Apple vs. Lean Startups

apple_vs_leanRecently, Andrew Chen has been mulling over the differences between Apple’s approach to product design and (a) the typical corporate approach and (b) the “lean startups” approach. In a recent post, he proposed the idea of a “minimal desirable product” to try to blend Apple’s approach and the lean startups approach.

I kind of agree with him, but his formulation makes my head hurt.

Apple’s design strategy is to work behind closed doors to build kick ass products that blow you away. They make design choices (like killing sub-par projects) that would make other companies cringe. By working behind closed doors, they are counting on their own design and vision instead of letting the market do the design. Sometimes, they succeed (iPhone) and sometimes they fail (AppleTV so far). When they get it right, they build stuff that is so desirable that people cannot believe their eyes.

The lean startups approach is to build the minimal thing that can possibly sell, get it out there, and then to iterate quickly. The lean startups philosophy says that no central planner can ever outsmart the market, so it’s dangerous to try to design behind closed doors. Instead of wasting time trying to build the perfect product, lean startups get it out there quickly and spend their time listening to the market and iterating.

Both approaches make sense. And it makes sense to ask what one approach might learn from the other. However, the middle ground between Apple’s approach of building the “most desirable product” and the lean startups approach of building a “minimal product” is not to build a “minimal desirable product.” That formulation doesn’t even make sense. So I should only somewhat kick ass? Or minimally kick ass? Could the iPhone have been “desirable” without animation? Probably. Would it have been as successful? Probably not.

Why is “minimal” important?

Building minimal products is important because product teams are notoriously bad at building good products.

Featuritis: Given more resources, a team will typically add more features instead of polishing the features they already have, on the theory that more features = more market share. “Hey! We have more time so let’s make our microwave play CDs. People like to listen to music while cooking, right?”

Listening to customers is hard: You must listen to your customers to understand what their problems are, but you absolutely cannot trust them to tell you how to design a solution for it. They’ll tell you that your product should automatically scan their inbox, and when you build exactly what they told you to build, they’ll hate it.

Killer features are counterintuitive: When we were working on Dreamweaver, we got some things really right and some things really wrong. Round trip HTML was really important. Layout Table view wasn’t popular, and we spent a lot of time on it. It’s really hard to distinguish between killer features and phantom killer features that look good on paper but don’t end up being killer features after all.

You may have the wrong market in mind: When doing design in a closed room, you have a specific market in mind. Meanwhile, your product idea may be best suited to a slightly different market. Spending months and months refining and adding to a product with the first market hypothesis in mind may actually put you behind the eight ball in pivoting to your actual market.

Minimal products means quicker iteration: This is an obvious statement, but this is one of the most important benefits of building a minimal product. Large products with lots of features are like battleships, and while there is a time and place for battleships, they are hard to steer. Smaller, more nimble products may outrun you.

Why is “minimal” dangerous?

Starting with a minimal product and iterating have a lot of advantages, but this approach also has a few disadvantages.

The MVP -> iterate process may not lead to joy: When you play with a well designed product, you are filled with a sense of joy. The whole mindset around minimal+iterate may lead to that sense of joy, but more likely than not, it leads to prioritizing function over design. Capability over joy.

Minimal products may not be a good test of the market: Sometimes, doing something minimal is the best way to dip your toe into a market. And sometimes, you may get a false negative because the thing you build “minimally” tells you that the market isn’t there.

You may end up cutting corners you wish you hadn’t Best summarized here.

Proper minimal design: Build half a product, not a half-assed product

This advice, of course, is from 37 Signals. It seems like just yesterday that these guys were the supposed gurus on building great products and now it’s other people who are the gurus. We should take everyone’s advice with a grain of salt, of course, but in this case, I think the 37 Signals guys have it right.

Focusing on design is not right for every lean startup. It really depends on the market you’re going after and the problem you’re trying to solve. But if you do need to focus on design, then I think it’s even more important to focus on the core essence of what you have and discard everything else. Be ruthless in cutting functionality to boil your product down to its core essence (no cut and paste in iPhone, right?) but then hone and polish and rethink the crap out what’s left until it elicits joy. And then follow the lean startup model to find customer fit.

Making a small product is hard (“I would have written less if I had more time”) but polishing a small product is easier than polishing a big product with a bunch of extraneous features. And when you get it right, you will have a thing of beauty.

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