Steve Jobs: A Product Developer's Perspective

Steve Jobs: A Product Developer's Perspective

Steve Jobs: A Product Developer's Perspective

Brad Barbera

Originally published: 2012 (PDMA Visions Magazine Issue 1, 2012 • Vol 36 • No 1)
Read time: 12 minutes

Since the death of Steve Jobs on Oct. 5, 2011, innumerable magazine articles, a multitude of blogs and a best-selling book have been published about his life and contributions to the world. Publishing yet another retrospective would be superfluous, yet it would seem remiss for Visions, with its tagline “insights into innovation,” not to cover the passing of a man described as “the greatest innovator of our time.”1 Jobs has been eulogized with comparisons to Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. Such comparisons demand attention.

Visions strives to provide readers with thought-provoking perspectives that they can take away and apply in their daily work. We speak to a community of product and service developers, people passionate about innovation. So is there something that Steve Jobs taught us all that we can apply as innovators?

Jobs’ track record, especially in his second run at the helm of Apple, has been remark-able. When he came back in 1997, Apple was within one bad quarter of bankruptcy. Assessing the situation, he said, “The cure for Apple is not cost-cutting. The cure for Apple is to innovate its way out of its current predicament.”

And so it did. Upon Jobs’ retirement, Apple had the largest market capitalization of any company in the world and had grown in value by 115 times – an average of 42 percent per year. In that time, some of the most recognizable and influential products of this generation were brought to market: iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad.

Think Different

In the advertising campaign launched with Jobs’ return, Apple challenged the world in 1997 to “think different.” Let’s accept that challenge now. Since it seems that almost every pundit, blogger and eulogist thinks that Jobs was a great innovator, let’s “think different.” Let’s challenge that assumption and ask the near heretical question: Was Jobs actually a great innovator?

To answer such a question, one must first define innovation. In discussing the impact of Jobs with Ken Munsch, the director of New Product Business Development at Herman Miller (winner of the PDMA Outstanding Corporate Innovator Award in 1997), the subject of defining innovation came up directly. Munsch actually referenced an excellent definition from a Visions letter to the editor by Will Strobel, vice president - Innovation and Technology Strategy at Zebra Technologies, in September 2007: “Innovation is the process of successfully identifying, developing and implementing new ideas which create new value.” Other definitions abound but most have three key elements: creativity, added value and execution.

Evaluating Apple’s performance against those three criteria, there is little doubt that it is an organization that delivers innovation.

Creativity? Check. Apple’s new product launches and business models changed entire industries and consumer expectations for products. Value? Check. To become, even if temporarily, the most highly valued company in the known universe is confirmation.


Figure 1: Market Capitalization of Apple, Inc., during Steve Jobs’ second term as CEO. Source: Business Insider,

Execution? Check. Products were not only launched, they were premiered like Hollywood blockbusters, complete with lines of adoring fans anticipating their opening-day purchases and celebrating their new acquisitions throughout the blogosphere.

While Apple, Inc. is an unmitigated innovator, the question remains as to how much of that was due to Jobs himself. Was he specifically the great innovator? That answer needs a bit more qualification.

“It’s not that Steve Jobs could innovate everything and anything,” said Dr. Abbie Griffin, the Royal L. Garff presidential chair in Marketing at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, author of some of the seminal works of academic research in new product development and co-author of the forthcoming book, Serial Innovators: How Individuals in Mature Companies Create Breakthrough Products due out in April 2012. “Not to put him down as a great innovator,” Griffin goes on, “it’s just that he couldn’t develop everything and anything. He could only develop what he thought was cool, which he did extraordinarily well.”

Griffin cited history to prove her point. “The Lisa was an abject marketplace failure that Jobs loved. Early Mac had low share, because that computer met his needs but not broader market needs. And at that time, his needs were not representative of the market.”

Jobs also never did anything alone. From his famous starting partnership with Steve Wozniak, to the thousands of innovative staff and executives that are the Apple of today, to the external developers of technologies that supported Apple products, he always had plenty of help.

“At Apple, it’s not just one person. Jobs was an innovator, but so was the organization, including key senior executives,” Munsch said. “Jobs played the role of leader and key catalyst, but innovation included the whole team.”

Perhaps Jobs is given too much credit for Apple innovations? Of course, no innovator truly goes it alone, so the question is would Apple, with exactly the same people and the same available resources, have gotten to the same place without Jobs? Probably not.

“Clearly, innovation came from others much of the time, but Steve Jobs facilitated the team, exhorting them to push the bar ever higher and higher, being what every CEO must be—the Innovation Czar,” said Mark Faust, principal at Eschelon International, a strategic growth, turnaround and innovation consultancy, and author of Growth or Bust – Proven Turnaround Strategies to Grow Your Business.

To Faust, Jobs served the critical innovation role that good CEOs must play.

“Jobs was able to see potential in four different areas—the world, technology, his or-ganization and his individual team members. His greatest leadership trait was the ability to see potential, to look down the road and think about possible optimal outcomes. He then set a high bar for his organization to meet, higher than most would be willing to set. By not settling for less than all that could be, he drove incredible levels of innovation through Apple.”

Jobs himself would have agreed. “My job is not to be easy on people,” he once said. “My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.”

“Jobs was able to stand at the top of Apple and say ‘thou shalt…’ to a group of amazingly talented people who could then make his proclamations come true,” concurs Griffin. “Once he made a decision, his word became immutable.” And over his tenure at Apple, that immutable word drove unimaginable success.

So was Jobs really a great innovator? Undoubtedly.

Innovating Like Steve Jobs

Given the spectacular success of Apple over the last decade, it seems obvious that one would want to try and imitate the innovation practices of Jobs. Let’s continue to “think different,” though. Should a product and service developer really try to follow the innovation practices of Jobs? If so, is it even possible? Is Jobs replicable?
“Many look to him as a sort of impossible-to-replicate innovation god, and I think that is an unhealthy view to have about him. Many of his standards and practices can be readily copied or imitated,” suggests Faust.

Faust cites seven skills that drive innova-tion success, including:

  1. Connecting the unconnected;
  2. Respectfully challenging the status quo;
  3. Flipping perspective;
  4. Embracing constraints;
  5. Studying customers like a scientist;
  6. Experimenting; and
  7. Networking.

Jobs is famous (or to some, perhaps infamous) for exhibiting some of these skills to extraordinary levels.

Jobs excelled at connecting the unconnected and combining the previously uncombined. Even something as simple as different fonts to enhance readability and the user experience, which we now take for granted, came from Jobs combining his calligraphy class experience with computer technology, two things that are not normally mentioned in the same sentence.

“He was one of the best at looking outside his industry and technology to make things more useable and to bring additional value to the product,” said Faust.

Perhaps no business person of his generation was better known for challenging the status quo (although Jobs was not necessarily known for doing so respectfully).

George Lucas, upon learning of Jobs’ death, commented, “The magic of Steve was that while others simply accepted the status quo, he saw the true potential in everything he touched.”

Jobs himself proclaimed his irreverence—from the famous 1984 commercial, to the “Think Different” advertising campaign, to recent “PC and Mac” commercials. He trum-peted his challenge to the status quo from the mountaintops.

However, “studying customers like a scientist” is a skill that many would not attribute to Jobs. His jabs at traditional market research are famous.

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he said. Or this one: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

These quotes are often hauled out to justify discounting the voice of the customer (VOC) or bypassing it altogether.

“I worry that some of the things he said will be a negative legacy,” says Griffin. “To many would-be innovators, since it seems like he did it without talking to customers, maybe they should stop going to the customer to understand their problems.”

That is definitely a valid concern. A prime example: Innovation guru Guy Kawasaki, in his blog on “What I Learned from Steve Jobs,” posted shortly after Jobs’ death, said, “If you ask customers what they want, they will tell you, ‘Better, faster and cheaper’—that is, better sameness, not revolutionary change. They can only describe their desires in terms of what they are already using…The richest vein for tech startups is creating the product that you want to use—that’s what Steve and Woz did.”

Was ignoring the customer in favor of his own personal whims really what Jobs did, though?

Witness this commentary about the development of the iPod Touch as reported in a New York Times interview with Jobs in 2009:

Originally, we weren’t exactly sure how to market the Touch. Was it an iPhone without the phone? Was it a pocket computer? What happened was, what customers told us was, they started to see it as a game machine,” he said. “We started to market it that way, and it just took off. And now what we really see is it’s the lowest-cost way to the App Store, and that’s the big draw. So what we were focused on is just reducing the price to $199. We don’t need to add new stuff. We need to get the price down where everyone can afford it.2 (Emphasis added by author.)

Clearly, Jobs did not reject listening to customers. He changed the iPod Touch positioning based on listening to consumers, and it worked. First, he gained the insight from customers that it was, in their minds, a gaming machine. Then he listened to their needs for low-cost access to the app store, and he delivered against that need. Jobs absolutely studied and listened to the consumer.

Listening to the voice of the customer is decidedly not about asking the customer to tell you what they want and then you go and make it. As Gerry Katz, former contributing editor to Visions, pointed out in the January 2006 issue, “In their groundbreaking 1993 paper on the topic, Abbie Griffin and John Hauser make clear the distinction between needs and solutions to needs—a concept which is perhaps the cornerstone of VOC and a distinction that every VOC practitioner clearly understands. Yet many…practitioners too often make the mistake of asking the customer to give them the solution. And since most customers aren’t all that creative, they simply play back what they already know; namely, those features and solutions that already exist in the marketplace. The result? Disappointing ‘me-too’ products.”

Jobs, perhaps because his needs ultimately aligned so well with the needs of the marketplace, was very aware of the difference between customer needs and customer solutions, and he responded adeptly to the needs with his own solutions.

Strategically, Jobs didn’t just learn from his own experiments and research. He was a keen observer of the experience of others. PDMA distinguishes between two types of innovation-leading strategies (actually four, but two of them—defender and reactor—in-volve avoiding innovation, not leading it). Prospectors are industry leaders, going for first-to-market advantages with their products. Analyzers are fast followers, quickly assessing the experiences of the leaders, then following with their own, hopefully superior solutions. If Jobs believed that consumers couldn’t know what they wanted until they saw something, he also believed that it didn’t necessarily have to be him that showed it to them. Others could show them, and he could act upon the customer response himself.

When introducing people to the concept of prospector and analyzer, I will ask people to name a prospector, and frequently Jobs and Apple come up. However, Apple under Jobs was actually the consummate analyzer. Apple rarely embarked into new-to-the-world products and famously took technologies developed elsewhere. What Apple has done exceptionally well is to bring technologies together with insights on existing products to make them “insanely great.” The graphical user interface (GUI) and computer mouse invented at Xerox PARC, the actual prospector, were successfully commercialized in the Mac by Jobs, the analyzer (albeit through some painful learning with the Lisa). Personal computers existed before the Apple I and II and long before the Mac. MP3 players existed before the iPod. Cell phones existed long before the iPhone. Napster existed before iTunes. Tablet computers existed well before the iPad. Jobs and Apple didn’t invent so much as rethink, optimize and elevate.

This is reflected in their research and development (R&D) spending. In recent years, Apple has spent only about 3 perfect of revenues on R&D. Compare that to Microsoft, which spends in the 13-14 percent range. Which company is recognized as the better innovator?

Jobs was no King Midas, though. Not everything he touched turned to gold. The Apple III, which was the first Apple computer to be built completely from the ground up rather than assembled from existing components, was a major failure. Lisa, the first commercial personal computer to employ the GUI and mouse, was a flop. Apple TV has not taken off. The Apple G4 Cube, with industrial design that earned it a place in the New York Museum of Modern Art, never sold.

“Serial innovators have lots of failures,” Griffin said. “They learn from them. Part of Jobs’ success was that he kept swinging the bat after his failures. Serial innovators recognize that innovation can be a numbers game, so you need to keep trying. Jobs took lots of swings, more than other people, and some of them paid off huge.”

When Jobs did succeed, he let the world know. This, too, is a critical component of leading innovation. According to Faust, “The last two steps in a good innovation process are to communicate success and celebrate it, and Jobs did that exceptionally well. He used his showmanship skills to combine celebrating success with marketing. His launches communicated to the world that something ‘insanely great’ was here, and he did it in a way that celebrated the team that was responsible. It was not just a product launch, but an unveiling.” Apple products are treated like works of art, not just tech gadgets.

While Jobs is famous for elevating the importance of delivering value through design, translucent computer cases, brushed aluminum laptop shells and sleek black cell phones are only part of that story. “Design is not just about aesthetics. ‘Style’ is not interchangeable with ‘design.’ Many products have sleek style but are not well-designed,” Munsch said. “Sharper Image specialized in sleek, modern style and filed for bankruptcy. Beautiful is not enough, the product must be useful. Design includes the whole human interface. Jobs insisted that Apple products be human centered—designed for people, purposeful and solving a problem. Every aspect of the product relates to that problem. The result is that people want to own what he made. Total customer experience is what design is, not just shape, color, size and style. It’s not just visual, and it’s not just tactile. It’s experiential.”

Hans Hoffman, the scientist/mathematician turned painter, is famously quoted as saying, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Jobs pushed Apple in precisely that direction, making every detail of the Apple product experience as simple and intuitive as possible. Attention to every detail, from the online interface of iTunes to the opening of an iPad package is simple and intuitive. Controls with a myriad of buttons labeled in fonts requiring a magnifying glass to read became a simple wheel button or touch screen with straight-forward interface that requires no operating manual.

You don’t have to be a designer to recognize the importance and value of good design and to insist on it being an integral part of the innovation process. Rather, it takes ensuring that the problem being solved in any innovation effort is a human problem and then relentlessly asking how the solutions proposed relate to the problem being solved. The foundation for being able to do this is empathy for the human being whose problem you are solving.

Here, Jobs had a distinct advantage. “Jobs designed products that he personally found to be ‘insanely great,’ and he happened to be at the center of the marketplace. It’s much easier to create products for yourself than for someone else. Jobs happened to be at the center of what was needed and wanted, and it worked,” Griffin said.
Indeed, my industry experience confirms this sentiment. Most independent inventors that brought their ideas to my companies had clearly designed the products for themselves. In most of those cases, it was obvious, and often painfully so, that few others either shared the same problem or the same desire for the particular solution being presented.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that many customers will be willing to remove the upholstery from their living room chairs to attach this product, even if it does make it simpler to store a laptop,” was one comment I remember making to an inventor, who received the feedback with utter distress on his face. He had designed the product for himself, without regard for the masses. In his mind, his invention was just as insanely great as an iPad. The difference for Jobs, though, was that the products that were insanely great to him were aligned with what the marketplace believed to be insanely great.

Jobs didn’t stop at just developing the products, though. He developed and drove the systems and supports that would make the individual products worth having. He changed the music industry to support iTunes, which, in turn, supported both the iPod and iPhone. He basically created the apps industry, making the iPhone amazingly functional and customizable.

“Jobs not only had good sensibility regarding customer needs, he also understood the need to develop an eco-system that is self-reinforcing, like iTunes and the apps store,” Munsch said. “He had uncanny skill with design of the total customer experience, not just the physical product. All activities surrounding the product are very intuitive. Simplicity, intuitive operation and easy downloading are what made iPod a success. The ability to change the business model of the music industry was a remarkable execution of good economics by creating a cohesive eco-system of the players.”

The individual skills of Jobs are certainly reproducible. Putting all of those skills together in one person is certainly possible, although uncommon. But beyond the skills, Jobs had a unique collection of experiences that enhanced and heightened those skills.

“He had experience as an entrepreneur, as a start-up CEO, as a fired CEO, as the NeXT creator, as investor and board member of Pixar, as turnaround CEO, and ultimately as leader of a market icon,” Munsch said. “That’s a wide-ranging track record. It demonstrates not just his innovation ability but also his personal and professional development. He improved as businessman throughout that span.”

There is indeed much to be learned from Jobs and his contributions to the world through the development of innovative new goods and services. He brought many special skills and a passionate drive together in a unique way. While his professional accomplishments are certainly laudable, this does not mean that his abilities are unapproachable.

As Faust said, “There is so much that we have to look at and observe and be inspired by with regards to his accomplishments, but we should never be intimidated by who he was.”

Will we see a Jobs equivalent? Only time will tell. But there are undoubtedly others, with their own unique combination of skills, experience and personality, who can drive innovations and organizations that fulfill Jobs’ motivation of “going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful…that’s what matters to me.”


1Do a Google search on “Steve Jobs innovator of our time” and you’ll see just how many people express this sentiment in articles, blogs and polls.

2“Steve Jobs on Amazon and Ice Cream,” by David Pogue, New York Times, Sept. 9, 2009.

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