There’s a lot being written about Steve’s passing, but I’m afraid there’s so much of it that truly misses what Steve really did for our industry. For example, Matt Yglesias asks, “Why so view?” I posted a brief comment there, but I think the point deserves a good bit of elaboration.
Steve’s contribution to the industry I think is epitomized in this video:
As Nadyne might say, there are really two parts of user experience: aesthetics and functionality. Aesthetics is about your emotional reaction to using a product–a certain joy or excitement. It’s what people are really talking about when they refer to the “cool” factor. Functionality is what a product helps you to achieve. Does it relieve you of mundane tasks, thereby allowing you to focus your energies on your own creative output? How does a product help you achieve your goals?
Aesthetics leads you to want to break with the past. Functionality leads you to want to build on the past in ways that don’t leave people stranded. There’s always a certain level of tension between the two, and the amount of emphasis you place on one over the other can lead to some widely divergent design decisions.
Steve placed far more emphasis on aesthetics than the rest of us did. He always thought that if people didn’t experience joy in using his products, then he’d failed in some important and fundamental way. The rest of us generally focused on functionality. The one quibble I have with Steve’s criticism is this: it’s not a question of whether or not we had any taste. It’s more a question of whether or not we thought it was an important place to focus our energies. Steve thought it was. We didn’t.
But, the key insight that I think is missing in most of the tributes being paid to Steve is that both of these aspects of user experience are important. I truly believe that Steve understood this. He was, after all, the one who had said, back in the dark days of the early 90’s, that Apple couldn’t survive without Microsoft. He took a lot of flack from people in the industry for that stance, but I think he understood, at least intuitively, Apple users needed our functional focus just as much as they needed his aesthetic focus.
Steve’s true contribution to the industry, then, is the way he married both of these concerns. He and Apple set the aesthetic parameters that determined the boundaries in which those of use who developed software for the Mac would fill in the functional aspects of user experiences. That combination leads to some fascinating synergy that began with movable-modal dialog boxes and combination edit/drop-down menu controls in Mac Word 4 all the way on up to how we did the ribbon in Mac Office 2011. If there is any legacy of Steve’s that I would hope this industry could cary forward, it’s this balance between aesthetics and functionality.
Currently playing in iTunes: Wayfaring Stranger by The Tierney Sutton Band