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.

iPhone vs. BlackBerry: superior UX trumps inferior messaging

As a long time Apple geek, but newly minted iPhone user, I've been spending way too much time this week poking and prodding and petting my shiny new toy. Now it's not like I've never used an iphone before, and I've had an iPad since they came out, but in the process of switching to full time iPhone duty after years using BlackBerry, I've been absolutely delighted by the user experience. What's been the most striking to me is how in love with the experience of using the phone I am, even though it is obviously inferior to my BlackBerry in some ways.

When it comes to messaging, iPhone isn't even in the same league as BlackBerry. RIM's BlackBerry Internet Service push technology syncs emails in near realtime without destroying battery life, and when it comes to instant messaging, BlackBerry Messenger is a class by itself. Clearly, BlackBerry's technology trumps iPhone in one of the most critical mobile use-cases: messaging. The thing is, the rest of the iPhone experience is so good, I just don't care.

The iPhone user experience starts before you even open the box. Before you even hold the product in your hand, you have the experience of opening a meticulously crafted box that's so precise it doesn't even need the plastic it comes wrapped in to hold together. The level of craftsmanship and care that Apple lavishes upon its products is immediately obvious.

What struck me immediately after the always enjoyable Apple unboxing, was how sleek and solid the iPhone felt in my hand. My old BlackBerry Tour felt cheap, clunky, and unwieldy by comparison.

The next thing that struck me was the subtle magic of the iPhone keyboard. The first line of text that I typed on the iPhone was riddled with errors, but by the second the error rate had dropped significantly. The keyboard quickly and quietly adapted to my fat fingers, and just worked.

Another nice touch that seems so obvious that it's hard to even notice is how the state of the keyboard locks automatically when you switch from QWERTY to numbers and symbols. One of my pet peeves on my BlackBerry was the outrageously inefficient process of typing a phone number in a text message: alt-6 alt-1 alt-9… it sucked. And yes, I know there is some way to lock keyboard states on the BlackBerry, but I never bothered to figure it out, and that's the crucial difference on the iPhone: I hardly noticed it, and it just worked.

There are dozens, hundreds of other brilliant UX touches in the iPhone, like obscenely detailed transitions, and intuitive message refreshing, that make the device a joy to use, and allow me to totally look past fact that BlackBerry absolutely slays the iPhone when it comes to the backend infrastructure that serves email and messages.

How to hack the Verizon iPhone website for business delivery.

It's 12:00 in the morning, and my alarm just rudely awakend me from a much needed nap after a 36 hour product release sprint so that I wouldn't miss the Verizon iPhone preorder. All I want to do is preorder my damn iPhone and go back to sleep, but after 3 re-trys at submitting the form, and 10 minutes staring at the page to make sure I'm not hallucinating from sleep deprivation, I am convinced that there really isn't a damn field on this form to specify a "Company Name."

Finally convinced that the problem was Verizon's site, not my lack of sleep, I took a look at the code and immediately found the problem-- the "idShipBusinessName" field was simply set to "display:none"

All I had to do was simply remove-the "display:none" using developer tools in Chrome and boom: "Business Name" field shows up.

I resubmitted the form, finished pre-ordering the phone, then passed out and slept like a baby, feeling both stoked about having an iPhone on the way, and pretty smug about outsmarting Verizon's shoddy QA.

P.S. Verizon: if you're anticipating millions of people logging in to buy your product, you should probably test all the scenarios.

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