Steven Paul Jobs 1955–2011

Steve Jobs died today.

There’s no use repeating what has already been said: that he was a visionary, a genius, brilliant, and so on. It’s customary to speak well of the recently passed, but the truth is richer and more nuanced. Steve Jobs did not make his contributions by inventing every last component or by making every design decision in Apple’s products, a fact his critics like to point out. But he did see things in a way too few of us who work in technology do: from the point of view of the end user, unversed in the magic of the technology he produced.

Many people will today describe the «secret to Apple’s success» and while there is no single factor, Jobs was infamous for standing firm on design decisions and technology that supported the users of Apple’s products. Too often when those of us who work with technology are proud of our accomplishments, we leave whatever step forward we made in its unpolished state. We are impressed with the idea behind what we’ve done and neglect to follow through with its practical utility.

I’ve delivered products to clients that at the time I was proud of for what the client could now do. I’ve written a web-based content management and ecommerce system with a variety of tools, all accessible through the Web browser. I was proud to show the client how they could manage their Web content and update the products in their store. The process was a little awkward, perhaps, but it beat the heck out of going in to the database to issue SQL queries every time they wanted to change a price.

As I constructed these systems, I saw at every step the layers of complexity I was simplifying. From my perspective, I was making difficult tasks easier, and it was true. From the client’s perspective however, I delivered a convoluted and complex set of tasks that had to be done. Even though my client could see how valuable these tools were, there were still these cumbersome tools to learn, repetitive steps to memorize, arcane terms to interpret.

One of the first pieces of advice my father gave me regarding programming—I must have been ten or eleven—was: there is no DWIM command. DWIM is an acronym for do what I mean. When I give directions to a driver of a car I’m riding in and point left while saying «turn right» the driver might laugh at me, but she or he will point the car in the correct direction. Computers—machines of any sort, really—have no capacity to interpret intent beyond the instructions fed to them. Even advanced computers that employ fuzzy logic to give us the experience of doing what we mean rather than what we say are following highly complex sets of instructions in order to give us the appearance of interpretation that we desire. 

When creating technological products it is therefore very easy to get caught up in everything we’ve done and forget what has been left undone. In order to solve problems with technology one must deeply understand the problems on a level so rudimentary it’s not just easy to forget how everything will be used, it’s nearly impossible to remember how the work will appear in the user’s hands. We learn to think like a computer, become effective at solving computer problems, and forget to solve human problems in the process.

Steve Jobs did not ever forget how his companies’ products would be used, and he stood firm for his customers to be able to use these products in a manner which seems simple, straightforward, and even relaxed. It’s possible to disagree with some of his design decisions—I do—but no one can deny that Jobs was uncompromising in his advocacy for the best possible user experience.

This insistence on polishing every rough edge and straightening every usability zig and zag is why Apple’s competitors are befuddled by Apple customers ignoring the bells and whistles they offer. It’s why people buy iPhones instead of phones with faster processors, larger screens, and featurelists that must be shown in tiny print in order to see them in one place. It’s why ordinary people developed emotional (even irrational) attachment to their electronic devices. Jobs advocated for elegance and for his products to work for the people in whose hands they would end up.

It’s wrong to attribute Apple’s success to marketing in the traditional sense of the word. Apple’s advertisements reflect a design philosophy where the products advocate for their own use. The products are inviting and satisfying to use, making tasks not easy but rather accessible. Yes, Apple’s marketing is accessible, but that too is why it is effective and given credit for Apple’s success.

As we note the passing of a man so influential to the ways so many of us work, communicate, and even be entertained, it is that advocacy for the user that I want to acknowledge. The industry has suffered a loss, yes. But the real loss is not to those of us who are making software and technological products; the real loss is to those we serve, those people who ultimately sign our paychecks. Steve Jobs advocated for the end-user and continually raised the stakes in the job of pleasing the customer. That did not serve our laziness or our desire to get things done quickly and cheaply. It served our users.

I did not have the privilege of knowing Steve Jobs personally, but the news of his death stunned me. There is a hole in the industry where he stood. It’s up to each of us that works in technology to step up and become advocates for our users with the same tenacity. It’s up to us, whether we build Web sites or microprocessors, to remember that the usability of what we create may not be our first job, but we ought to ensure that it is our last.

Goodbye Steve. Namaste.