What an Insider Reveals About Apple’s Design Secrets

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Former Apple principal engineer Ken Kocienda shares the secrets behind the company's design success.

Kocienda bookEntrepreneurs who want to replicate the recipe that helped Apple become the world’s first $1 trillion company will find some of the secret ingredients in a new book by its former principal engineer. Ken Kocienda worked at Apple for 15 years, designing software for the iconic iPhone and other products that have become popular across the globe.

In his new book, Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs, Kocienda reflects on the collaborative culture at Apple that helped foster innovation and excitement for both employees and consumers. He visited the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM to talk about his experiences and what other companies can learn from the magic created by the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. (Listen to the podcast using the player above.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you remember Steve Jobs?

Ken Kocienda: Steve was very, very focused on creating great products, and that was my goal while I worked there. So, there was a good alignment there. Steve cared so much about making products that people would want to go out and buy in the world. He was the CEO and I was an individual software engineer, but he was interested in connecting with people like me and seeing what was in the pipeline, what was in the development labs, what was in the works.

Sometimes I would show him the work, and he could be pretty intimidating. I think that is kind of well-known out in the world. But he could also be very open to new ideas, support people like me and help me make the work that would hopefully please people, make them go out to the store and eventually turn Apple into a $1 trillion company.

Knowledge@Wharton: The title of the book refers in part to Apple’s approach to creativity. What was the mindset at Apple, and is it still the same today?

Kocienda: I called the book Creative Selection for a reason. Because whenever we had an idea for a software product, some new feature — someone like me would make a demo or a prototype, something that we could try. Not just white boarding and blue-sky thoughts, but actually making something concrete that I could stop somebody in the hallway and say, “Give this a look. Tell me what you think.”

Even if that first version wasn’t so good, it was a starting point. We could then figure out how to improve it, throw out the weak parts, keep the strong. Creative selection refers to this Darwinian process: You start with something and, hopefully, the end point is going to be a great product even if the beginnings were humble.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was the importance of the software design in the entire process, especially when trying to make products that connect with consumers?

Kocienda: Apple sits at this intersection where it is looking at new hardware all of the time, sometimes developing new hardware, just keeping an eye on where technology is going. Yet Apple always had this perspective that technology by itself isn’t enough. We wanted to make products that were useful and meaningful for people in their lives, so while people were hectic, bustling around with their everyday work, they wouldn’t have to spend their concentration trying to figure out how their phone works.

“Steve cared so much about making products that people would want to go out and buy in the world.”

Software was the glue in the middle, that bridge in the middle between the geeky technology stuff on the one hand, and hopefully the useful and meaningful experiences on the other. Software really made that happen.

Knowledge@Wharton: Autocorrect is one of the more unique pieces of Apple functionality that you worked on. Take us into the process of developing that.

Kocienda: Autocorrection turned out to be a critical part of the concept of the original iPhone. If you think back to smartphones before the iPhone, you think of the BlackBerry, and it had this hardware keyboard with the little plastic Chiclet keys. People loved it. They called it the Crackberry because it was so addictive to type out your email messages on the move.

The iPhone was never going to have a keyboard like that. The keyboard was going to be in software, pixels that could get out of the way when you weren’t typing, to open up the device for apps, looking at full screen photos, playing games and all of the things that we have come to expect from our smartphones. It became my job, through some twists and turns, to develop this autocorrect software.

To make the keyboard software, you had to type on a sheet of glass. You couldn’t feel the keys with your fingers or your thumbs. With autocorrection, trying to take the taps on the screen and figure out what you meant was the real challenge. Again, software was the way to fill that gap to try to understand what you did, even though maybe you couldn’t quite tap the keys that you wanted.

If you think about typing a four-letter word on a touchscreen, you tap four times and that makes a shape on the screen. Those taps, one after the other, look almost like a constellation. You think of looking up in the sky at the stars, you see just the stars by themselves, but then we put a pattern on top of that. And that is what I did.

I looked at those taps and compared them to words in the dictionary. I said, “You know what, maybe those letters that popped up weren’t exactly what you wanted, but it kind of looks like a word from the dictionary.” I tried to match the patterns of your taps to the way that dictionary words would look with their ideal patterns. That’s kind of the trick.

Knowledge@Wharton: What kind of reaction have you gotten over the years from consumers about autocorrect? It’s obviously important, but it can cause frustration.

Kocienda: Of course, the biggest complaint I’ve gotten over the years is getting in the way of people’s swearing. It’s like, I’m sorry that you are trying to type one thing and it turns out to be another. The classic example of this is that people wind up referring to water fowl, duck, instead of some other word.

I apologize to your listeners out there for [autocorrection] getting in the way. But look at it this way, I maybe saved you from some embarrassing circumstances. Imagine this: You’ve gone on vacation, you’ve rented a lovely house by the lake and want to text your grandma to tell her about the beautiful ducks on the pond. Well, if you didn’t type that exactly right, you don’t want the autocorrect to maybe substitute the swear word for the lovely view that you are having of your house on the lake.

“The biggest complaint I’ve gotten over the years is (autocorrect) getting in the way of people’s swearing.”

That outlines a little bit of the challenge that I had. Do I give you the swear word when you didn’t exactly type it right, or do we kind of back off and give you something else?

Knowledge@Wharton: You say in the book that fear of failure was your biggest concern.

Kocienda: Oh yes, of course. Whenever you are doing something new — again comparing the iPhone to the BlackBerry — when products are out of the market, particularly successful products like the BlackBerry, people begin to assume that the next thing is just going to be a refinement of what has come before. You look at something and it is familiar.

A lot of times in software development, we use the word intuitive. We say, ‘This software is intuitive.’ So, putting out a software keyboard where you couldn’t feel the keys really just went against people’s expectations. It wasn’t intuitive right off the bat. It’s one of the reasons why we did a QWERTY keyboard layout where the keys are all in the same position as they are on your laptop or desktop. We experimented with many different things, but we tried to again bridge that gap, make the phone look as intuitive as possible even though that keyboard was going to be in software.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is it amazing to you how your role in software development at Apple helped the brand become part of the culture?

Kocienda: This is gratifying to me. I was an individual programmer, and there are many, many people involved in making an Apple product. There was this culture of working hard, dedicating yourself to the work and trying to imagine (the user’s experience). The idea of empathy is something that maybe you don’t think about from the outside world as being a big part of technology development and software development, but it was this culture of thinking about people and trying to empathize with them and their future experiences that they would be having with the work that we are developing in the labs. It was a big part of the ethos, the experience of going in every day, trying to get the work done and hit those dates where the executives would go out on stage and announce the new products.

Knowledge@Wharton: Empathy is one word among seven that you highlight as very important to the success of Apple’s software over the years. Empathy is an interesting word to use when you are talking about looking outside of the office walls to what people want to have in a particular device.

Kocienda: As technologists and software designers, we were thinking about these products all day, every day. We had to imagine the experience of people who want the benefits of the technology. They want to send their texts, they want to take their photos and their selfies, and they want to post them on social networks. And they all want it to just work.

“People begin to assume that the next thing is just going to be a refinement of what has come before.”

There are so many elements that go into making these experiences actually happen, so we had to imagine what it would be like for someone who doesn’t care about the gadget for the sake of the gadget but simply wants the experiences and then wants to get on with the rest of their lives. This empathy, this notion of putting ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, was a big part of how we thought about it, how we approached our design and development work.

Knowledge@Wharton: You talk in the book about both pressures and pleasures that you had working at Apple. I can imagine the pressures, but what about the pleasure side of it?

Kocienda: The pleasure side of it usually came down to seeing the product eventually out in the world. When we talked about the frustration sometimes that people feel with autocorrection, wanting one thing but having the software give you another, I understand that. But there is also the pleasurable side for me as a designer. I was just in Manhattan recently, walking down the street and seeing people in Times Square with their iPhones out. They’re taking their selfies and posting them, and then they are typing on that software keyboard.

A favorite example of mine is at the end of airline flights. Most people have their smartphones in airplane mode while the plane is in the air. But when you land, they take their phones out of their pocket or their bag and type out a text to the person maybe waiting at baggage claim, saying, “Hey, I just landed, I’ll see you, I’ll be right there, love you.”

The pleasure for me is that the first thing they do is look at that software keyboard. From the empathy standpoint, they are not thinking about the technology, they are thinking about the person there that they are going to be meeting up with, that they just flew into town to see. For me, the most pleasurable aspect of the work is giving people these experiences enabled by technology.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the next disruptions in software for smartphones and other personal devices?

Kocienda: It is very exciting to me, not only the phone but the watch, which has really the same software as your phone. But the Apple Watch has all of these wonderful health features that are now coming online. People are wearing this watch on their wrists, and it will be communicating to their phone in their pocket, and if the watch can sense that your heart rate is maybe slowing down or getting irregular, it can notify your doctor right away. You don’t even need to do anything. That could very likely save lives.

I use the word gadget a lot to refer to these technology artifacts in our lives. But when the hardware and the software and the personal connection that you have to these devices all come together to maybe notice when you might be in danger of having a heart attack and maybe get you some medical attention, that’s a pretty remarkable step forward in what we can expect from these gadgets.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you still experience a sense of excitement and joy when Apple releases a new device?

Kocienda: I left Apple about a year and a half ago, but still when the new products are coming out it is very exciting. I was there watching the livestream because I still very much love Apple products and use them. Yeah, it’s wonderful to see. And I still have many colleagues who are working at the company, so it is wonderful to be able to talk about them after release day.

“For me, the most pleasurable aspect of the work is giving people these experiences enabled by technology.”

Naturally, the secrecy is very, very, very much in place. When the products come out, I am on Twitter and texting my friends, congratulating them and talking about the products. I still very much feel an affinity for the culture even though I am not directly in it anymore.

Knowledge@Wharton: Apple has an environment that many businesses want to have these days. They want to put together teams to work on successful projects.

Kocienda: Yes, the collaboration that we had was a critical part of how the products came together. I don’t know how you could make an iPhone or an iPad, or an Apple Watch being two young people working in a garage. I think the days for that are over in terms of these products that include hardware, software, services, global supply chain, marketing, legal and trying to get these products out so that they will be in stores all over the world.

It takes a huge team. Back when I was working on, say, the iPhone years ago, we had this remarkable CEO, Steve Jobs, who was the conductor of the orchestra. He really set the tone for the company, set the company on a track, and gave it a push and momentum that is continuing under Tim Cook’s leadership.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the notes for the book, you say, “I wrote this book for creative and technical people in all fields and businesses to show how we approach design challenges at Apple.” What can other companies take away from Apple’s example?

Kocienda: The seven elements that I talked about — inspiration, collaboration, craft, diligence, decisiveness, taste and empathy — these were the building blocks of our everyday actions. You will notice that there is not politics. That is not in there. Big bureaucracies aren’t in there. Even though Apple was a big company, even back in the days when we were developing the iPhone, we tried to run it a little bit more like a startup. Get small teams together, empower them, give them the authority and the support to make a difference. The example would be that, yeah, you can start with an idea like an iPhone, something totally different from what was in the market, and those ideas can get out in the world and be successful.

You may remember, Apple never sold a smartphone before it sold the smartphone, yet when the iPhone went out in the world, it was accepted and has made a real difference. So, what can you do starting today that 10 years from now, maybe you will be the one chatting on this show, talking about what you did?

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