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The underappreciated value of incremental design

There’s no such thing as a boring product update.

September 8, 2016

The Convair Model 118 Flying Car.

Apple announced iPhone 7 this week, and without missing a beat, the tech press decried it as dull. Tech pundits seem to have this same argument cued up every time Apple launches something that’s not game-changing innovation. I think they’re totally missing the point.

There are two ways to update an existing product:

  1. Make a brand new version that’s unlike everything before it.
  2. Improve it by simplifying it, making it more powerful, or adding new capabilities.

You can’t do #1 all the time. It’s just not possible. It’s a testament to Apple’s design prowess that they’ve pulled off #1 so many times, the public now expects it as a matter of routine.

Furthermore, making brand new versions all the time isn’t even necessarily good for customers. The iPhone is a stable, mature product that’s wildly popular and used by a massive number of people. Changing it dramatically every year is going to piss people off. Do you always want to relearn how your phone works every time you upgrade it? Do you always want to suffer the inevitable flaws and unforeseen bugs that arise when new moonshot stuff is launched at scale for the first time?

Sure you do, if you’re a tech reporter! But not if you’re a non-tech-obsessed human person who just wants to text their friends and check Facebook. If you’re that person, stability is a virtue, not a downside.

More importantly, there’s a critical aspect to these seemingly “mundane” product updates that people in the peanut gallery are missing:

Incremental updates help stack the deck for a big-splash release in the future.

When you have an existing product and you do want to make a big change to it, you can do that two ways:

  1. Bite the bullet, and launch it all at once in a massive blowout release that shocks everybody.
  2. Spread the changes out over a couple of releases that get you to the same end goal, but that aren’t as individually shocking to your customers.

In the case of iPhone 7, I believe the removal of the headphone jack is a tell that they’re doing the latter. I think whatever is coming after iPhone 7 depended on reclaiming that headphone jack space for something else. Every tiny bit of space matters!

By killing the jack in this release, they’re freeing themselves up to make a bigger move next. They knew everyone would whine and vent about that detail now. That means the next BIG launch won’t be marred by discussion about headphone jacks, because we’ll all have gotten over it by then. (People have a surprisingly short-term memory for the very strong opinions they held even a year earlier.)

The bottom line is, people get excited about changes and shiny new things, but they also hate changes — especially when they’re disruptive or different in ways that don’t seem to be a clear improvement over the old ways.

So, launching an update to an existing product is a difficult balancing act between these two extremes. Sometimes the big splash is fully warranted, but the rest of the time it’s best to be conservative and incremental. Apple’s carefully orchestrated release cadence is the perfect example of this, much to the chagrin of the overeager tech press.

Product releases are part of a larger long-term strategy, and they only make sense when you know the full picture. Only Apple knows theirs, but I’d bet on something big next time around. I suspect we won’t be bored for much longer.

This was originally posted on Signal vs. Noise.