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Insight and analysis of technology and business strategy

The iPhone Experience Conundrum

Many engineering leaders have challenges with expectations regarding timelines, complexity, level of integration and usability because of what I call the “iPhone conundrum.” The iPhone conundrum is the expectation by technology consumers that new functionality shows up overnight, has high levels of integration between systems and applications and is rapid to adjust and improve based on user feedback.

People perceive technology in particular ways due to the ease of use and high level of integration between their iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch and AirPods. The seamless availability of data across these devices, the portability of application experiences and the ease of adding new products to this experience all contribute to high expectations about the effort required to create and deploy highly complex technology. Several key experiences within the Apple ecosystem reinforce these expectations of digital technology consumption:

  • The New AirPods – When Apple released the AirPods, they offered a unique and differentiated experience. Using them was as simple as removing the packaging, opening the lid and clicking Connect on the iPhone, and suddenly they were working. The capability to have them seamlessly move between devices amplifies this message of easy-to-use products. This experience sets expectations with digital consumers that all new functionality is immediate and intuitive.
  • App Updates – Users of Apple products will often wake up to notifications of completed updates to their devices and immediately available new features. This creates a perception that developers can easily upgrade their software and that features are quick to develop.
  • Data Availability – The use of iCloud to ensure a single experience of preferences and data availability across Apple products is unique in the technology provider space. A user can easily take a photo with iPhone, open it for editing on their Mac and showcase it to friends on an iPad. This immediate availability of data across different device types sets expectations that data is easy to move, rationalize, and consistently high-quality.

Those who work in engineering teams know that the AirPods experience requires considerable time involvement and coordination between multiple hardware, firmware, and OS teams. Each must contribute to design, testing and error correction. These activities can take months or years to enable such a seamless experience at scale under many different user conditions. The app update experience presents millions of possible permutations that can lead to error conditions that must be accounted for in development and testing. 

Finally, data availability presents the endless potential for adverse network conditions and data quality and capacity errors. Recovery mechanisms must be designed, developed and validated before rollout to ensure customer data is not lost.

This does not mean that our digital consumers assume every ask can occur overnight. However, it does mean that minor missteps in expectation setting with users can have significant implications for how users perceive the value of a capability delivered relative to the time it took to create. These mismatches can lead to unhappy users, even when engineering teams work with a full effort to ensure a high-quality user experience.

Technology is messy. Technology is hard—especially at scale. Apple provides a model approach for technology teams to begin all projects from the point of view of digital consumer experiences. Define usability and outcome first, with the goal of consistently delighting users. Then, back into the necessary engineering to create such an experience. But this is not a point-in-time activity; this is an ongoing conversation between consumers and engineering teams to learn from one another, adjust to new conditions and showcase material progress toward the defined outcomes and experiences. Tools for this ongoing conversation include:

  • Experience Design – Users have complex needs, strong opinions and biases. Build and engage an experienced design team to engage directly with your users, understand their needs and showcase the art of what’s possible while getting feedback to refine what engineering builds and how features are prioritized.
  • Demonstrations – Showcase what your team builds regularly and predictably. This only needs to include some users but pick a subset of power users and advocates that have shown an ability to think about new ways to build applications, create journeys and leverage technology. Show them the progress, get their regular feedback and adjust. Their positive feedback to the rest of the organization will support managing expectations.
  • Context – Users react to the information in front of them. Provide context about why the design is as implemented and why features were prioritized as they were. This context includes the digital consumers in the decision-making process and enables them to see how the work done is a positive step toward later wishes and commitments.
  • Technology Tradeoffs – Digital consumers don’t look to understand every technical complexity of complex systems. Still, they want to understand relative measures impacting delivery times for new capabilities and features. Engineering teams should work to share insight into their thinking on design, technology decisions and sequencing for digital consumers. This reinforces the context of projects and the timelines proposed resulting from the intersection of priorities, technology and technical debt.
  • Build v.s. Buy – Every organization has unique cultural dynamics influencing their preferences for building or buying technology. As digital consumers move between organizations, portions of these preferences will be carried along with them. Engineering teams must work to both educate and discuss their reasoning with teams to show timeline implications, cost implications and usability impacts.

But all is not lost. Engineering leaders can leverage these expectations of digital consumers to engage in conversations about experience design that lead shared understanding of priorities, outcomes, sequencing of capability delivery and technology tradeoffs. Be diligent as an engineering leader and engage the users of the systems you build in the conversation. Use your time to educate them, discuss options and share context. This brings them into the bubble of decision-makers, shows them the complexity involved and turns them into advocates for larger user communities.

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