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How design enabled Apple’s turnaround story in 1997

Industrial design was instrumental in reviving Apple’s fortune.  In 1996, Apple was in trouble.  Its market share was falling, and its share price was at below $5, 12 year low.  Second quarter results in 1996 reported Apple losing $700+ million. 

In December 1996, Apple bought NeXT Computer.  The deal closed at $427 million.  Apple got two things with this deal – foundation for the next generation operating system and Steve Jobs.  Steve Jobs was back at Apple.

On his second day of the job, Steve met with top analysts and journalists to explain his plan to turn Apple around.  Steve believed Apple lost ground in the market because it tried to be everything to everybody.  Steve emphasized getting back to meeting the needs of Apple’s core customers.  Industrial design was at the core of this strategy to turn around the company.

In 1998, Apple began shipping iMac.  iMac was an immediate success in the market and enabled Apple’s turnaround story.  From design and business perspective, iMac was the first of many products that turned industrial design into reality and made almost the same impact as the original Macintosh did in 1984.  Share price rose from below $5 in 1997 to $12+ in 1998 to $35+ in 2000, a 600+% jump in ~3 years. 

Key Learnings

  • Industrial design saved Apple. The share price of Apple started to climb after the launch of initial iMac.
    • Designing iMac and successive products was done with existing team. The company was largely saved by existing team.
    • Good design is a language, not a style – Massimo Vignelli.  Apple put industrial design at its forefront by applying its principles repeatedly and iteratively to successive versions of iMac and other products. Read more about what do you stand to lose in the absence of good design?
    • Aesthetics is leverage.  The aesthetic-usability effect refers to users’ tendency to perceive attractive products as more usable. People tend to believe that things that look better will work better. Apple’s success is an excellent example of the competitive advantage of paying attention to aesthetics.
  • Innovation was constant, rapid and iterative.  The iteration of design was done from concept to manufacturing to launch.
    • The design language of the product kept evolving.  The product is built, tested and reviewed, then the design team improves on it and it’s built all over again. This cycle takes at least 4-6 weeks at a time and may be run many times over a product’s development lifecycle.
    • This is a very costly approach, but it is one reason that Apple has a reputation for quality. The more you invest in design including user research and rapid prototyping with the goal of improving usability and user experience, the more likely you are to build incredible market transforming products.
    • The design that led to success was in styling and bordering the iMac
      • All changes were to the external appearance on the front side of the glass than internal look, feel or behavior
      • Apple did not redefine computing, it simply redefined how the computer looked like
  • Executive vision was key to the success of this strategy.  If you do not have the vision, will and power at the highest level, the talent is almost certain to remain wasted and frustrated.
    • Giving designers the liberty to design, innovate and make sure that the product they turn out fulfill their customer’s visions
    • Giving design team an independent reporting structure rolling upto Apple executive team
    • There were failures along the way, but applying the learnings from failures was key to the success
      • If Steve Jobs had played it safe and not risked failure, he would have never succeeded the way he did
      • Risk can be mitigated by having the right tools, right training, right technique, right partners, so on and so forth, but risk can never be eliminated

Industry adopts design at its core

Many other companies have included design at the core of their organizational strategy.  This includes Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Spotify, Medium, IKEA, Lego and others. 

Google adopts Material Design, a visual language that synthesizes the classic principles of good design with the innovation of technology and science.   

Facebook supports a design process that is super free, intense and fast paced. 

Read more about how do you design something really well.

What has most value

For me it is:

  • Executive vision that focuses on core customers
  • Culture that supports fail fast, fail often through rapid experimentation
  • Iterative learning to design solutions – better, cheaper, faster

What is at the heart of your organization ?

How does your organization drive innovation ?

Do share in the comments!

Like this article ? How about giving it a like and share ? Thank you!

Design Design Thinking Innovation Prototyping Startup Tools Usability User Experience

What are some of the good tools for UX design

Many UX tools have come and gone.  Many others have evolved and continue to build on that.  Every UX researcher and designer has their favorite tools.  The new generation of tools support remote collaboration, designing in the browser, ability to access designs anywhere any time across any platform, built-in asset libraries and more.  UX Design is a practice where tools and frameworks shape your ideas into reality. Having said that, asking the right question is important.  Asking ‘what UX tool should you use’ will box you into particular set of tools. Instead, ‘what design activity you need to perform’ is a better question. 

Ask meaningful questions
Image Credit:

At the end of the day, you should not be confined to only the tools.  Improving your problem solving ability using design thinking should be the primary focus.  Tools are only an enabler to your design sensibility. This is a message I share with my students in the courses I teach. Read more about how do you solve the most pressing problems for your customers

I discuss four aspects in this article –

  1. What are some of the free to use UX tools
  2. What are the some of the paid UX tools
  3. How to learn UX tools
  4. How to choose the right UX tools

I’ll be updating this article whenever I come across new UX tools that I think will help you in becoming a better researcher and designer. Do subscribe to my blog to get automatic updates.

What are some of the free to use tools for UX design

Many free to use tools are available for most stages of the design thinking process. These tools are good for students and beginner level UX professionals.  Get hands-on with the tool, experiment with it, learn from the experimentation – an easy way to choose the right tool.

BrainstormingGoogle Documents
User FlowsWireflow,
UI Designframe box, iPhone mockup
PrototypingOrigami Studio, InVision
Design HandoffFigma (free plan), InVision (free plan)
Design SystemsInVision DSM (free plan)
User TestingZoom

Read more about ideation including brainstorming.

Read more about how rapid prototyping helps save time, cost, effort.

What are some of the paid tools for UX design

Many paid tools are available for every stage of the design thinking process. Most paid tools let you try them out for free.  The trials are time and feature limited.  Here’s a wonderful compilation of tools that the industry has used in 2020. This is a must read for anyone interested in learning more about the tools of the trade.

The rise of remote work has pushed the adoption of tools like Miro for brainstorming, Figma for user flows, Maze and Lookback for user testing.  Miro has seen massive growth in 2020 (560%, 5% to 33% adoption by survey respondents).  Figma is popular because it supports designing in the browser and enables collaboration.  The table below summarizes the results of 2020 Design Tools Survey done by

ActivityMost Rated PrimaryMost Rated Secondary
UI DesignFigmaAffinity Designer
Design SystemsFigmazeroheight
User TestingMazeLookback

If you are looking for a minimal set of tools for your design process, consider the following.   Figma is rated 4 or higher across most design activities. 

User FlowsFigma
UI DesignFigma
Design HandoffFigma
Design SystemsFigma
User TestingMaze

As you know, I do not earn anything from these recommendations, nor do I have affiliation with these companies.  I’ve tried to be as objective as feasible.

How to learn UX tools

Learning, thinking, and writing should not be about accumulating knowledge, but about becoming a different person —Sönke Ahrens

The right learning network brings the right knowledge when you need it.  Steve Jobs cultivated a learning network that was a major contributor to his massive success. By plugging into the right learning network, you harness the knowledge of other accelerated learners.  Strategy evolves as lessons are learned.  A good strategy might be executing a suboptimal plan at a fast pace.  Move faster to learn faster.  Learning is a marathon and perfection is a weighted vest. 

There are 3 ways to learn any tool –

  1. Learn from free tutorials provided by the toolmakers
  2. Learn by using the tool
  3. Learn from external resources and courses

Generally, learning from free tutorials and practicing by using the tools would suffice.  Sometimes learning from external courses and resources may help, especially when working with advanced tools.  For example, you may learn from video tutorials on YouTube.

Learn by using the tool

Design each part of your learning around practicing.  Practicing by using the tools is important.  Practicing with intent sticks!  Make practicing with intent a primary value.  First, think about what you’re doing.  Then, think about how to do it.   Practicing with intent ensures you’re using the tool in a realistic setting.  Build solutions that work for your users. Read more about how to measure quality of user experience and goals of product.

Doers need to think, and thinkers need to do – Matt Purcell
Doers need to think, and thinkers need to do – Matt Purcell

Image Credit: cartoonstock

What has most value

It is essential to have good tools, but it is also essential that the tools be used in the right way – Wallace D Wattles

Choosing the right UX tools is an important decision.  If you choose the wrong one, the impact you make through your design work will suffer.  Because you have to show your design deliverables to stakeholders regularly.  I find 6 key criteria that matter when choosing the right UX tool.

UsefulnessDoes the tool solve your problem ?  How good is the solution ?
Learning curveIs the learning curve steep ?
Ease of useIs the tool easy-to-use on a day-to-day basis ?
Ease of collaborationDoes the tool make it easy to share your work with others ?
Ease of integrationDoes the tool integrate easily with other tools that you use or planning to use ? Does it make the handoff between design phases easy ?
CostHow expensive is the license ?

If a tool exceeds expectations in all 6 criteria – congratulations, never let it go!

I’ll be updating this article whenever I come across new UX tools that I think will help you in becoming a better researcher and designer. Do subscribe to my blog to get automatic updates.

What are your favorite tools that you have been using ?

Do share in the comments!

Like this article ?  How about giving it a like and share ?  Thank you!