Apple Vs Google — The Design War
It seems that in recent memory you can’t go more than a few weeks without running across an article comparing Apple and Google, or any of the other FAANG companies for that matter. This is indeed another one of those articles but from the perspective of how design, and more specifically, design tools play a role in the battle of tech companies in which the late Steve Jobs warned would one day go “thermonuclear.”
So if we frame the competition between Apple and Google as a war, then it would be helpful to define victory (as to avoid another Iraq-like situation with no actual end). So what does one company have to do to ‘win’ this war? Simple: be more successful. Not so simple: define success. We could measure success quantitatively — and numbers do tell a story, but let’s focus on the qualitative — the way user experience could play a role in determining winning market share as well as mind share to win the war in the marketplace.
Innovation is highly correlated with business success and is often the cause of it. So let’s, for a moment, think about innovation. Now, innovation is a word that gets tossed around a lot, and for many, has lost its meaning. I’d like to be specific here and use Larry Keely’s definition of innovation: “innovation is the creation of a viable new offering.” This means that for anything to be considered innovative, a company (or any person or organization for that matter) must “identify the problems that matter and move through them systematically to deliver elegant solutions.” (Note that this is the opposite of Samsung’s “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” methodology). It turns out that Larry Keely and his team at Doblin, an innovation consultancy, have studied the nature of innovation for years, and they have come up with a framework to understand innovation as an ecosystem comprised of ten different, yet related, forms of innovation. The more types of innovation a company consistently and successfully utilizes, the greater the chance of ‘winning’ the war in the marketplace.
Enlist Designers to Join the Fight
Innovation is not just about new and improved products, it’s often the things that we, as consumers and users, can’t see. Those types of innovation are internal to a company, such as how a design team improves their app design processes within Google, or how an internet services team at Apple improves their web design processes. For the sake of this article, let’s focus on one way that a company could improve its design process: enhancing the tools designers use. Companies such as Disney and Pixar do this all the time, such as the Mischief Illustration Application is a prime example, as is Facebook’s internally developed Origami and who doesn’t love Twitter’s Bootstrap or AirBnB’s Lottie. When designers have better tools they can articulate, test, and refine their ideas more effectively and efficiently. Better tools make for easier and faster iteration, which in turn leads to better ideas. Better ideas (when executed consistently well) enhance the likelihood of success in design and design thinking. And as much of yesterday’s cutting-edge tech becomes commoditized, design is increasingly becoming a differentiator in many markets, especially in the tech sector. Design is doing more to push the company’s bottom line than in the past. Creating better tools for a company’s design team is a good investment for the future of that company. The impact of making better tools available to designers outside of the company would have an even bigger impact on that company’s ability to innovate as a platform creators — effectively growing their workforce for free. Creating a community of 3rd party designers who can create better software for their platform would be a huge shift in the dynamic between Google and Apple.
If this logic sounds familiar, it is, because it’s what Apple, Google, and every other tech company that creates platforms already does for developers. They ‘dog-food’ IDE’s, API’s, and new programming languages internally with in-house developers and release beta tools to select external third-party developers. Only after refinement to the tools, do those tools become available to the public for free, or a nominal membership fee. Tech companies should follow the model they have created for developers and apply it to designers. This swift (no pun intended), yet predictable, yearly cadence of developer conferences (such as WWDC, or Google I/O) gives developers a chance to learn new tools and skills. I am arguing that to win the War, Google and Apple must start inviting designers to similar conferences so that the designers can help build apps, which will, in turn, help each company win the battles which make up the War.
Supply Designers with Arms and Ammunition
It takes a multidisciplinary team to quickly create the next big app, and apps are the primary reason most people choose a smartphone platform. While in the past it was possible for platforms to be successful by attracting and supporting only developers — the time has come for the tech industry to evolve and explicitly attract and support interaction designers as well.
So how can platform creators such as Apple or Google attract designers? They should create new tools, techniques, and technologies to support the way designers work. I think these kinds of tools should be released in a similar way that developer tools are. Early and open public beta access is provided so that designers can provide direct feedback as the tools are being developed. The dialogue created between the tool makers and the tool users would allow designers to help shape the tools they will use to create their designs. Empowering designers the way developers have historically been empowered will create a more inclusive and innovative workspace.
To win the battles of market and mindshare, each company needs more high-quality, popular, and useful applications than their competitors have. After all, a great platform is useless without apps. Getting more titles on a platform requires that people make more apps for that platform. To make more apps, people need to program them, but the software also needs to be designed. Tech companies have become adept at attracting engineers, but need to get better at attracting designers by focusing on their needs, wants, and goals. One great way to support designers would be to make WYSIWYG visual prototyping tools that combine visual design with interaction and animation. Though tools like Adobe Flash and Hypercard (remember that one?) are now dead (long live Adobe Animate), they represented the kind of effort I am writing about. Flash was a tool that allowed designers to create animated interactive experiences. Though often misused and a performance hog, Flash was a tool made for designers and programmers alike to create immersive experiences that, at the time, where cutting edge. I’m not advocating for the resurgence of Flash, but it has been shown time and time again that when tools are made accessible to people who are not programmers, that a vibrant cornucopia of content becomes available. Consider the popularity of games like Mario Maker, Little Big Planet, and Minecraft, in which people without coding skills created amazing and lavish interactive worlds. Imagine what apps could be created if designers had access to professional-grade tools that were even more powerful to create the experiences of tomorrow. Designers need and want to create what’s next, but lack the tools to do so.
Modern Solutions Dictate Modern Weapons
It can be argued that designers should just learn to code — work in the medium of final production, and stop complaining. While there are many advantages to this approach, the drawbacks are much larger. To produce innovative and creative results, designers need to work in a way that allows them to easily create, evaluate, and iterate on designs without being distracted by technology. They need to primarily focus on how humans want to use technology, and less on how that technology functions. Though a general understanding of technology is needed to create effective and production-ready designs, engineers are best tasked to focus on technological implementation.
To make this argument tangible, let me use an example: Architects typically follow a creative process that begins with using tools that are (relatively) simple to conduct early exploration, and more complex tools are brought in only after an idea has been refined and vetted. So initially, an architect may start off with pencil & paper, then move to a CAD program, then build a 3D model before the full-size building is constructed. The architect progresses from using tools that allow free form expression, to those that provide accuracy and support the integration of technical constraints into their ideas. At each stage of the creative process, an architect has unique needs that are met by different sets of tools. If an architect was to skip freehand sketching, digital drafting, and scale modeling, by moving from the initial idea straight to a life-size building, the results would be horrendous.
The same can be said for interaction designers. Moving from idea straight to programming an interface is just not a viable option. Ideas need time and space to be generated, articulated, evaluated, and refined before they are engineered. Having the right tools at the right time is as paramount for architects as it is for interaction designers. The time has come for designers to have access to modern tools to create modern solutions.
An Evolving Battlefield of Design
Interface standards and conventions have evolved more in the past ten years than they have in the entire era of personal computing. Interface frameworks have become more sophisticated in many ways such as by leveraging dedicated GPUs, and now they are rendered in ways similar to that of video games. Most interfaces designed before the first iPhone lived on the desktop or laptop, and for the most part nowhere else. Today, designers must create interfaces that accommodate multiple types, sizes, and resolutions of screens — or even no screens at all! This additional complexity means that the design effort required to produce a single app has increased. An app design today may live not only on a desktop, tablet, or phone, but also on watches, TVs, glasses, and in virtual/augmented/extended reality. As the job of the interaction designer has become more challenging, the tools they use have not kept up with the pace of technological innovation. Designers need modern tools more than they ever have before.
Across the board, complex animated transitions are becoming a standard element in today’s user interfaces. Animation has become as important as layout, color, typography, and other elements of design. While it is now technically possible to engineer interfaces with realistic motion, it was only a few years ago that it was nearly impossible for designers to prototype such effects in an effective way without programming. While the evolution of user interface standards and conventions has been rapid, the tools to design and prototype (not just develop) next-generation experiences are surprisingly last generation, and ancient by comparison. Yes, there are tools out there such as Facebook’s Oragami, and even Google’s Polymer, but these are developer tools first and foremost — they require a working knowledge of programming. And yes, there are other tools like After Effects, Keynote, and more, but these are not specialized tools for interaction designers to craft, experiment, and iterate on interfaces. Even dedicated tools like Princple and Axure are not robust enough to prototype rich interactive prototypes that move and flow like a real app. No matter what tools a designer uses, there are large gaps in functionality and utility that are not being filled.
A few years ago, Adobe XD hit the scene and other tools like Figma and Sketch had to up their game to compete. We now live an age where designer’s tools can keep up with what’s technically possible, and yet there is no industry standard like Photoshop. Perhaps there never will be or shouldn’t be one standard, but it is exciting to see the UX/UI toolset finally mature. There is still so much more that these tools could and should do though.
Google Arms Up
Google’s introduction and continued iteration of Material Design guidelines have made the dearth of modern interaction design tools very apparent. Google did a great job providing visual assets, templates, and sample files for designers to use in its guidelines and it has taken years for Apple to Catch Up.
A few years ago, Google upped the ante on the design front. In 2014, Google acquired RelativeWave, creators of an “interaction design and prototyping” app, and are now giving the tool away for free. It seems that Google is trying their hand at supporting designers better than Apple. It is that kind of behind-the-scenes support that will result in better apps in the hands of people everywhere. Google’s move to supply designers with the weapons and strategies they need is decisive action in the design space war. Now that it’s Apple’s move, I am hopeful that they will retaliate with force, but only time will tell if they rally or retreat.
However, after all those years since that acquisition, Google doesn’t have much to show for it. Why hasn’t google bought up Webflow or Figma? Why hasn’t Apple acquired or created a competitor to Sketch? Apple of all companies, with its tight vertical integration, could benefit from creating the tools which create its tools, like they do with XCode, but for design.
Apple and Google, once odd bedfellows and now arch-enemies, or at least now cold-war adversaries, are fighting a war to win the hearts and minds of users. To win this war, they must win the most strategically significant battles, which means having more highly desired and high-quality apps on their platform than the enemy does. To increase the number of quality apps, these tech giants need to invest in the design community just as they have in the development community.
At the end of the day, everyone benefits from better apps coming to market. The desire for creative expression is there, but interaction designers have access to less sophisticated tools than their programming counterparts. Designers think differently, and about different things, than programmers do. They need tools to support their work. Designers need new tools, so they can maximize their potential and create amazing new experiences today for tomorrow’s users. The company that enlists and arms designers will have a more formidable army and is, therefore, more likely to win the war. The arms race between these two tech giants is only just beginning. I’m not sure who will win this war, but this competition will breed better designs and apps for users worldwide. No matter who wins, designers will be bringing more and better spoils of war to users in the near future.
— — — —
Mo Goltz, UX Researcher and Design Strategist at Extra Extra UX.
Mo Goltz is a UX Researcher and Design Strategist currently developing UX Research courses at CuriosityTank. He has worked in-house and at startups as a Designer in Silicon Valley, and as a Research consultant in the midwest. Mo has rediscovered his passion for improvisation and storytelling during covid.