Apple’s obsessive focus on simplicity during the Steve Jobs years was really all about love.
Jobs “believed that being simple was a way to get people to love Apple,” said Ken Segall, who worked closely with Jobs as a creative director on the marketing side for more than a decade. “He wanted people to just love the experience from beginning to end — from the commercials they saw on TV, to the experience of shopping in the store, to using the actual product, to bringing it in for service if needed.”
Segall loved the simplicity paradigm so much that he wrote a book about it:Insanely Simple. The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success (Portfolio Penguin, 2012). Segall also worked in similar positions as creative director for other major computer/technology companies, including Dell and Intel. As a result, the book is a sort of user’s guide for business on how to be, or not to be, simple.
“The great thing about simplicity is it’s utterly foolproof,” Segall said. “If you give people two ways to get the same result, obviously they will go with the simpler. There are other ways to make a great movie on your computer — you can do one that’s just as good on a PC as on a Mac — but is it harder or easier to do? That’s what drives Apple’s thinking.”
is the third and final article based on a discussion between author Ken
Segall and Diane Merlino about the implications and applications of the
principles of simplicity.
You’ve described Steve Jobs as a genius who loved creativity rather than a creative genius. Why the differentiation?
First of all, he was a genius intellectually — the way he thought was amazing — but he didn’t necessarily have the creative talent himself. A lot of people mistakenly give Steve credit for personally dreaming up products or ad campaigns. He did have ideas in those directions, I don’t want to diminish them, but I think his real genius was that he knew he needed to surround himself with great creativity.
And he had a real love of creativity, but he wasn’t a creative person himself. He enjoyed being around it, and he surrounded himself with the people who were most brilliant in all those different areas that needed creativity.
Did you find that same kind of focus on hiring brilliant and creative people in other companies you did campaigns for?
Early in my career, I led myself to believe — optimistically — that every company wanted to have that kind of creativity. I worked at creative ad agencies and, company-by-company, I found that was a somewhat naïve view of the world.
Like when I worked on BMW; it was a big moment in my life, because I was going to, at last, get to work for the car company that had been known to be doing all this great advertising, and they had great cars as well. In fact I owned one at the time I went to work on the account, so it was very natural for me. We visited the engineers in Germany, and they were very passionate about the product. But then I found that the people who were in charge of the marketing, of getting the word out — where you want that passion to be really evident — were a lot more passionate about the sales numbers than they were about conveying the essence of BMW.
As a rule I think that’s kind of the way most big companies work. They’re driven to ignite the sales and they lose sight of the essence of the company, of why they’re a great company.
You’re basically talking about a rift between a company’s marketing message — how they present themselves to the rest of the world — and the real heart of their business.
At Dell and Intel there are brilliant people responsible for certain things in those companies. Intel, in particular, is just an incredibly brilliant company — they’re probably the smartest company on earth — but when it comes to their marketing, they market like engineers and they don’t get the way you need to speak to people to really connect with them.
A lot of Apple’s competitors don’t bother with the emotional part. It’s more about, ‘we’re here to tell people we’ve got better specs at a lower price. That’s our angle so that’s what we should say.’ So their commercials are more techy. But Apple doesn’t even play that game. The focus on saying it’s a better product because it connects to you and your life better — which is probably more important to people than knowing how many gigahertzes the processer has.
Let’s return to some of the principles of simplicity you cover in the book. You say ‘simplicity doesn’t like to get tangled up in old problems. It vastly prefers to look ahead.’ How does that look in practice?
Every company has problems. Every company has issues and unexpected things happen — for example, a product or service isn’t received well. Steve did a great job of addressing problems quickly and then moving on, whether it was a badly designed product or a policy they might have announced.
In the case of the original iPhone it was priced very high, it was like $600. That was a mistake, it was too high-priced for most people. But it also created this feeling that Apple was gouging the public because they were the only guys who had these great products. I think Steve realized very quickly that was a mistake. One could ask why it happened in the first place, but it did, and he just got up and said ‘we made a mistake, we’re lowering the price immediately, and we’re give a $100 gift certificate to everyone who bought it’ in the first month or two before they lowered the price.
An interesting side note: Apple ended up benefiting from that, as a $100 gift certificate doesn’t cost the company $100, and it was only useable at the Apple store, where people would be buying more stuff. So it was kind of ingenious in that respect. But it made people feel good — like Apple admitted they made a mistake.
Are there any other interesting examples of Apple mistakes?
One was the horrible mouse — we called it the hockey puck mouse — that came out with first iMac and subsequently with the first Power Mac G3. That was the pro machine. You could sort of forgive it on the consumer side because it was such a fanciful kind of mouse, but on the pro side it was just an insult to the customers. It was a round mouse and you couldn’t tell which way it was aiming. Apple let their beautiful design sense overrule the functionality of that device.
How did they fix that?
Steve wasn’t oblivious to the uproar that followed and fairly quickly — I think it was within a few months — they completely redesigned the mouse and made it a laser mouse, which it wasn’t before, so it was a high-quality pro product. In fact, we even did a commercial just about that new mouse, even though it was a feature of the iMac.
To be honest, I fear that Apple may be drifting off in a slightly wrong direction on this topic. With the antenna controversy on the iPhone 4, Apple sort of stuck to its guns and said it’s just not a problem. And with the new round of commercials that have been criticized by many, Apple just took them off the air and said they had never planned to run them any longer than that.
That doesn’t feel as honest and straightforward as they used to be. I hope that’s not a trend. I hope they continue to believe that being honest and straightforward with their customers is a good way to go.
Another principle in your book is ‘simplicity is what makes people feel like they know you, understand you, and ultimately trust you.’ What’s the takeaway there for the airlines, many of which are much unloved by travelers?
I always look at things as a customer. I do a decent bit of flying and it’s funny how my attitude about the airlines has changed over the years. I used to have a thing for American Airlines. I was a frequent flyer and I had millions of miles with them, and I thought they were head and shoulders above the others.
But then other guys came along, like JetBlue, and it felt like they were more enthusiastic about flying. JetBlue felt like the new person you met at a party who was really interesting and warm and human, whereas American started to feel like the guy who showed up in the suit and he wanted to talk business too much.
With JetBlue I actually felt like they knew what was more important to me, and they wanted to do things that would genuinely make me happy, whereas the feeling I got from American was that they wanted to do things to make money off of me. Obviously at the end of the day both companies wanted to make money off of me, but it was the way JetBlue behaved that made me like them more. That felt more like the kind of company I want to do business with. I’m speaking personally of course. Maybe there are people that hate that, but I found it refreshing. So I found myself trusting them more.
Would you say that trust is another attribute of simplicity?
I would bring back something Steve Jobs told me on more than one occasion — that the key to all of this was having your customers love you. That’s why he did everything he did. He believed that being simple was a way to get people to love Apple. He wanted people to just love the experience from beginning to end — from the commercials they see on TV, to the experience of shopping in the store, to using the actual product, to bringing it in for service if needed. He wanted all of that to make people say, wow, these guys are really good and it’s just a pleasure to do business with them.
So I think that is the obligation of every company that wants to connect emotionally with every customer. When you connect emotionally you get them as a repeat customer and you get them talking you up to friends, family and colleagues. If it’s emotional attachment you strive for, being simple is a way to accomplish that because it connects you with people. People respond better to someone who gives them the simpler choices and makes their advantages clear to see.
Previously in Travel Weekly PLUS:
- Do As Apple Does: Simple Down for Success
- Complexity is Evil. Don’t Let It Bog Down Your Business
Ken Segall blogs about technology and marketing at Ken Segall’s Observatory, and serves up weekly doses of Apple-based satire at Scoopertino.