I have been listening to a pair of interviews with Jonathan Ive (Chief Design Officer at Apple) that have been playing on Charlie Rose– PBS. What follows are the thoughts that have come to mind as I listened to those interviews.
First, Apple is a luxury brand that can afford to do things “different” because of their special place as one of the few successful purveyors of luxury products in the consumer electronics industry. Apple is proud of finishing parts that aren’t ever even seen by the consumer—because “they would know if they didn’t.” They see this obsession with finishes as part of a strategy (paying attention to all of the details, whether they individually make a difference to the customer’s experience) to materially differentiate their products from the rest of the market. And, I believe that it does. A company that is concerned about the quality of the parts you don’t see has to be absolutely meticulous about the ones you do see and actively use. And, from a hardware (and software) engineering point of view the attention to detail shows.
But because Apple does it, is it objectively right? I would say no. Luxury brands (whether it be Apple, Ralph Lauren or Mercedes Benz) tend to, as part of their raison d’etre over-finish their products. That is what their clients want. And, it pays off.
For example, when Mercedes, which was known for over engineering its cars started to build them to a “price point”, people noticed and it hurt the brand. People expected that vault-like feel and a product that didn’t begin to creak and groan after a year’s hard use. Mercedes has tuned its product to (mostly) meet the expectations of its buyers and produce vehicles that are once again, “Mercedes”. And, that makes their customers very happy.
Chevrolet on the other hand is a brand that has to build it cars to a price point. They win if the cars that they produce exceed the norm for cars (Honda, Toyota, Ford, Chrysler) that they compete with, not meet some (admittedly ephemeral) concept of perfection.
On a similar note, I bought a very nice (really good sound) NAD D3020 integrated amplifier. I loved it, but every time I changed the volume, I cringed. The volume knob was cheap. I actually sent a letter to the product manager for the amplifier mentioning this. He responded that they had thought about spending several extra dollars on a knob with better “tactile characteristics”, but decided that they needed to invest in the sound (it being an amplifier) not the feel. They had built the product to a price point. If I had wanted good feeling knobs, I should have bought a McIntosh—not the Apple product, but a high end amplifier.
Most brands are not Mercedes and can’t afford (actually their customers can’t afford) the level of obsession in the finishes on their product that a brand like Mercedes can.
So, most brands can’t afford (in many different ways) to put the kind of time, energy and money into producing products that have the attention to detail that is found in an Apple product. Instead, they need to remember to understand what their customer needs, build something to that standard (and maybe a little more) and the product will be a success.
The second set of thoughts have to do with the concept of perfection. Jonathan Ives talks about perfection as being an aspiration (he states it a bit differently, but I think this is what he means) and not a place that you can ever really get to. I would add a couple of attributes to that description. First, I believe that the measure of what constitutes perfection changes over time. This, to me, is inextricably tied to the idea of continuous improvement, which states that there is always another set of flaws to be attended to and compels one to find the flaws and fix them. That implies that each generation of products should be better and the bar that defines perfection must be higher.
As a product planner I believe that a product design should always shoot for perfection. And, that perfection is this context is means: 1) meeting (no, slightly exceeding) the customers’ expectations relative to the features of the product, i.e. how it works; 2) that the product has no flaws; and 3) that the product can be delivered at a price point that is expected by the client. This means that “perfection”, in this context is often situational. The Mercedes and Chevy buyers are going to have (at least in terms of their buying decision) a different idea of what constitutes the perfect car.
There is much more to the interview (broken into two parts) than I have covered here. I strongly recommend it. You can access it from Charlie Rose’s web site.