Samsung didn't know user experience until Apple slapped them in the face with it

While most of us have spent the week researching ways to circumvent NBC's Olympics time delay and worrying about earthquake weather in LA, Apple and Samsung have been duking it out in court over a $2.5B patent dispute with grave implications for technological innovation in this country. From my understanding (read: I'm a product guy, not a lawyer), Apple is attempting to enforce a patent on rounded rectangles, and hence, the design of the iPhone, which Samsung (and countless others) have since emulated. The design patents at the center of the case are not only hilariously audacious (sorry, Charlie, your device can’t have rounded corners, those are mine), they're also a serious and immediate threat to innovation in this country. For reasons that will become apparent, I want to make it clear upfront that I think Apple's patent claims are baloney, but that's not what I want to talk about in this post.

What I want to talk about is the central thesis that Apple is trying to prove in the case: that Samsung intentionally copied the design of the iPhone. Based on documents released this week, the answer seems to be, more or less, "yes", but what’s fascinating to me as a product designer, is that despite their best efforts to copy the the iPhone, the user experience of Samsung’s devices remains vastly inferior.

Two documents in particular reveal that by early 2010, Samsung's senior management had realized that the iPhone was eating their lunch, and the reason was that the device was simply more enjoyable to use than anything Samsung had managed to produce.

The first document revolves around a meeting in February 2010, in which the head of Samsung’s mobile division characterized the difference in user experience between the iPhone and Samsung smartphones as "the difference between heaven and earth". The memo portrays a company in which design decisions are dictated from the top down, and hierarchy is strictly enforced. The problem is, no one, no matter how awe-inspiring their executive title is, can ever dictate how a product should be designed and expect it to have a great user experience. The best products evolve out of an iterative process of observing problems, solving them, and repeating. This can only be done when decisions are made by designers and engineers, not managers and memos, because only the people in the trenches, who interact with real users with real problems, have the observational evidence necessary to design meaningful solutions.

When design decisions come from the top down, user experience always suffers, because the designers and engineers end up working for the approval of their superiors, rather than the optimal experience for the end user.

The second document, dated a month after the first, and presumably a direct response to the management mandate to bring Samsung's smartphone UX up to par with the iPhone, details 126 differences between the iPhone and the Galaxy S1, and gives recommendations for improvement. I’d bet dimes to dollars that the document was prepared by non-designers, because it's a surface level analysis that fails to grasp the underlying principles behind the differences.

For example, on the iPhone, the interface for the keypad of the phone is visually similar to the interface for actions only available during a call, so the designers employ an animated transition between the two in order to communicate to the user that the interface has changed. The need for such an animation is brought about by the decision not to display the keypad and in-call actions at the same time, which is the decision that actually adds to the simplicity and clarity of the interface. The authors of the Samsung comparison note only the absence of the transition on their device, not the more important difference between the elegant minimalism of the iPhone interface, and the cluttered Samsung interface. The result? A recommendation to add an animation to the screen, without addressing the underlying problem.

Imagine the scene when this report was delivered to the designers and engineers responsible for executing the recommendations: 130 plus pages of instructions to replicate superficial design elements from another product without understanding the decisions that led to their implementation. A report that keeps a straight face while making recommendations like: “Need to develop dynamic effects to bring out fun factor to user.” It must have been a soul-crushing experience to have such mandates handed down from on high; a double-edged sword of having no choice but to implement a bunch of foolishness, and being pulled away from doing things that might actually be well informed (gasp) or even innovative (oh, the humanity!).

With the context that’s come out in these documents, it’s no surprise that even given the example of the iPhone, and a management directive to replicate the user experience, Samsung still fell short on UX. I'd go so far as to say that even given a team of the most talented designers in the world, and an explicit order to create an exact replica of the iPhone, Samsung would still fail to reproduce the user experience of iPhone.

Why? Because executives removed from the craft of product design could pop their heads in at any time, and say “Oh, that pocket knife works really well as a pocket knife, but what would really be cool is if that pocket knife also worked as a spoon. Oh, and a fork. Also a compass. And also it should be more fun to use.” They would fail because producing a product with a user experience as elegant and polished as the iPhone requires a level of discipline and integrity that most companies simply cannot muster.

Great user experiences are transparent. They enable users to work through them while focusing on what they want to do, how they want to do it, not how the designer of the device thought they should. When you use the phone or e-mail on the iPhone, you're not "using the phone app", or "using the mail app", you're simply making a call or checking your email. You don't have to think about the tool, only the task at hand. Such experiences require tremendous courage and discipline in order to pare down an experience to its bare minimum, to its essence. Such experiences require putting design decisions in the hands of designers, not managers.

Samsung may have developed iPhone-like prototypes prior to the release of the iPhone, but they never would have made it to production with those prototypes if Apple hadn't shown them the way. Samsung’s attempts to copy the iPhone may have bought them market share (and a $2.5B lawsuit from Apple along with it), but it hasn’t bought them user experience parity. Apple's competitive advantage isn't that they're the only company that has designers capable of putting out the iPhone, it's that they're the only company that has the balls and integrity to put decision making power in the hands of those designers. Unless that changes, it's highly unlikely that Samsung, or any other competitor for that matter, will be able match Apple when it comes to user experience.