Remarkable People

Steve Jobs' most disruptive trait: his obsession with the customer's experience

Steve Jobs' most disruptive tr...
For Steve Jobs, the customer's experience was paramount (Photo: bloomua/Shutterstock)
For Steve Jobs, the customer's experience was paramount (Photo: bloomua/Shutterstock)
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For Steve Jobs, the customer's experience was paramount (Photo: bloomua/Shutterstock)
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For Steve Jobs, the customer's experience was paramount (Photo: bloomua/Shutterstock)
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Photo: acaben
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You have to wonder whether all of the tech bloggers who gush sentimental tributes to Steve Jobs would have actually liked the man. Numerous accounts paint a picture of a person who – in addition to his obvious charm, wicked intelligence, and inspired creativity – could be extremely rude, manipulative, and hot-tempered. It's easy to laugh these traits off when you're reading about them in a biography, but if these sappy fanboys had actually spent time with Jobs, would they still offer such moving words?

So, on this anniversary of his passing, I'm not going to pretend that I knew the man and deliver another faux heartfelt eulogy. Instead, I'm going to offer a viewpoint of Steve Jobs from the perspective of a customer.

Jobs had many unique traits that determined his success: taste in elegant design, a Jedi-like ability to see 50 steps ahead, and a charismatic "reality distortion field." You could write a book about each of these qualities. But, from my viewpoint, one attribute cemented Jobs' legacy more than any of these: his obsession with the customer's subjective experience.

Profitable subjectivity

Advertising execs have been trying to get inside customers' heads for centuries. Anyone who has watched Mad Men has seen a fascinating example of the wheels that could have been turning in a typical 1960s ad agency. What made Jobs special – perhaps more so than the fictional Don Draper – was his deep-rooted obsession with the customer's journey.

Most companies look at their products as things. They decide what this thing is going to do, what practical purpose it will solve, and how much it will cost. The product is an objective, measurable item, and their job is to figure out how to make money off of that item.

Whether it stemmed from his Buddhist views, his 1970s acid trips, or something else entirely, Jobs thought differently. He saw life – from birth to death – as an experience. Facts, figures, and objects were fine and dandy, but they were all just part of a person's subjective perspective.

Products as Events

Photo: acaben
Photo: acaben

Jobs was a dreamer – influenced heavily by 1960s cultural icons like the Beatles and Bob Dylan – and he believed that his products (much like Dylan's songwriting) took that subjective experience to a higher level. Sublime art elevated life. His goal with his products, then, was to create events.

To Jobs, a Mac wasn't just a computer that you used to get stuff done. An iPhone wasn't just an internet-connected portable media player that made phone calls. And a trip to the Genius bar wasn't just a visit to customer service. All of these things were events.

This series of events started with, well, an event: a keynote speech with Jobs on stage, laying out the framework for this next amazing experience. Soon after came the purchase of the product, which – in Jobs' later years – involved thousands of eager customers camping out overnight. Even opening the product was an event, with the package laid out so that you discovered this beautiful device in just the right sequence. Once you owned the item, every time you used it was also meant to be an event. It isn't a product, it's your life – enhanced.

Perhaps what separated Jobs from an ad exec with a marketing degree, though, was that he really believed in this perspective. To him, it wasn't just a clever tactic to sucker people into making him rich; it represented his core philosophy. The iPad wasn't just a product sold by Apple any more than Hey Jude was just a product sold by Apple Records. To Jobs, they were both art: elevating life experience from the dull and boring into something approaching nirvana.

It worked

You can argue all you want about whether this view is "true" or simply a convenient delusion. That's a discussion for another time and place. One thing you can't deny, though, is that it worked for Steve Jobs.

Jobs' genius can't be summed up in a blog post by someone who never met him. His most disruptive feature can, however, be discerned by a customer. Customers can tell when a company is only concerned with delivering X product for Y money, and when a company is devoted to something else. To millions of Apple's customers, Jobs took a sad song, and made it better.

18 comments
Grunchy
This article makes a lot of sense, I knew early on that Apple under Jobs was working toward making an experience, because all of their literature referred to "the experience". Well the experience to me boiled down to a lot of content-less graphic sequences that are basically nothing but miniature cartoons. It's fluff. It has no substance. Now I admit when my Windows device slows down or hiccups, that shatters the illusion that it is operating seamlessly and a person's perception is shattered. I must be a cheapskate or something because I have never paid good money for Apple product, because when I look past the fluff I can find other equipment that is just as effective and a lot cheaper. I guess the lesson is, make sure to control the perception and you can name your own reward. It's the same trick magicians use to fantastic effect - but you know in your head that the act is a bunch of hokum.
Larry Smith
Now if someone would just apply the same philosophy and tenacity to the design of kitchen appliances. Think about how the tops of ranges or the insides of microwave oven trap food in cracks and are difficult to clean. We need a revolution in the kitchen, and it can't come soon enough.
Des Shinnick
Unlike Grunchy I've used PC's solely till about 2 years ago. I got sick and tired of re-booting, of having a problem and Microsoft blaming another software maker and they another as to whose part of the puzzle was causing the problem. I've seen past the fluff on the PC and it's dysfunction and chaos. Apple just works. Most of the time. And when it doesn't, I can talk to someone and can usually get it sorted. Apples valuing of customer experience permeates the product. I've dropped my magic mouse dozens of times on to a tiled floor and it just works. There is an elegance of design and build through hardware and software. It's those little things that you hardly notice that just make the experience more pleasurable. I hope Apple have someone taking up the same cause going forward. I have iOS6 maps that suggest it's slipping. They say Apple Maps was Jobs idea. Maybe so but I bet he would have run that thing and played with it and never released it in that state or labelled it beta. A main arterial route North of me that was open over a year ago is not on my Apple map (Kamo bypass for SH1). Nor the new adjoining roads. Great article.
VoiceofReason
Gushing about the customer experience is fine.....until every piece of media you want to access HAS to go through Quicktime or iTunes to run. The balloon pops for me at that point. I don't want or need Apple to be THAT intrusive into how I use what I bought. Plus the sheer control freak aspect of no SD card slots.
mokkybear54
I'm with you, VoiceofReason. The experience is fine, as long as you want it the way Steve Jobs thinks you should. Try to do anything else, and you're hamstrung. I begrudgingly accepted a hand-me-down iPhone, and found it quite useful in many ways (coming from a non-smart-phone). It suddenly decided it wouldn't work at all without being 'restored'. Trying to do so fails at about 80% of the way through, with only an error number to tell me why it failed. Clicking on the 'more info' took me to an Apple page that wouldn't open. That's the experience from my perspective.
duh3000
Thoughtful article. I enjoyed reading the author's perspective. I suppose it's pleasant partly because I share his point of view, but also because it's so nicely written. On the other hand, the "experience" is less pleasant reading the uniformed, and rather aggressively written, opinions of people who, by their own admission, have never purchased (used?) the company's products. For them, I have a book they can judge without reading it.
usugo
just a lot of sheep out there needing a sheperd
TheRogue1000
There will always be Apple/Mac haters and those who will figure out to diss Jobs. But the incredible success of the company and its products really tells the tale. Sheep? Such arrogance! LOL I recall buying my first Mac in 1986. It was a 128K and cost about $3,000. Before I left the store, I got a bit of buyer's remorse and commented to the very attractive woman who was my salesperson that I was not very technically inclined. She smiled and said, "If you're not up and running this Mac within 15 minutes of opening the boxes, you're a great deal more stupid that you look!" LOL I timed it. Eight minutes. That sealed it for me. I'm still not technically inclined but found that I can easily do most of my trouble shooting on the Mac myself or with just a bit of advice. The "fixing experience" has not always been fun, but it's always been short lived. And, to this day, I've yet to lose a single file with any of my many Macs. Hard to beat that "experience". If ALL products were approached in the same way Jobs thought, life would be far easier and, yes, more fun.
TheRogue1000
And one more tale. In the 90s, I went to work in an office equipped solely with pcs. I did learn how to use one but found it hopelessly complex for actually getting work done. So I began bringing my Mac Portable (that 20 lb. "luggagle") with me to the office. After two weeks, the president came in and asked how I was managing to get so much work done. I showed her the machine and how easy it was to operate. Two weekends later, the techs showed up and wired every workstation with a new Mac, all networked together with nary a sign of a cable connection. By the end of the first day, every single employee stopped by to thank me for making that happen. They had simply not known how pleasant a computer experience could be. So make snide remarks about Jobs all you like, the business results more than speak for themselves. Jobs *did* change the world. And, as for me, I could care less what his personality was like. He delivered the goods big time.
Island Architect
Enjoyable article but I think that you missed a central point. Steve was involved with Werner Erhard. Hence all that craptalk about "reality distortion fields", sappy fanboys, and ignorant haters, and extreme rudeness and harshness are irrelevant and somewhat disgusting. As such you had better believe that he was extremely highly intentional. In fact his intentionality meter was driven well past 100%. Good was never good enough. It had to be perfect, just like a master Calligraphers that he watched in college. His products were well beyond good in every way, from packaging, to sales, to product design itself. In fact the new maps are way more beautiful than before and if something is missing you can bet that it will be corrected. The lies about Central Park are disgusting. The overblown criticism is awfully Republican in style, and again more than disgusting. With Steve, America is not in decline as the Prime Minister pointed out upon meeting one of the candidates. Yes, Rogue, thanks to Steve, life is more fun. And take a look at that Australian product, the i41CX+, the finest calculator in the world that should be used in all the schools of the world, only to be found in iOS devices. Some have said that it is the real reason to have an iOS device. Steve has opened up the possibility for many young programmers to make a difference in the world because of his central conception. To me that is his greatest contribution, he helped his kindred spirits who would show their brilliance. Bill