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Apple manager discusses company software design
If Apple’s software looks unusually well-designed and provides unique solutions to problems, that’s because the company doesn’t obey typical rules, Apple senior engineering manager Michael Lopp has revealed in a South by Southwest technology panel attended by BusinessWeek’s Helen Walters.
Design mockups, which replicate the interface look and its mechanics, are one of the most important differentiators, Lopp says. Rather than sketch several crude mockups that will need to be changed later, Apple designers often create ten mockups that almost exactly mimic the final appearance. This adds extra time up front but pays off by preventing mistakes.
This is more than the seven or less renderings that come from other companies, the engineer adds, and is carried through to the completion stage: designers are given enough time to create their concepts and pick the top three, which themselves are refined for three months until the final interface is chosen.
The company also follows the unusual practice of holding two seemingly contradictory meetings each week. In one, the developers are encouraged to think of any design that might work, no matter impractical it initially seems; in the next, the same team is asked to determine how it could make a given plan a reality and focuses on concrete development. In doing so, Apple opens up the possibility of a creative solution even very late into production.
Importantly, Lopp adds, this also safeguards against conflicts in so-called “pony” meetings: gatherings where management outlines its desires for a product, no matter how unrealistic they might be for the actual designers. By learning what the team considers workable at any given stage, executives not avert long-term disasters but also may get the features (or “ponies”) they want through different means.