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The timeless imperative of “it just works”

The timeless imperative of “it just works”

I would love to have been a fly on the wall when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s and insisted that they adopt a philosophy which he started to espouse during his brief sojourn at NeXT. Here’s how the senior management discussion might have gone:

Steve: “I’ve devised a mantra which summarises our approach to product design and marketing – in fact it’s a philosophy which we can put at the heart of our company’s values.”

Management team (somewhat excitedly): “Sounds great chief, let us know what you’re thinking.”

Steve: “It just works.”

Management team (somewhat less excitedly): “Er, what now?”

Steve: “It just works.”

Management team shuffles their papers nervously.

Management team members glance and stare at one another.

Management team look around for the one who’s going to take the hit by speaking up.

The new Joanna Hoffman (TNJH): “Steve, that’s the worst mantra I’ve ever heard. Of course it just works. Why would it not work? What products don’t even work?”

Steve: “Most of them. In fact, all of them. Except ours.”

TNJH: “So you want us to build a company around the idea that our products do the exact thing expected of them.”

Steve: “Exactly.”

TNJH: “Isn’t the whole purpose of most products to do more than the basics of what is expected of them.”

Steve: “No. The purpose of every product is to do precisely what is expected of it, exactly.”

Management team stare at their shoes.

Steve: “So – that’s agreed then – let’s move on to the next agenda item.”

A quarter of a century the most valuable company in the world continues to benefit from Jobs’ laser focus.

Yet his philosophy for design is arguably more urgent today than it was in the late 1990s.

Too much design today purports to embrace the principle but resolutely refuses to actually implement it. The current generation of designers have been brought up on a healthy diet of ‘the first job of design is to solve problems’ and yet there isn’t enough evidence in the physical and digital products around us to suggest they actually believe it enough to do anything about it.

Further proof, were it needed, of this author’s inexorable decline towards late middle age, comes in the form of two things which happened concurrently last month. Firstly, we needed a new toaster (the old one just couldn’t keep up with our 16–year–old son’s appetite) and secondly, I had a complimentary online subscription to the outstanding Which? magazine.

There are number of premium toaster brands (which I’ll keep anonymous – but a quick trip to the toaster section of any department store website and a ‘sort by price highest to lowest’ will quickly reveal what they are), and in the constant pursuit of the middle–class dream, we thought we might buy one of them.

I decided to look on Which? to see if the brand lived up to the promise. I could barely believe what I read. In one of many withering reviews, one comment stood out, referring to the most expensive toaster, which “doesn’t toast the bread properly or evenly, leaving the toast patchy and unevenly browned”. I had to read it again to make sure I had read it correctly.

Here’s how the specification might have read:

Stainless steel? CHECK
Removable crumb tray? CHECK
Variable browning control? CHECK
Defrost and reheat buttons? CHECK
Illuminated on/off LED? CHECK
No slip feet? CHECK
Browns toast evenly? WHOOPSIES!

The most expensive toaster in the market cannot even fulfil its primary function!

In the end we bought just a regular toaster, which is stainless steel and does fit in with the look and feel of the kitchen.

The only downside to it? For bread of a different dimension to a regular square loaf, the bread doesn’t fit in the slot without the top being cut off.

It works – just.

The pursuit of “it just works” all too often goes against the grain, sometimes literally.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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