Apple Inc. has in many ways set the standard for excellence in industrial design—and this should make it a role model for far more than just the designers of consumer electronics. One particular area where Apple's excellence in product design can provide a roadmap for similar success is in web design.
Consumer electronics and software are intrinsically linked to web development, and this means that a similar design philosophy can theoretically achieve the same results when designing digital products.
But following in the footsteps of the notoriously secretive Apple is tricky. The company guards its design philosophy religiously. But if one looks hard enough, crucial elements of Apple’s design philosophy are hiding in plain sight—and it can serve as a template for next-level web design.
It begins with User Empathy.
Nearly all of Apple's most successful products—the Macintosh, iMac, Macbook, iPod, iPhone, and iPad—have visually pleasing exterior design and user-friendly controls.
This is because Apple excels in design thinking, or a process that emphasizes empathy with user needs. Apple knows its products are built with complex technology that will overwhelm the average consumer unless it’s presented in user-friendly way—that’s why, when designing a product, Apple operates people-first, not technology-first.
It anticipates how to make consumers comfortable with using sophisticated products.
This is particularly relevant for web design, as a site’s ability to meet the needs of its eventual users is the most important factor determining whether or not the site succeeds. Programming languages and content management systems are complex; they’re used to create wonderfully intricate and powerful web experiences—but the average user needs to be comfortable with using a website's interface before they can truly utilize it. That’s why things like tasteful appearance and smooth navigation can make or break a website.
But a nice looking home page and smooth navigation alone won’t take a website to Apple-like heights.
There needs to be Aesthetic Integrity.
Apple designs products that both look good and operate capably at the same time. There isn't one or the other.
“Aesthetic integrity is not a measure of how beautiful an app is. It’s a measure of how well the appearance of the app integrates with its function.”
This quote, taken from Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, is especially relevant when it comes to web design. Your average user doesn’t care if a website is built with sophisticated software—a powerful CMS like Drupal for instance—if the appearance is boring or confusing. Similarly, a beautiful web page without enough functionality is equally useless. It has to be a combination of both, and this is Apple’s calling card.
The same balance should be sought when designing a website or other digital products.
Take a look for example, at Al Jazeera Forum, a community news platform developed by Vardot using Drupal. It’s simple, easy-to-use, and visually pleasing. Al Jazeera Forum, just like an Apple product, is built with complex technology, but the user doesn’t notice because the site is a seamless blend of appearance and functionality.
A professional web development firm needs to accomplish this on each project, which leads, incidentally, to another Apple design principle:
Again, from Apple:
“Consistency in the interface allows people to transfer their knowledge and skills from one app to another. A consistent app is not a slavish copy of other apps. Rather, it is an app that takes advantage of the standards and paradigms people are comfortable with.”
Apple is continually introducing or updating products—and although new features may be radical, Apple makes a point of maintaining a level of consistency in its design. For example, anyone familiar with an iPod Touch can seamlessly switch to an iPhone or iPad. They’re all different devices with different capabilities, but Apple made point of maintaining consistency in appearance and functionality among all three devices—spanning years and leaps in technology—and the result is a product that is new (exciting!) but familiar (comforting) at the same time.
This is an apt lesson for web design: just because a new website or app is a radical step forward in functionality doesn’t mean that every aspect of the design needs to be radical. Consistency is a powerful tool. It builds user loyalty. An updated website or app should incorporate successful features from the previous iterations, and remain consistent with web and mobile design standards.
Look for example at Al Jazeera Stream, a sister site to the aforementioned Al Jazeera Forum, and also developed by Vardot. It's a different website with a different purpose, but a user of Al Jazeera Forum can visit Al Jazeera Stream and feel instantly comfortable because of recognizable features. That's because web development firms like Vardot, just like Apple, recognize that users subconsciously value consistency.
But Apple only values consistency because it helps ease the transition to new products. This leads to a major facet of Apple’s design ethos:
You need to embrace change
Over the years Apple has abandoned enough successful products to make any aspiring entrepreneur bawl. Before the iPod had time to become obsolete, Apple kicked it to the curb by introducing the iPhone.
Apple does this because it knows that change will inevitably render popular products obsolete. It embraces change instead of waiting to be smothered by it unexpectedly.
The same ethos is true when it comes to designing digital products like websites and apps. One of the defining characteristics of an open source CMS like Drupal is its malleability. It is a technology with limitless possibilities—and therefore limitless change. The same CMS modules or plugins that are cutting-edge today will probably be updated or replaced in the near future. If you want to design like Apple does, you also have to be willing to destroy your own creations in order to survive.
But in the end, simply attempting to copy Apple by designing products that marry style and function, and retain consistent features alone won’t ensure that a website or app will be successful. Although they are secretive, rumors and accounts have trickled out of Cupertino over the years that speak to how "design" is not simply a division within Apple Inc., but a culture embedded from the highest employee to the lowest. Everyone at Apple is expected to think like a designer.
When it comes to next-level web design, it should be the same. For example, at a Drupal development firm like Vardot, collaboration and understanding of Drupal are crucial for every employee, regardless of job title. Everyone at a web development firm should think like a web developer—and this will help enhance the quality of its services immensely.
But when it comes to a final point, if you truly want to design like Apple, it’s best to listen to the man behind its success, Steve Jobs himself:
"When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood in the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality has to be carried all the way through.”
And that might be the most important point: if you want a website that seamlessly integrates form and function like an Apple product, you can’t cut corners, even when it may seem ridiculous. When you use a well-built website or app, chances are you're only going to notice the immediate sensory stimuli—but it's the fine craftsmanship that no ever sees that made this experience possible.
- Design & User Experience