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Apple’s UX Strategy: I Want To Hold Your Hand

A few thoughts about the iPhone 4 and why technology does or doesn’t catch on. I’ve yet to hold one in my hand, but like everyone else I’ve got opinions. The typical gadget review takes the device’s feature list and compares using technical measures to other devices deemed competitive. Using this methodology, it would be fairly simple to dismiss the iPhone as introducing no new features. The other lines of attack involve dropped calls on the AT&T network and the App Store approval process. For some people these two items trump any feature or user experience.

Google talks about their mission as organizing the world’s information. When I think of Apple’s mission, at least their mission for the last five years or so, it revolves around getting closer to the user in real time. The technology they build flows from that principle.

I’d like to focus on just two new iPhone 4 features. The first is the new display, here’s John Gruber’s description:

It’s mentioned briefly in Apple’s promotional video about the design of the iPhone 4, but they’re using a new production process that effectively fuses the LCD and touchscreen — there is no longer any air between the two. One result of this is that the iPhone 4 should be impervious to this dust-under-the-glass issue. More importantly, though, is that it looks better. The effect is that the pixels appear to be painted on the surface of the phone; instead of looking at pixels under glass, it’s like looking at pixels on glass. Combined with the incredibly high pixel density, the overall effect is like “live print?.

The phrase that jumped out at me was “the pixels appear to be painted on the surface of the phone; instead of looking at pixels under glass.” While it seems like a small distance, a minor detail, it’s of the utmost importance. It’s the difference between touching something and touching the glass that stands in front of something. Putting the user physically in touch with the interaction surface is a major breakthrough in the emotional value of the user experience. Of course the engineering that made this kind of display is important, but it’s the design decision to get the device ever closer to the user that drove the creation of the technology. Touch creates an emotional relationship with the device, and that makes it more than just a telephone.

In a 2007 interview at the D5 conference, Steve Jobs said:

And, you know, I think of most things in life as either a Bob Dylan or a Beatles song, but there’s that one line in that one Beatles song, “you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.

You could say that Apple’s strategy is encapsulated in the Beatles song: I Want To Hold Your Hand.

The lines that describe the feeling Jobs wants the iPhone and iPad to create are:

And when I touch you i feel happy, inside
It´s such a feeling
That my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hide

The other new feature is FaceTime. Since the launch of the iPhone 3GS it’s been possible to shoot a video of something and then email it to someone, or post it to a network location that friends and family could access. Other phones had this same capability. That’s a real nice feature in an asynchronous sort of way. One of the problems with it is it has too many steps and it doesn’t work the way telephones work. Except when things are highly dysfunctional, we don’t send each other recorded audio messages to be retrieved later at a convenient time. We want to talk in real time. FaceTime allows talk + visuals in real time.

FaceTime uses phone numbers as the identity layer and works over WiFi with iPhone 4 devices only. That makes it perfectly clear under what circumstances these kind of video calls will work. Device model and kind of connectivity are only things a user needs to know. These constraints sound very limiting, but they dispel any ambiguity around the question of whether the user will be able to get video calls to work or not.

We often look to the network effect to explain the success of a product or a new platform. Has the product reached critical mass, where by virtue of its size and connectedness it continues to expand because new users gain immediate value from its scale. The network must absolutely be in place, but as we look at this window into our new virtual world, the question is: does the product put us in touch, in high definition, in real time? The more FaceTime calls that are made, the more FaceTime calls will be made. But the system will provide full value at the point when a few family members can talk to each other. Critical mass occurs at two.

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