A Glimpse into Apple’s Product Development Process – and What We Can Learn

By

Ken Haven

September 7, 2018

The release of Apple's new iPhone products remind us that the iPhone is arguably one of the most successful high technology products ever produced, propelling Apple to becoming the world’s first trillion-dollar company. In addition to its innovation, design has, and continues to be a key element that makes the iPhone the success that it is.

In his book written several years ago, “Inside Apple: How America’s most Admired and Secretive Company Really Works”, author Adam Lashinsky provides some insight into Apple’s design process. There are a number of things we can learn from this process, that may or not be applicable to the design of other products.

From an organizational perspective, the design team led by Jony Ive does not report to finance, manufacturing etc. – they set their own budgets and are given the ability to ignore manufacturing practicalities (more on this below). They are often physically separated from the rest of the company, create their own reporting structures, are largely removed from day to day corporate “minutiae”, and report directly to the executive team.

Manufacturing practicalities at the industrial design stage are critical. Apple often invests in new manufacturing methodologies either on its own or with manufacturing partners to develop new materials and/or processes to help them achieve their desired goals. This has allowed them to create mass market items that have a luxury look and feel, with a high level of quality.

They plan on many iterations - Apple iterates its design even throughout manufacturing, with the design team making changes/improving on the design each time. Each of those iterations can take 4-6 weeks to implement.

The entire process is well documented – the Apple New Product Process details each stage of the development process in detail, defining who will be working on each aspect of the product’s design at what stage, who is responsible, where the work will be done, timelines, etc. There is also a complete product launch plan called the “Rules of the Road” which outlines all the steps that need to occur prior to product launch along with who is responsible. To manage this entire process, there are weekly product review meetings with the executive team, so that delays in significant decisions are kept to a minimum.

So, what can product companies learn from this approach?

First, that for consumer-oriented product companies where the product is used heavily, design and the user experience is key. And to create “game-changing” products, giving designers as much freedom as possible can open up new, innovative approaches to the design.

Pushing the envelope on the design side without an eye on manufacturability can come with a cost – both for new manufacturing tools and methodologies, as well as the number of iterations potentially needed to meet goals for quality, reliability, and aesthetics. While Apple has demonstrated a willingness to do this, and has met with success, this approach might not work for everyone.

A structured process with responsibilities, resources, timelines, milestones, review and decision processes is critical. This process includes regular executive management involvement not only to oversee the process, but to reduce the amount of time needed for critical decisions.

Apple is far from perfect, but their success is largely due to their ability to innovate, design, and bring high volume products to market. The creativity of their team coupled with their processes is an interesting study in how companies can achieve success.

About the author

Ken Haven has been CEO of Acorn Product Development since the company’s founding in 1993. Ken has more than 25 years of product development experience including technical leadership roles with NeXT Computer, Attain, Inc., and Hewlett-Packard. He holds MS and BS degrees in mechanical engineering from Cornell University.