7 things Apple’s ex-iOS chief, Scott Forstall told us about product design

Former Apple executive Scott Forstall recently shared several insights into how he thinks about product design.

Apple, iOS, Scott Forstall, Steve Jobs, Apple TV, iPod
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Former Apple executive Scott Forstall recently spoke with thePhilosophy Talkshow, for a wide-ranging chat during which he offered rare insights into how Apple once thought about product design.

Who is Scott Forstall?

Stanford alumni, Scott Forstall began working with Steve Jobs back in 1992 when he took a position at NeXT.

When Jobs moved to Apple, Forstall followed, eventually becoming Apple’s senior vice president of iOS software.

He left the company in 2012 following the great Apple Maps debacle, and is now a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer. This means he has deep insight into how the company used to think about product design.

Here are seven insights taken from the show, which he revealed on social media.

1. Creativity is everything

Forstall took pains to explain the similarities between talented Broadway creatives and technology start-ups. Both require creative individuals committed to building something brand new from scratch – creative thinking is an essential first step to starting something new.

2. Break stuff

The former Apple exec also told a story about the success of the iPod. That product became so successful the company soon delivered another device in the form of the iPod mini, which itself became one of the most popular consumer electronic gadgets on the market, only for Apple to cancel the product weeks before it launched the iPod nano.

As Forstall explains it, Apple was pretty happy with iPod mini sales but during development of the nano the company realised it was about to offer something even better. “We cancelled the mini line before we even shipped the new product,” he said. “It could have destroyed the company.”

History shows it didn’t, but this little slice of history also shows that product designers must take risks and that firms must never fear destruction of an existing system to make way for something new.

3. Give teams space to grow in

Take it from me, finding something fresh to create on a daily basis is sometimes tough and takes a lot from those around you. And yet, in some creative industries those who make things are expected to deliver to those kinds of deadlines. This can lead to different forms of burn out.

Forstall’s solution?

When he ran the Mac OS teams he would give team members a month in which they could work on their own projects after a major OS release was finalized. These projects could then be shared with management, some even became products.

4. Let creativity flow up

There’s a temptation in management to demand the best from employees while also trying to take the credit for every idea.

This kind of system ultimately wrecks a company’s design potential, as people lower down the chain decline to make creative contributions in fear of their idea being taken without recognition.

It’s a much better system to give people the chance to be creative and to feed good ideas in a more collaborative stance. The Apple TV user interface was invented by an employee during the post Mac OS release furlough.

"Apple TV was invented because someone was encouraged to do whatever they wanted for a month and we turned it into a product,” said Forstall.

5. Diversity is creative

The former Apple executive also spoke up for diversity when building teams. He points out that in many cases people who do well in the technology sector are those from multi-disciplinary backgrounds. Teams staffed entirely by former STEM students may lack the creative flexibility to think differently about challenges. It’s good to mix things up.

“Anyone can be creative,” Forstall said, telling the story of his farmer father who created his own solutions that helped him in his work.

Forstall also extolled the virtue of his wide-ranging education and how it informed his creative work.

“Creating the keyboard for the iPhone required all sorts of different disciplines and I woldn’t have had that,” he said.

6. Morality and ethics

Creativity is very important, but companies developing these technologies should also maintain moral and ethical responsibility in this creation and use of those products. As an example, Forstall pointed to the negative ways social media and other technologies have been used in ways that damage society.

7. The value of humans

Like so many of the people at the top of the tech tree, Forstall wants people to moderate their use of mobile devices. At home, he refrains from using the device at the dinner table as that’s a time for human interaction.

You’ll find more insights into how he thinks in the interview which is available here – you’ll also find deep discussions around philosophy and more. It's all rather interesting. 

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