The real lesson of Steve Jobs’ career

August 08, 2012 By Mark Hurst 11 Comments

A recent Wired magazine cover story (here) asks, “Do you really want to be like Steve Jobs?” In it, the author proposes two types of entrepreneurs. First are the “acolytes,” workaholics who try to emulate Jobs by being “direct” (that is, rude) to employees when their work isn’t up to par. In contrast are the “rejectors” who pursue low-stress careers while making time for family.

This article is a helpful distillation of a common conversation about Steve Jobs since his death last fall: how much did he succeed by being mean? Is it worth being mean in one’s own career, if it brings Jobs-like wealth and influence? The quotes really make the piece, as they accurately depict the range of personalities in the tech industry. (I was happy to see Matt Haughey included; this video of his Gel 2010 talk shows how his positive, community-centered approach made Metafilter a success. Count me in his camp.)

Despite all this, I think the article is centered on the wrong issue. The media has missed a much larger, much more important point: Steve Jobs was the first CEO to bet the company on the user experience. From the very beginning of Apple, and renewing his efforts when he returned as interim CEO, Jobs was constantly focused on building products that would deliver the best possible experience – rather than the most up-to-date chipset, or the best partner arrangements, or the most horrific monopolistic lock-in scheme.

These days it’s not so unusual to hear entrepreneurs, even CEOs, give lip service to the idea of the customer experience. Some of them even believe it and try to influence their organization in that direction. But back in the mid-80s, and then again in the late 90s, it was exceedingly rare to see a CEO explicitly, intentionally build a strategy around this idea.

Jobs may not have invented the mouse, or the graphical user interface, or the idea of a handheld mobile device. But he did show the world what can happen if a CEO commits his or her company, strategically and fully, to the customer experience. The trajectory of Apple over the past 15 years can be seen as one massive, controlled experiment of an experience-led organization. (I couldn’t have planned a better case study to demonstrate what I’ve been writing about for all these years.) Everyone knows the results: After a few rocky years, Apple’s strategy started to pay off. Then while other technology companies stumbled, faltered, or disappeared altogether, Apple went from success to success.

Steve Jobs provides a lesson for every entrepreneur, and it’s not about whether you should be rude to your employees. (By the way, you shouldn’t.) Instead, the question is: will you commit yourself, and your team, to creating a good experience for your customer?

COMMENTS

  1. Lee Fleming August 08, 2012 3:11 pm

    Disagree that Jobs used user experience as the core of Apple’s direction. It was more his vision of design and what HE thought things should look like, work. Macs are not easy to use — can’t use them without at least some figuring out, especially if you come from the PC world. iTunes is a horrible user experience — I’ve seen it leave people in tears. You cannot use Flash on the iP devices — so my user experience sucks on those devices whenever I encounter Flash. That wasn’t for the user — it was because Jobs nixed it. (I forgot why — a competitive product being planned maybe?)

    Just because you’re in love with Apple products or think they’re pretty doesn’t mean they’re designed with the user in mind. Just watch newbies or anyone not a diehard Apple fan try to figure out how things work on any Apple device.

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    • Tom Hughes August 08, 2012 4:18 pm

      Lee, I worked as the creative director for Macintosh under Steve from the beginning until Steve was booted from Apple. Mark has it right, it was about the customer experience

    • Yiftach August 08, 2012 5:52 pm

      Lee, I encourage you to do just what you suggest: “Just watch newbies or anyone not a diehard Apple fan try to figure out how things work on any Apple device.”

      “Newbie” doesn’t mean PC user switching to Mac. It means someone who’s NEVER used a computing device before, be it a laptop/desktop, tablet, portable media player, smart phone, what have you. Apple’s products tend to be highly intuitive and easy to learn to use; this is not true for PCs. Look for videos on YouTube of kids using iPads or iPod Touches for the first time to see what I mean.

      While iTunes might be an exception, your other example is a nonstarter. Flash is ubiquitous on Windows devices, but that doesn’t make it great, and there’s a widely available alternative.

  2. Dan Shafer August 08, 2012 3:42 pm

    I found your piece interesting, Mark. My few brief encounters with Jobs over the years confirm your view that he was all about the user experience.

    @Lee Fleming — Your viewpoint is interesting as well but it seems that you come from a non-Mac orientation. While I fully agree with you about iTunes, the fact is that across dozens and dozens of clients over many years, Macs are an order of magnitude easier for newbies to learn and use than Windows. Sure, the switch from Windows to Mac is harder than starting on a Mac, but I find it interesting that Microsoft’s design is shifting closer and closer to the Mac user experience…and that many users are complaining because it’s changing the way they’re used to doing things.

    Jobs’ design genius is all but indisputable. Sure, he substituted his own judgment of what people would understand, like, enjoy and buy for marketing studies and focus groups. But in the software biz we have a saying. “You never get to version 2.0 by asking your clients what they want.” It takes a visionary who can listen, observe, then create. And that’s what Jobs, with all of his interpersonal faults (and they were myriad) was.

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  3. Tom Hughes August 08, 2012 4:16 pm

    Mark, excellent insights and the key that you uncover, Steve Jobs dedicating the entire company’s heart and soul not to design per se, but to customer experience.

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  4. Susan August 08, 2012 4:58 pm

    Where does Tom Peters “In Search of Excellence” 1982 factor in? Thought Steve Jobs was one of our greatest thinkers ever! Is there still some of his ideas in Apple’s pipeline? Good job!

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  5. Marek Pawlowski August 09, 2012 3:53 am

    Mark, you article is a timely reminder that paying lip service, or even investing budget, in ‘user experience’ teams or strategy does not ensure a better experience for your customers. As Apple demonstrated with several, but not all, of its products, success tends to come when you empower designers with the rare ability to quietly listen, observe and then extrapolate beyond what they are actually being told. Even then, it is only organisations where these individuals are truly able to affect change that customer experience improves.

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  6. Francesca August 09, 2012 3:33 pm

    Thank you for moving the conversation beyond Job’s interpersonal style and bringing some substance.

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  7. Jeff Gates August 09, 2012 4:55 pm

    Mark, this brings up the inevitable question: do the ends justify the means?

    I think Jobs could have done everything he set out to do without the all the rancor. This brings up a particular interest of mine: process-oriented verses results-oriented.

    Being as process-oriented as I am, it’s like being left-handed (which I also am). You live in the world and adapt and aren’t really cognizant of the rough edges. However, in an organization, it eventually hits you over the head.

    Some times the ends (in Jobs’ case, the specific results he wanted) could have still been accomplished if he was more open to process.

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  8. Lee Fleming August 10, 2012 1:53 pm

    “• I wish there was a setting in OSX called ‘I’M BUSY: don’t animate every possible transition.’”

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  9. Virginia Bruce August 24, 2012 1:52 am

    I couldn’t agree more — usability is the differentiating (??) factor when products offer more-or-less the same functionality. And it goes along with his disinterest in focus groups — don’t worry about what they want — they can’t want what they’ve never seen and that’s what we’re offering!

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