Opinion: Groupthink, Apple and product design

"Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." -- Frank Zappa.

Welcome to the age of stupid. No, I'm not referring to Europe's new plan to steal ordinary people's savings in order to rescue a broken banking system, instead I'm looking to the seeming lack of vision when it comes to Apple [AAPL] reporting.

Think for yourself

Look around and you see "same old, same old." You see the same headlines; the same reporters with the same slant delivering the same hopes, fears and optimisms. It's a Google News-inspired "group think" that ultimately discourages originality and reflection. It's a disease. What's the cure?

One nugget on the Apple News And Rumor Radio Network (ANRRN) this morning looks at the latest book by Atari founder, Nolan Bushnell, who writes: "Very few companies would hire Steve [Jobs], even today."

Steve Jobs was a round peg in a square hole, he offended other Atari employees, but he had a spark to him that Bushnell recognized and respected. A spark that's hard to find. His was an original voice.

Perhaps that's what we should be seeking? Perhaps at this stage in the evolution of the Internet (perhaps of the human race, and certainly of the economy) we should be ignoring groupthink and seeking out those who strive to find something original to say.

Ask questions

What might such people be saying when it comes to today's big story concerning the Chinese administration and its seeming anger with Apple?

Perhaps they'd be asking what might be the subtext for the current tension? They might speculate over who Apple has upset within that country's government, and what they seek from the firm? They might even ask if the challenge is all about Apple, or part of some wider political agenda concerning China's relationship with the US.

Some might even think the friction actually is about consumer rights in China, while others might speculate that by raising working conditions across the Apple manufacturing chain, the company has inadvertently made it difficult for Chinese firms to continue to churn out cheap goods at prices less well-heeled (read: declining) technology firms are willing to pay.

Perhaps it's about the need to keep manufacturing costs low, a state-sponsored attempt to punish one of the country's biggest customers in an attempt to avoid manufacturing costs climbing higher, which would inevitably lead so many less ethical firms currently outsourcing manufacture to China to get their products made elsewhere.

Who knows?

Be foolish

It's tough enough figuring out what motivates our own politicians and state-sponsored media outlets in what they decide to do and say -- it's clearly much harder to speculate on what's behind Apple's Chinese problem. It's a great deal easier to skip any attempt at analysis and simply follow the headline. Which is what's happening, of course -- it always does.

When I went to University (twice) I had expected to meet professors who would be able to explain the basics of the universe through the behavior of a raindrop. These wise men and women would be able to seize a simple analogy and extend it to explain the most complex philosophies with great clarity and simplicity.

Some readers may have been lucky enough to encounter people who could navigate reality in this way. I did not. Instead I found that even within higher education the challenge isn't one of forging new realities and fostering fresh understanding, but of regurgitation, repetition and conformity. Yet another expression of what I call, "group think."

Perhaps this is why Jobs chose to drop out of college. He wasn't learning how to distill reality into simple expression. He wasn't connecting with his creativity.

Jobs is dead, but you don't have to look too far to find his artistic/creative expression. He took his passion for technology and transformed this into his art form. The Mac, iPad, iMac, iPod, iPhone -- these products expressed a desire to distill complexity into something simple.

Apple and product design

[ABOVE: Want to make something good? Look to where science meets the arts.]

Science meets Art

The results were in some way equipped with a simplicity that connects to the nature of the human. Hence Apple's hallowed 'Human Interface Guidelines,' a testament now curated by chief designer and former friend of Jobs, Jony Ive.

What's important to remember is that crafting simplicity within complexity can't be rushed. It's not about reaching the market first with a product, service or idea -- it's about reaching market with a product, service or idea that is executed with precision. Those achievements that most resonate deliver complex solutions within a parcel that's almost intuitively understood -- to use an analogy, it's about sculpting simplicity from a granite block of complexity.

The iPod was and is a perfect expression of such an attempt: all its components had demanded years of evolution before they were ready to be used in that way. The iPhone was another -- after all, it contained as much processing power as the iMac released a decade before. Achieving that within a mobile device took years. The iPad delivered a similar quantum leap.

Creating such things takes time.

A hungry planet

We're sensation-seekers these days. Equipped with short attention spans we're grabbing for new data from all manner of sources, we flick between TV channels, social networks, books, magazines, radio. We're almost hyperactive in our hunger for new sensation. An ADHD generation seemingly obsessed not with where the puck is going, but where the puck has been.

This obsession is reflected in our analysts, who demand Apple entertains us, transforms new industries and delivers new sensations every couple of years, or else they castigate the firm for failing to feed this hunger for change.

Successful product design is about developing solutions that answer actual need, rather than those that simply sound attractive. It demands the identification of what consumers need and the capacity to field complex solutions within vehicles simple enough users intuitively understand what they do. Delivering such solutions demands focus, originality, risk and time.

Can Apple continue to deliver such solutions, straddling that point between science and the arts? If it cannot, who can? Can anyone? One thing I'm fairly sure of is that these things won't emerge through imitation or listening to critics or analysts. It certainly won't emerge through groupthink.

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when these items are published here first on Computerworld.

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