Apple’s New Design Ethos: Making Gadgets Easy To Sell, Hard To Use

I’d been pining for a new MacBook Pro for almost a year until last week, when a friend told me that she’d just paid $700 to get hers fixed at the Apple Store. The problem was simply that a speck of dust had settled under the spacebar. Have you heard about this? Apparently the keys on the MacBook Pro are so low-profile that if the tiniest crumb gets under one, you can’t pop it open without breaking the whole keyboard. The only solution is to replace the entire damn top case.

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This issue’s been well known for almost two years, yet Apple still hasn’t fixed it. They probably won’t. The new “butterfly” keyboards were announced with great fanfare when the current MacBook Pros were unveiled. Their primary benefit, according to chief marketing officer Phil Schiller, who introduced the device in October 2016, was that they helped make the new laptops 3.1 millimeters thinner. At this point, Apple’s Geniuses seem barely fazed when another keyboard needs replacing. Repairs costing $700 are simply business-as-usual because the new MacBook Pros had to be thinner.

Others have noticed the various failings among current Apple products: awkward new gestures, the iPhone X that can now shatter on both the front and the back, MacBook Pros that are comically fragile. But what people aren’t talking about is how these failures connect to a greater shortcoming: Apple’s pursuit of making new gadgets that are easy to market instead of easy to use.


    [Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]
[Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

The problems are perhaps most glaring in the product that now generates almost all of Apple’s profits: the iPhone. Described by Tim Cook as “the biggest leap forward since the original iPhone,” the iPhone X is in fact worse than the original iPhone. It is more expensive, easier to break, and easier to drop. These aren’t limitations of the materials: Apple could easily design an iPhone that’s grippier and more durable. As some industrial designers have pointed out, you might design one with a sturdier, roomier case that acts like a natural buffer zone to the screen, You might also dedicate some of the billions that Apple spends on materials research every year on finding new textures that might be applied to metal, to make it easier to hold. Hell, you might even shape the iPhone differently, so that it had edges that sat in your hand better, à la the iPhone 5.

And yet none of these things have happened. Pebbly textures that are easier to grip would interfere with Apple’s stunningly gorgeous product photography, which makes its phones look like obelisks handed down from the angels–artifacts that you shouldn’t touch, lest you disturb their perfection. But the more glaring problem with current iPhones lies in their thinness. They simply can’t be more durable than previous generations, if they are to be thinner. It’s an instance in which the demands of a tried-and-true marketing line compete with the reality of living with a product everyday.

Sometimes this mania reaches absurd heights. With the unveiling of iOS 7–the first OS design overseen by Jony Ive–Apple stopped using Helvetica and started using Helvetica Neue. One reason: Helvetica Neue has an ultralight weight, which they then used throughout the UI so as to better underscore the fresh break with pervious generations of iOS. Get it? A thinner font was meant to signal something new . Users, however, revolted at the lack of legibility through out iOS7 and Apple quietly rolled back the use of Helvetica Neue Ultra Light. (And then ditched it altogether when the San Francisco font was released.)

Even more telling is how marketing messages about Apple’s hardware are, in the case of iPhone X, resulting in worse software. The iPhone X was touted as Apple’s decisive move into a future of all-screen smartphones that required no buttons. How did Apple replace the home button? With an awkward gesture that requires you to balance the phone on the edge of your hand, just so that your thumb can swipe up. To get to the home screen, you now have the hold the phone in a position in which you nearly drop it. A better gesture would have been natural to the way you hold the iPhone during typical use. This was the chance to get rid of one of the most precarious facets of using the iPhone, and Apple punted.

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These details may sound like quibbles, but they mean something for Apple, which has diligently suggested that it worries over details more than any other company in history. But when one of the most-used gestures on your most-profitable products straight-up sucks, that’s not a detail. It’s a birth defect.


    [Photo: AdrianHancu/iStock]
[Photo: AdrianHancu/iStock]

Only Apple Can Solve This Age-Old Dilemma

For those who live and breathe design, there’s little hope that Apple will change. The company has gone from being a champion of a user-friendly world view to being a champion of beating Wall Street’s expectations. When the iPhone came around, Apple finally found a market it could dominate outright without readily being copied. And once it found that market, Apple sat on it with all the weight that its marketing machine could bear. And it’s working. Today, 80% of teenagers prefer iPhone to Android, meaning that Apple will have little imperative to change what it’s doing.

To be fair, Apple didn’t invent the tension between designing something that merely seemed better and actually designing a better product. These opposing impulses are baked into modern product design. In the 1930s, writers such as Christine Frederick, the high priestess of planned obsolesce, were advocating the idea that the only way for America to emerge from the Great Depression was for people to buy more goods. Some manufacturers of that time took that to mean doing anything–whether it be new colors or new styling–that made the products a consumer had seem old . But against this view stood industrial designers such as Henry Dreyfuss who thought that for someone to buy something new, that thing had to better for them . This was the first inkling of user-centered design in the modern era.

Apple has been at pains to try and balance both ends of the spectrum: Products that just seem better, thanks to being thinner or more beautiful, and those that work better, thanks to new technology such as touch screens or Face ID. The problem is that its marketing has spent so long building up such a reductive definition of better technology: thinner, lighter, new features. Meanwhile, if you watch an Apple keynote today, and you’ll notice an overwhelming amount of time devoted to talk of processor speeds and technical specifications. The feature touting has begun to sound like a weird echo of the bad-old days of PC-dominated technology, when “new” computers came down to how fast their chips ran. Nowhere is Apple talking about ideas.

Apple, more than any other company, could change that paradigm. If it remade its marketing around a more user-centered view of the world, Google and Samsung and LG and Huawei would be forced to follow, then adjust. There is no other company whose users are so dialed into nuance that they’d actually listen to stories about making things easier to use, and not just more pleasing to buy. If Apple started telling those stories again, it could change not only the way we think about technology but what we demand of the goods in our lives. I hope they do. For now it’s only a hope.