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.
2 responses
You say upfront that "Apple's claims are baloney" but then you unleash another 2,000 words acknowledging that Samsung has, with direct intent, copied Apple's design/UX (albeit somewhat unsuccessfully) in an attempt to replicate the iPhone. It seems that you are saying that because Samsung has been unsuccessful in besting the iPhone experience, that their abuse of Apple's IP should be overlooked.

This whole conversation is interesting because where we use the concept of patents in the litigation, I think the intent is actually more based on the traditional concept of brand trademark. Tech products, specifically those which have rich user interactions, where the UI and UX are the 90% of the perceived product are branding themselves based on UX. So although the fight might be a "patent" fight, it is really a trademark battle based on patents that have been infringed upon. For example, the swipe to unlock feature is not about the technology of moving your finger across the screen to unlock your phone, it is about the experience; more importantly, it is about the conditioned stimuli of the hand motion, the way the pixels animate and the sounds that bring it all together. These are the product and these are the brand. Something as simple as this is an extremely valuable user experience, not in the value it provides of unlocking the phone, but in the value it provides by branding the UX and the product itself. This is the "You've got mail" of our generation. (if your browser started uttering "You've got G-Mail" I can guarantee that AOL would win a lawsuit)

The only person who would assert that Swipe to Unlock is not fair intellectual property that should be protected, it one who has never designed and created a product. In the article "Apple v. Samsung Highlights Insanity of Tech Patents" the author claims:

"Apple has a patent for unlocking the smartphone by swiping? That’s ridiculous. It’s obvious. How else would you navigate a touchscreen interface?"

On the contrary. The fact that a tech writer cannot envision a touch screen device that unlocks without swiping is a testament to everything Apple has created (how about a pin code? how about a multi-touch gesture? how about a grid? how about tracing the company logo? how about tapping open a treasure chest with a miniature unicorn inside and tapping him on his horn twice until a rainbow of skittles shoots forth, with the pixels then dissolving into and animation that becomes your home screen?). The fact that all touch screen smart phones so closely resemble that experience is a testament to the fact that they have all followed in Apple's footsteps, in some cases building upon Apple innovations fairly, and in others, orally void of creativity and innovation and crossing the line of theft.

I agree 100% that we have to be careful not to allow patent litigation to create inordinate protection around innovations, keeping them in glass cages so as not to be improved upon by onlookers. However, I think there is a bigger picture at play here and a couple reasons for Apple taking this patent litigation against Samsung so seriously.

Most would say that Samsung is eating Apple's lunch, hence Apple is getting hungry and trying to stop them via the courts, instead of continuing to win with better products and continued innovation. While this is a factor, I see it differently. Apple still has the lion-share of the tablet market and they want to protect it, not just for profits, but because dominant market share allows them to be bold in their vision and embark upon strategies that value long-term structural product improvements, over short-term iterations.

Case in point, disallowing Flash on iOS. Almost everyone but Apple fan boys laughed at Steve Jobs, and for the first couple years of iPhone (even among non-techie smartphone users), not supporting Flash was a big point of differentiation that allowed iPhone competitors to creep in, and slowly gain market share. If iPhone hadn't had such a dominant hold on the market, this strategy would have been difficult, if not impossible to implement. This a was a bold move and a difficult long-term decision, but was made possible by the strong market-share of Apple, and in the end, is a benefit to the user.

As these very difficult, long-term strategic decisions arise with iPad (or iOS in general, or the entire Apple ecosystem), Apple needs to have that ability to flex its market dominance in order to make long-term user-centric decisions that might have a negative impact on the product in the short term.

So while I agree that anti-innovation and anti-competitive patent litigation needs to be called what it is, in order to protect innovation on a macro-level, I think it is just as important to allow companies to fight valiantly for seemingly small patents and nuances of design and UX in order to protect their ability to create the best products they can.

I was at a Samsung Galaxy product kiosk at the Grove. In order to get people to test out the Galaxy they were giving away free frozen yogurt and t-shirts...meanwhile only 2 of their 20 devices were connected to the internet so I couldn't even test the phones, the only thing I could do was take a quiz about my feelings toward the Galaxy…may the best man win.

The type of patents at the center of the case are "design patents" which apparently function more like trademarks than traditional patents[1], but here's the rub: they're only enforceable if the purpose is aesthetic, *not* functional, which is essentially what Apple has to prove here. These patent claims are baloney because a) design is *always* functional and b)

What I think is that these design elements are obvious, but only after they've been released. Any object whose form perfectly matches its function is inherently obvious once you've seen it. To some extent it's discovery, not invention. Apple "discovered" that a rounded rectangle is a perfect form factor for the smartphone, but as we see in the docs, Samsung independently stumbled across that design principle around the same time. Granting Apple an exclusive right to that discovery would destroy further potential for innovation in the space. In order for innovation to continue, others *must* be allowed to observe and iterate based on others' designs.

What I'm getting at in the rest of the post is that Samsung did copy Apple (and any company in their position probably should have), but that despite their best efforts, they simply aren't capable as a company of achieving excellence on the level of the iPhone. This isn't a unique problem for Samsung, and the problem probably has its roots in the underlying structure of corporations that has grown out of mass production and massive scale: companies tend to be hierarchical, with decisions dictated from the top down.

As far as Samsung eating Apple's lunch, they're clearly making huge strides in market share, but that's only part of the story. Samsung may have more of the smartphone market than Apple now, but both are still growing in terms of units, because Apple basically created massive demand in the smartphone sector. In addition, Apple's share of smartphone profits is still hugely disproportionate to their market share. The trial undoubtedly distracting to the product team, Johnny Ive and others have been dragged in to testify, but I doubt Apple's defensie legal strategies have much of an effect on the rest of the company's focus on producing great products.

Nevertheless, Apple's lawyers saw an opportunity to attack Samsung in order to defend their position. As a company, it's easy to understand why: they don't feel any sort of obligation to protect innovation in the marketplace, only to win. Our horribly dysfunctional patent system gives them the opportunity, but that doesn't make it right.