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Why the iPhone will fail (2007) (suckbusters2.blogspot.com)
100 points by aneth on Sept 5, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments

> The designers and technophiles who encouraged development of the iPhone have fallen into the trap of all overreaching hardware and software designers; thinking that their users are like themselves.

Actually, I think both the worst and the best designers think their users are like them. It's just that the best ones are right.

The best designers have an accurate mental model of their users. In their mind, they can put their product in the hand of the 30 year old floor manager at the Borders at the mall and predict what will happen with shocking accuracy.

They can predict it because they've watched the floor manager interact with past products in the usability lab dozens of times.

And because they have watched that person dozens of times, they know that even thought they can predict extremely well how that person will react, they know they have to run tests anyway, because the best designers know how often they've been surprised in the past.

The best designers have a great mental model of their users, and know when to use it.

The worst designers just use themselves as a model of their users, and their designs are accordingly screwy.

Sometimes it also helps having an accurate mental model of yourself. Not as common as one could assume.

Well with regards to testing,

Apple don't do any kind of usability testing in any normal sense.

They build products they want themselves and then they see what happens. The feedback they get back from that is the feedback they use.

Of course Apple does usability testing and has since the beginning. Here's a full guide on how they do it:


Obviously they use their own judgment and market feedback as well, but the notion that they launch products without testing them first is crazy.

No one is saying they aren't testing them. Of course they are.

They are just not testing them in any normal sense.

I.e. they don't invite users to test it in usability labs or any other typical test environments.


That was the paragraph that jumped out at me too, because he got that exactly wrong. The iPhone designers clearly did understand their users, all 120 million of them. My wife is a total technophobe and the iPhone has finally connected her to her friends online.

I still deal with this issue working with techies who have iPhones and develop on iPhones. There are 100,000 iOS developers. 120 million iOS devices. So Mr Platt may be correct about developers in general, but he certainly got it wrong about Apple.

I must disagree that the best designers are like their users. The best designer is someone who can design a user interface for 120 million. Yet most iPhone users can't. It takes a different mindset to design a UI than to use it.

We're all wrong at times. I can forgive that.

What I can't forgive is quoting your own made-up "laws" like you've discovered deep truths about the natural world...

"Because [Apple's] designers forgot Platt’s First, Last, and Only Law of User Experience Design ('Know Thy User, for He Is Not Thee')" -David Platt

I think this applies even when you're right or when in fact you did discover deep truths about the natural world.

It's one thing to be wrong with guesses, but this guy is factually wrong on parts of the technology. Apple did improve the touchscreen keyboard by adding a bit of prediction to it, all buttons aren't always the same size, which makes it easier to hit the "right" key all the time, which in turn improves the experience by removing the common frustrations.

He was also wrong about the volume controls as comments above show.

This guy falls into the same trap a lot of UX designers do: He takes a good rule (keep it simple) and extrapolates too far in his conclusion. He assumes an average user isn't smart enough to grasp multi-function devices and multitasking.

That said I don't blame him for his third point. I think a lot of people (myself included) were suprised at how little tactile feedback is missed on the iPhone.

I sort of agree about tactile feedback. People don't miss it much on the iphone. On the other hand, real buttons are still a far, far better interface. I basically don't use the virtual keyboard on my droid. I either use the real keyboard or voice search. Both interfaces blow the virtual keyboard away (and it's not even that bad). I guess what I'm saying is that both sides are right. Real buttons are better, but if you don't have them normal users will still buy the device.

I think the stroke of genius in the iPhone (and I fully admit this is obvious 3 years later), is that people want to do a wide variety of simple things on their phone.

If you are sending tons of emails from your phone, then yeah, the physical keyboard blows the onscreen one out of the water. But when you are running a dozen apps with completely different functionality, but all of them are fairly simplistic, a touch-screen (especially a good one) does a better job on average, as compared to a keyboard where you quickly descend into the buttons being meaningless ala Nokia endless 2-button menu navigation.

Now obviously you can have both (I bought a G1 back in '08 and I like having both), but it took balls for Apple to make that decision and say that a touchscreen only would be sufficient. However the impact of that decision on the elegance of the form factor is undeniable, and something that I imagine had a large if unmeasurable impact on the success of the iPhone. It's the type of thing that you need a product visionary at the top to achieve, otherwise it's DOA at the first board meeting.

I think it depends on the size of your hands and how you use it. I have big hands, and all physical keyboards sized for a phone are painful to use. Once I trained myself to ignore typos and let the iPhone correct them for me, I became far faster on the touchscreen than I ever was on a physical keyboard.

I don't find tactile feedback all that useful when you often hit the wrong key anyway due to their tiny size. I'd say my typing is as good on the iPhone as any keypad of equivalent size. Though the auto-correction probably makes it better in the end. It's not like you can really touch type on any phone sized keypad like you can with a real computer keyboard.

I don't want a touch screen on a point-and-shoot digital camera, for example.

Touch screens may turn into a technology that's omnipresent although "educated" consumers try to avoid it (like glossy laptop screens or high-megapixel cameras with tiny sensors)

It's not missed primarily because there's perfect visual feedback – when you scroll, the screen scrolls immediately (even if you reached the edge, it still scrolls a bit), when you type you see the letters popping up exactly at the point you're looking at, etc.

Exactly. My iPad hung a little yesterday and didn't do anything when I hit a button. I had, in fact, pressed the button, but there was no visual feedback. It's startling when it's not perfect, but when it works just so it doesn't really matter that it's not tactile feedback, it's that your brain gets the message that "yes, I just did x-action"

My iPhone 3G nowadays basically takes guesswork to function. "I pressed this link four times, is it frozen or did I touch the wrong place?"

This is why I always immediately disable the trackpad clicks on laptops and netbooks. There's no tactile response, and due to the delay in Windows (it's as inevitable as the sun setting) I find myself opening a document 5 times whilst trying to figure out if I even double clicked it once.

I've used iPhones and Touches, yet to get hold of an iPad but this definitely hasn't been my response. It generally reacts fast enough to not need tactile response. Generally. I suppose when it goes wrong it's disastrously annoying for end-user experience.

It's amazing how much slower my 3G has gotten in the past 6 or 9 months.

What's surprising is that it's gotten so much slower without any new functionality! I'm convinced that Apple has added some code to slow it down just to get me to buy a new one tinfoil hat.

iOS 4 on the 3G seems almost unusable and with little additional features I wonder why Apple bothered with it. There are downgrade tutorials around I'd suggest looking at them.

Supposedly, iOS 4.1 that just came out is MUCH faster on 3G. http://lifehacker.com/5628991/iphone-3g-speed-test-ios-40-ve...

Hmm, the article says marginal to large, and it looks like it's still much slower than 3, which is already a dog... Too bad...

>As I expound in great detail in my book Why Software Sucks (Addison-Wesley, 2006, http://www.whysoftwaresucks.com/) your user is not you.

Seems that the author was really looking for a promotion vehicle for his book and looked to take a big product launch like the iphone and use it to his advantage.

Everyone that bought the book based on this ridiculous article should get their money back like everyone that bought a mini vanilli album (I might be dating myself).

A minor point - it's Milli Vanilli (although mini vanilli sounds interesting) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milli_Vanilli

Yep... to be honest I think it's useful to go back and mock wanna be experts who are recognised as experts, but if you start looking at random blogs on the net looking for people who made silly predictions, then I find it just arrogant.

So on the one side I don't know who this guy is, why I should have cared about his opinion back then... but at least now I know not to touch on of his books with a 10 foot pole... exactly because of the reason you explained.

>Sell your Apple stock now, while the hype's still hot. You heard it here first.

AAPL on June 21, 2007 - $123.9 a share

AAPL on September 4, 2010 - $258.8



I can never understand why people give advice like that. If they are right, nobody will remember or credit them, and if they are wrong they look terrible.

I certainly avoid making such statements, as I cannot bear the thought of my advice destroying the wealth of the people close enough to me to listen to me.

You do have to give him credit for leaving the article up. I think I'd be busy purging it from every internet cache I could find if I'd written something this confident and wrong.

Is that really so? My (maybe cynical) impression is exactly the opposite. Make a prediction (say, that the economy is doing great) and if you are right you get kudos, if you are wrong you get to go back on TV explaining why the "experts" got it wrong (forgetting the little bit that you did too).

I still can't quite understand why you keep hearing people who could predict nothing (say many economic "experts" or technology "analysts") and journalist still go to listen to their prediction like they are Delphi's Oracle.

I thought HD-DVD would win because it was the most accessible name for consumers. Perhaps if they'd named it DVD+HD it would have pulled it off :)

1. Write troll article, urging everyone to sell their stock.

2. Stock dips, buy as much as you can.

3. Wait 3 years.

4. Profit!

Wow, if my blog had this kind of clout, I'd retire early!

In case anyone is wondering what happened to this guy, he's writing for Microsoft now.


Which makes sense. He's got that fantastically wrong sense of intuition in design that makes someone come to all the wrong conclusions with the data; the kind of person who couldn't see the iPhone was a Big Deal in UX. This means he's a great fit for the Microsoft UX base, because he can tell them what they want to hear.

P.S., I suppose this statement will anger people and they'll furiously hit the down arrow next to this comment, but I don't care. Having worked in Microsoft, I can assure you that the people who succeed in MS UX roles are the people who tell middle management what they want to hear (while the upper management and actual engineers watch helplessly).

>In case anyone is wondering what happened to this guy, he's writing for Microsoft now.

Perhaps he was writing for Microsoft then too??

Between the shills and those just after page hits, there sure are a lot of articles not worth the paper they could have been written on. It's funny seeing the guy cite himself though.

Pity the iPhone is so hard to use and lacking that keyboard. People with the urge to hit control-alt-F7 obviously weren't consulted. And his point about multiple functions... Perhaps he figures there's still a market for dedicated word processors or something.


I've worked at microsoft as well, and I concur. The corporate culture seems designed to produce bad UX, even though all the MSFT employees I knew were earnest and well meaning.

Interestingly, the OP post suffers from the problem he accuses the iPhone of. He says "you're not your customer, don't design the product for you" and then laments the iPhone because it doesn't fit what he thinks a phone should be.

"The user has to interrupt her blissful reverie, open her eyes, come back visually to the yucky airplane that the beautiful music from the iPhone has been helping her escape. She then has to pick the phone up in one hand, lift it up to where she can see it, use her other hand to press the forward button, and put the phone back down. Instead of a one-hand, no eye operation, it's a two-hand, two-eye operation."

Or you can just double-click the button on the earbuds. One-hand, no eye operation.

How embarassing for this guy. I guess the lesson is that armchair UI experts shouldn't underestimate Apple's product design skills. All his critiques are obvious issues that Apple was probably thinking about from day 1 of product design in 2005 or whenever. Buttons too small for touchscreen; make them bigger. No tactile feedback; make the UI super-responsive.

On the other hand you can cut the guy some slack since he made these predictions before release. It's actually quite a bit more embarassing when you hear an interview from Ballmer in 2010 floundering around trying to stick to his talking points about how an iPad is still a PC, and PCs will come in many form factors, etc.

Is it? I think maybe we can cut him some slack for his predictions... but it takes a special kind of arrogance to make predictions when you haven't even touched/tried one.

"There hasn’t been a packaged album side worth listening to the whole thing in order since Abbey Road."

Comments like this are revealing.

I was about to come here and write a comment about how you could barely go a sentence through the post without finding a patently absurd statement, and that was going to be at the top of my highlights list.

Since you stole my headliner, I'll post a few other false or highly questionable remarks that would have had me dismissing this as shallow linkbait as early as 2007:

"...crash in flames the way Apple’s late and unlamented Newton did, only much more loudly and publicly because of all the hype it’s gotten" (the Newton was just as widely hyped at the time)

(about the iTunes store) "You could listen to the whole song before you bought it, not just a small clip." (the opposite of the truth)

"Consider the case of an airline passenger relaxing in her seat, eyes closed, iPod mini hung around her neck with a cord, or maybe just lying in her lap -- the very picture of relaxation. Suppose she wants to skip forward or back in the song list. She just presses the forward or back button....Now think of the same thing with in iPhone, which doesn't have separate forward or back buttons, just an icon on a touch screen. The user has to interrupt her blissful reverie, open her eyes..." (or she could double-click or triple-click the headphone cord)

(And, back to the original point, I own at least a dozen albums made since Abbey Road worth listening to in their entirety--in fact, each of them is more worth listening to in their entirety than Abbey Road itself, in my opinion, and one was even produced at Abbey Road Studios!)

Definitely. Never trust anyone who hasn't heard "Dark Side of the Moon."

Yeah I can name three from this year already: Janelle Monáe "The ArchAndroid", Arcade Fire "The Suburbs", and The Roots "How I Got Over"

Not better than Abbey Road, but definitely worth listening too in whole.

You must be thinking of Graceland Side 1 :)

Reading this, I was thinking that this might very well describe a poorly designed mobile OS, like Windows Mobile or maybe even Android 1.0. Even my myTouch 3G is a pain to use because of limited RAM and a slow CPU.

Apple, I think, overcame a lot of the usability issues this guy was afraid of by carefully designing the OS and software to be as user-friendly as possible.

I think Android still has quite a ways to go before the OS is capable of producing the same level of simplicity and elegance as the iPhone.

Note: I've only used an iPhone in passing. My phone is an Android

This guy's first point is so shitty that you can discard the rest of the article based on it ALONE:

> First, the iPhone ignores the main reasons that the iPod succeeded: simplicity and ease of use. The iPod is very easy to play and very easy to load, much more so than any other device had ever been. Even more important, the online ITunes store made buying music much simpler and easier than it had been. You didn’t have to drive to the store, you didn’t have to even wait for the UPS man to deliver a CD from amazon. You could listen to the whole song before you bought it, not just a small clip. And you could buy individual songs that you liked instead of having to buy a whole CD of mediocre gunk to get those one or two good songs. (There hasn’t been a packaged album side worth listening to the whole thing in order since Abbey Road.) You didn't have to carry the CDs around with you and change them and worry about losing them. The iPod was a success not because it made complex and sophisticated things possible, but because it made simple things (listening to the music that you liked) simpler and easier than they ever had been before. The iPhone is doing the opposite.

I have highlighted the only section in which he lists complaints against the iPhone with respect to simplicity and ease of use.

Yes, but you have to remember that at that time, we were all using feature phones. Smartphones hadn't really taken off yet, and they _did_ seem significantly more complicated, since they do so much more. I had a RAZR, and it could _technically_ play MP3s, but I certainly didn't want it to. I think that this complaint was totally reasonable, given the time period and the fact that it hadn't come out yet.

And by reasonable, I mean "still wrong, but understandable at the time."

His complaint is without any substance. That's what I'm getting at: "The iPhone is too complicated! Here's a bunch of things not related to the iPhone that are simple. The iPhone is complicated."

The problem with his article besides being obviously wrong in retrospect is his focus on usability as a defining factor for the success of the product.

Usability and simplicity isn't why a product succeeds, it needs to be understood in context with engineering, marketing, luck, timing and so many other things.

The iPhone succeeded because at the time it was such a fresh breath of air.

True, but I actually think it succeeded very much because it was the first usable "smartphone". The author of this blogpost didn't realize this. Although he could do exactly same stuff on his old Nokia N-series, it wasn't until my dad got an iPhone that he began sending mails, browsing the web and listening to music on his phone. Now my mother's got one as well and she's doing the same.


What Apple realized was that you can't extend the current desktop metaphor to the mobile screen.

So yes certainly usability have much to do with it. But factors such as control over the user experience also had a lot to do with it.

In other words, apple could probably have done a worse job and still be successful because they controlled everything on the phone.

And obviously the ecosystem have been a huge factor just as it was for the iPod.

The first comment hit the nail on the head though.

[...] Now the iPhone. When it hits the streets I guarantee it will sell like hot cakes (though not to you or me!). It is the must-have yuppie accessory of the decade. I predict they will sell millions of the things before anyone even stops to evaluate what they have actually bought.

Lol... yeah, keep telling yourself that. How did it go?

first day: massive queues ==> Everyone on the net: "This is meaningless: they are just the Apple drones following their Apple master's orders"

first month: still in high demand ==> Everyone on the net: "Sure, it's going fine now. But wait until all the Apple zealot have got one and then demand will collapse"

first year: still in high demand ==> Everyone on the net: "Of course it's a good design, but I may as well buy X from company Y that will only come out in Z months: it's going to completely kill the iPhone. Anyone who is not a zealot will get one".

The common theme is that from day one people dismiss Apple gadgets as something that will only appeal the yuppies or the zealots. They said the same of the iPod. But they ended up selling more than 250 million iPods and something like 100+ million iOS devices (though there's a slight overlap between the two groups).

At which point do those that buy Apple gadgets stop becoming the minority of zealots/yuppies and _you_ become the minority?

I would be surprised if he still does not have one.

There's a pretty big mistake in his logic, even without the benefit of hindsight.

The iPhone didn't have to be as easy to use as an iPod. It's competing against other phones, and only needed to be easier to use than those.

(In any case, I do find an iPhone easier to use than an iPod.)

I certainly agree.

His biggest mistake was not underestimating Apple, or it's potential customers.

His biggest mistake was ignoring how terrible every other smartphone offering to date actually was.

Certainly there have been plenty of well built and designed "phones" but the smartphone offerings were and have always been mostly painful experiences for end users.

There was always a massive compromise that greatly effected usability.

The iPhone chose a different set of compromises and I dare say it was a pretty spot on decision (in retrospect).

"... users will detest the touch screen interface due to its lack of tactile feedback ..."

is like saying

"... people watching moving picture films will reject the experience due to its lack of olfactory feedback ..."

Still waiting on that smell-o-vision...

tactile was certainly a poor choice of words- but nobody can deny there is room for improvement. i still can't type without looking.

it's really not that hard. the buttons are always in the same place

i can type with like 70% accuracy without looking on the iphone, with 1 hand

My fingertips are too big to type accurately. It's a pity because I really like my iPod touch.

And both Taco and Diego made reasonable points at the time.

"No wireless. Less space than a nomad" all true, like "no tactile response," etc were / are.

The complete package and ecosystem have made iPods / iPhones compelling.

And the firm belief on taco's and diego's parts that this "senselessness" would be clear were just clearly - in hindsight - wrong.


This failure of this article to predict iPhone's success echos well with another article posted on HN yesterday ("simplicity is overrated") that UX simplicity does not equate simple functionality or single-purpose device. The killer product is often the ones with multiple powerful functions but also intuitive UX design that won't take long for the user to figure out how to operate it. Simple is about intuition.

linkbait title. and not very accurate. makes it sound like present day article.

They did say "2007" in the title...

I added it after his complaint.

Funny it ended up with the same title I gave it the first time I typed it. I like thinking of articles like this as a failed present that never happened, because I find that to be a deeper way of considering wrong predictions. That's the reason for the title as I wrote it, but straightforward works too. ;)

I do give the guy credit for making a call though, just not sure I'd buy his book.

Usually when an expert prediction is wrong I'm fairly ambivalent because I wouldn't know what to say either, and hey they can't all be right at the same time. But in this case it contradicts my own observations and gut feeling about the iPhone from when it was first demo'd (reinforced when I got my hands on one). Sometimes folks instincts are just so off about things it amazes me. I think it happens in other walks of life too, like music critics who totally fail to detect hits on a new album. I don't like the word 'overthinking' but there definitely is some sort of phenomenon whereby experts become blind to the obvious.

I'd be curious to know, a few years on now, what type of phone he's using.

I'd have to say that as far as simplicity, iOS seems to be the leader right now (maybe not the most powerful/customizable though), in comparison to RIM/Android.

some of the points (like the flaws of touch-screen buttons) are only not true for iPhone. other competitors (say, Android phones) have very poor experience with non-responsive onscreen keys.

With regard to tactile feedback, I think it's rather a learned experience. People who have never used phone-sized physical keyboards (like myself) won't care much about "losing" that experience.

And some people (like myself) that were used to phone-sized keyboards just hated it. People that like bigger screens and a solid thing instead of mobile parts. I never understood people in University class writing messages under the table, multitasking is slower and inefficient.

This guy made a guess and also picked a title likely to engender some debate or get page views. Good for him I guess as he took a stand. Unfortunately, he was totally off the mark.

All this proves is the best strategies and ideas are usually written after the fact. Once something works, it gets celebrated, becomes a best practice, becomes a subject of books, and companies with no interest in creativity assume they can copy them and succeed.

You've got to admit that Apple has an uncanny ability to find such things though. It's no random event.

No doubt. They've done remarkably well but this (1) hasn't always been the case with Apple and (2) they do benefit from a brand halo they have from the iPod which did change the game.

It'll be interesting to see if they can extend their wins into a new realm like with their social network - ping. That would be a testament to the firm's brilliance.

I think they did extend their wins into a new realm with the iPhone and the iPad. A lot of analysts doomed their effort because nobody had managed to enter the cell phone market with no previous experience.

I don't think Ping is a major product for them, I'm pretty sure that it's more a feature like Genius playlists or iTunes LP. I might be wrong here, but I don't get the feeling that they're trying to enter social networking as a realm. Just like MobileMe still hasn't been Apples big entry into cloud computing, it's just a nice add-on feature.

I think (1) is always the case with a "brilliant" company (whatever that means).

Apple got successes because they didn't shun risk. Often they got it right (e.g. the iMac, dropping the floppy, etc...). Others they got it wrong (e.g. the Mac cube, and their adding DVD players instead of CD-RW back when you couldn't have both easily).

But if you don't risk you get nowhere. Sony used to take risks... sadly not so much now (apart from the play station, but they got so burnt with the PS3 that I doubt they'll try again). I miss more gutsy companies.

Sony is failing now because they really just don't like their customers.

Reminds me of all those "Why Ping will fail" articles.

His logic for why people bought the iPod is flawed since he doesn't back it up with any evidence. I don't think iTunes had as much of an impact as he says, most people imported the majority of their collection from CDs in the early days of the iPod or downloaded it illegally which had nothing to do with iTunes. Also Apple was making the smallest harddisk MP3 player with the longest battery life for a few years and that's why I bought one (2nd gen, Feb. 2003) and later recommended it to others. I don't think the ease of loading the iPod was any better than other players in the early days, since flash based MP3 players were as easy or easier since you could just drag the files on or just their own simple tools. In fact to this day iTunes seems to hated by a large pencentage of my friends with iPods (who mostly use Windows BTW)

He also makes the mistake that the iPhone would be about music even though it was clealy a step backwards in terms of the capicity (4 and 8gb) and the controls as he points out. It was clearly designed for the Internet, Apps/games and video - though that is easier to see in hindsight.

I think this gives further credit to apple achievements and makes even clearer that designing good products goes far beyond any rule list anyone could make.

As I expound in great detail in my book Why Software Sucks (Addison-Wesley, 2006, http://www.whysoftwaresucks.com/) your user is not you. Why this narcissistic, self-praising blog post of an obviously incompetent at least in marketing person is hanging on top of HN? Caturday?

related » http://j.mp/ideath

The only mistake of this man is that he didn't account for the reality distortion field.

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