer features they can market, and that help them. The phone provides almost no reasons why a consumer would want it.

Apple, on the other hand, makes products that solve consumer problems. Their products are often missing features found on other products. But those features are often the whiz-bang kind of features that don’t address any real consumer need. Apple is happy to present products that only do one or two things extremely well. They solve specific consumer problems and nothing more. By focusing on a narrow set of problems, they can perfect them, addressing more problems in future iterations. 

If more companies tested for as long as it takes, narrowed their product line to what really matters, and focused on a small number of consumer problems, there would be a lot more products on the market that just work.