Prepared for my Stanford course, BUS 135: Unleashing Creative Innovation & Building Great Products (aka “Enlightened Innovation”), Summer 2016
In October 2001, with a few simple words, Apple announced the iPod.
For many who read this intro, or watched the short-lived first iPod ad or ventured out to the first two Apple Stores or the nearest big box electronics retailer, the iPod debut was the first taste of a new mode of music: one that transcended the vinyl grooves, magnetic tape, or iridescent discs that had delivered it before. With iPod’s launch, mainstream markets were introduced to the concept of music delivered as a digital file, analogous to the documents they saved to their hard drives or software downloaded from disks.
Note: although peer-to-peer file sharing was possible on the nascent Internet circa 2001, it had yet to “cross the chasm” into mainstream use and was often associated with pirated content, à la Napster.
This was “music virtualized,” a new concept to most members of the public and certainly to the entertainment industry magnates who resisted Steve Jobs’ insistence that this would be the future of their industry — a future fundamentally at odds with their belief that “physical music” meant control (and thus revenue) while digital meant disintermediation (and thus decline).
Yet digital music wasn’t something new. It was already a download of choice at the edge of the geek fringe, and it was gaining popularity. By the time Apple announced the iPod, several generations of MP3 players by a number of manufacturers had already been in market for three years.
The first seems to have been the “MPMan” by Northern Illinois University’s research center, Eiger Labs.
Soon there were more. As documented in the MP3 player fan/history site “AnythingButiPod,” the dominant MP3 player manufacturer at the time of the iPod launch was arguably Creative Labs, who announced their first player in 1999 (further reading: History of PMPs (Portable Music Players), Wikipedia).
This was followed by a second-generation concept, the Creative Nomad Jukebox, released in early 2000. (Geek out on fuller history here)
By the time Apple announced iPod in 2001, manufacturers including Sony, Bang & Olufsen, Intel, and a swath of lesser-known firms joined Creative Lab in releasing innovative products. Why was iPod the one that broke through, and what can we learn from its example?
Our first clues of insight begin with two press releases. Let’s look again at Apple’s.
Starting at the top, note the headline. It identifies the technical category (MP3) yet translates it into mainstream words (“Music Player”) anyone could understand.
Is it me, or does something about the “1,000 Songs in Your Pocket” sound appealing and friendly? Note how visual the statement is, and the use of the word “your.” I can see myself having my favorite songs in my pocket — wow! — when I read those words.
Note: Apple opens with the “Why” of the product and the essential “Whats” before moving in to the “How.” In other words, they make the product directly applicable to the user before explaining what the actual technology is. See Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “Start with Why” for a deeper dive into this concept.
Did you catch the repetition of the phrase “in your pocket” in the first paragraph? What might have felt different we were told the physical dimensions (e.g. “3.5 by 4”2” by .75”, for example)? Would our associations be as clear and familiar?
Though I haven’t looked hard, I haven’t easily found the actual measurements of the first iPod. When I see its size referenced, it’s generally with another comfortable, familiar analog: “no bigger than a deck of cards.”
The paragraph continues with the familiar, even intimate use of the word “you,” which appears multiple times in the paragraph. Also notice the informal, disarming use of “packs up to 1,000 songs” as the paragraph opens and the reality-distorting “your iPod” — as if you already owned one — in the closing line.
Moving down, we see a subtle but significant play.
True, the previous paragraph acknowledges an existing category (claiming “a major advance in portable music device design”) but addresses the existing players with no reference to format (CD, MP3, etc.). In this paragraph, we see a second act of reality distortion: “a whole new category.” With this phrase Apple has clustered any existing MP3 player into the land of the Sony Walkman — increasingly dusty turf. Then Apple doubles down with the next phrase: we’re back “in your pocket,” and by now you can pretty much imagine that happening. It’s actually sounding better all the time.
The next passage opens with bold text reaffirming ownership of new terrain.
Note the repetition of “1,000 CD-quality songs”…now feeling familiar and desirable. The yellow-circled part — 20 minutes of shock protection — in my opinion might have been optional; it introduces potential risk or fear (“What is ‘shock protection?’ Can it shock me?”). I question if there was a need to bring up a “negative” in this phrasing.
Although the sentence closes on familiar “lifestyle” words that help us see how we can use the iPod “when running, biking or other activities” this is one area where I feel the release might have been more artfully crafted.
As Apple goes on to illuminate the features, it provides specifics that the release’s target audience — journalists — can respond to, including a few speeds and feeds and references to specific technologies. FireWire is a noteworthy example, full of fascinating history and backstory; perhaps that’s a case study for another day. If you’re interested, read MacWorld’s account of the birth of the iPod. I’ve clipped a teaser below.
MORE THAN THE RELEASE
It’s important to note how Apple first shared the iPod concept with the press. Steve hosted an intimate, informal gathering and spent an hour laying out a long-term vision for the Macintosh as a hub for one’s “digital life” — the place where all things digital, be it data, photos, music and more — come together.
Watching this today is pretty shrug-inducing: it’s the world we now all live in. Watching it then was almost confusing. Steve painted a reality that didn’t really make sense yet, not in a time when long-held concepts of things like music and photography weren’t naturally associated with data files.
The whole thing is here, with an abbreviated version below. Watch as you wish.
The press didn’t respond all that well. But the rest, as they say, is history.
Now let’s explore how Creative launched the Nomad. This isn’t the first press release, but it’s indicative of those that came before — and after.
The release front-loads the first paragraph with information about the company. Who is that information relevant to? Why should it be the first thing read?
The “news” that appears next is that “it has begun shipping” the device, to “selected retail and e-tail outlets,” no less. By the end of the first sentence, what has been meaningful to me, the reader — even if I am a member of the press?
The next sentence tells me that the NOMAD II MG “features a unique professional lifestyle design offering MP3 support with reprogrammable firmware to support future digital audio formats, software extensions and standards.”
Although the word “audio” does appear, the word “music” does not — nor does it anywhere in the first paragraph.
The phrase “anytime, anywhere” is relevant to the reader: but compare it to “in your pocket” and feel the difference between abstract and general and specific and personal. There is a lesson there.
The full release can be read here and is worth scanning for the long “List of Key Features and Benefits,” description of the ability to alter the speed without distorting the pitch of the sound file, booth number at an upcoming trade show, and long list of resources users can visit to download tools and fixes as they use the product.
Digging deeper, we look at the users manual released with the product. Again, this could be a whole other case study. It begins with 11 pages of legal disclosures, listing of manual contents, and declarations of hazards, such as:
Notice all of the things NOT to do …right up front, before we even get started. “Proper Care and Usage” again communicates how we can mess things up and how dangerous those mess-ups can be:
We continue with Health Hazards. What is the user feeling right now? Are they feeling equipped to, safe with, or even worthy of interacting with this engineering marvel? How is that already affecting their connection to the product?
The manual then begins giving users the steps they need to set things up and get playing. But before we look at that, let’s look at Page One of the original iPod User Guide, downloadable here.
Here’s Page Two.
By this time, you pretty much should be up and running. But if you want to explore further, the guide contains 14 airy, friendly pages of tips and how-tos such as sampled here:
Yes, you’ll find some “do nots” (put in water, try to fix yourself, etc.). But the tone and placement of this content creates an entirely different product experience, especially for those who are up and running after Page Two and never even flip through the rest of the manual.
Back to Creative:
…and a few additional, similar pages. How do you feel as you view these pages? What is your confidence that you can succeed with this product?
As for setting up:
Note the “IMPORTANT” box to the right of the page. Is your confidence increasing or decreasing?
…and so on for some 40 pages.
Now, we’ve all seen (and used) manuals like the Creative sample shown here.
But as we compare it to Apple, even if we disregard the actual product, how would the user experience of learning to use the product — and even the sense of confidence that we could use it — be affected by our experience of the manual?
How would it set our expectations for success, make us feel qualified to use it correctly, and encourage us to dive in to a positive, rewarding experience?
In the language of our class, would the manual experience make us an “insider” or an “outsider” to the product, and even to the company?
THE ROLE OF BIAS IN PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT
I find this case study fascinating on a number of levels. Although these examples pre-date many insights into neuroscience we explore in this class, and in our core textbook, “Your Brain at Work,” it’s clear that some form of “engineering bias” (my phrase; not an official term to my knowledge) governed the attitudes about the Creative product and the resulting development of the manual, press release, and presumably product.
Again, in the lexicon of our “Enlightened Innovation” course, the tools and technology were in place. Yet the “spark” — an expanded definition of design, along with intentionality, artistry, and service to the user is sorely missing.
At Apple, it seems that part of the iPod’s success was a design process heavy on user-centricity and “spark.” And that was only the beginning: the first iPod came nowhere near the engaging delight of the later rainbow of offerings that catapulted the product into the mainstream.
With increasing surety, Apple continued to remove the traditional (and often self-imposed) barriers between emerging technologies and the people who used them — an art Steve had cultivated since his Mac days, and even before, and fully mastered as his second-term leadership at Apple evolved.
Largely, as we realize through this case study, those barriers were discretionary, optional, and reflective, perhaps, of unchallenged bias. Had Creative injected a jolt of friendliness, ease, inclusiveness, and even clarity — as simply as bringing the word “music” into the first paragraph of a press release — might the fate of their product and even company been different?
There’s a big difference between engineering and delivering technical capabilities and guiding people to emotional engagement with irresistible products. How does this difference apply to the products you envision and the way you offer them to the audiences who empower your business to succeed?
Note: I’ve thought about this case study and explored corners of it in teaching and advisory work for several years. This is the first time I’ve put it into writing and I’m sure I’ve missed, or misinterpreted, important things. Help me make it better by commenting or writing counterpoints. I’d love your comments and will attribute your corrections and insights. Or simply comment: I will make all comments public.
Thank you in advance for helping me make this study a more accurate and helpful analysis.
Like the iPod story? Want more? Enjoy Cult of Mac’s deep dive into the fuller iPod story, shared on the occasion of the iPod’s 10th anniversary.
Wonder “what made Steve Jobs Steve Jobs?” There’s no easy or adequate answer, but here’s insight to some early influences that notably shaped him.