The Apple design process of demos, decisions and feedback with Ken Kocienda [Apple Chat podcast]

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Former Apple programmer Ken Kocienda has written a great insiders account of how the company makes its products.
Former Apple programmer Ken Kocienda has written a great insiders account of how the company makes its products.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

“It’s this long process of demos and decisions and feedback that creates this long, iterative progression … that leads you from not-very-promising ideas to products you can ship.”

Curious what it was like to work at Apple during its Golden Age of design? What exactly did the creative process look like? On this episode of the Apple Chat podcast, I sit down with Ken Kocienda, a programmer who spent 15 years at Apple during the Steve Jobs era. He worked on the first versions of the Safari web browser, iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. His new book, Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs, chronicles his experiences working at the company and offers an inside look at the creative process that made the team successful.

On the podcast, Kocienda discusses his role in the development of the iOS keyboard, explaining how text entry evolved and offering insight into the autocorrect algorithm. He walks us through the Darwinian process of creative selection, describing how the demo pyramid functioned to provide feedback and move an idea from prototype to product. Listen in for his experience presenting a demo to Jobs himself and learn how the original spirit of the Macintosh lives on at Apple today!

Key takeaways

The themes of Kocienda’s book, Creative Selection

  • Personal view of Apple’s product development culture
  • Inside look at Steve Jobs era

Kocienda’s early days at Apple

  • Joined in summer of 2001
  • Answering question: What comes after PC?

Kocienda’s role as a generalist

  • Not “mathematical” (intuitive feel for numbers)
  • Focus on high-level software users interact with

Kocienda’sconcerns in working on the iOS keyboard

  • Newton failed due to inability to input text well
  • Success of iPhone hinged on working touchscreen keyboard

Apple’s iPhone text-entry development effort

  • All engineers became keyboard engineers
  • Tried out crazy ideas like piano keyboard, Morse code

The creative selection process of product development

  • Create demo and show to colleagues
  • Iterate based on feedback
  • Regular check-in with managers, executives

How creative selection serves as a Darwinian process

  • Evolving ideas
  • Start with rough demo, make fit for task

Kocienda’s experience presenting a demo to Steve Jobs

  • Intimidating, brutal in criticism
  • Faith in team’s judgement (decisiveness)

The complexity of the autocorrect algorithm

  • Used Zipf’s law to predict word frequency
  • Balanced with potential proximity mistakes
  • Considerations around profanity, hate speech

Apple’s mission to merge technology and the liberal arts

  • Best of hardware/software and design/culture
  • Technology needed to ‘melt away’

Kocienda’s experience working with Scott Forstall

  • Built strong teams, culture
  • Fed best ideas to Steve Jobs as DRI

Steve Jobs’ approach to software demos

  • Slow and deliberate (30 seconds before touch screen)
  • Charmless conference room with no windows

How Steve Jobs prepared for his keynotes

  • Month of daily work, direct role in creating slides
  • Four dress rehearsals in days leading up to keynote

Kocienda’s inspiration for writing Creative Selection

  • Reflect on what made team successful
  • Tell stories of seven essential elements

The design process at Apple today

  • Same intention to merge design with tech
  • Steve Jobs irreplaceable as “ultimate editor”

Connect with Ken Kocienda

Creative Selection

Ken Kocienda on Twitter

Ken Kocienda on LinkedIn

Resources

Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs by Ken Kocienda

Cult of Mac on Facebook

Cult of Mac on Twitter

Cult of Mac Store

Apple Chat on iTunes