Bob Messerschmidt is in a good position to talk about the development of the Apple Watch. It was his heart-rate sensor startup that Apple bought for use in the Watch, and the company then hired him from 2010 to 2013 to work on the project. An interview with Messerschmidt by FastCo provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of developing a new Apple product.

Of particular interest is the tension between the engineering and design teams, engineers putting forward the best approach from a technical perspective, designers pushing back where that approach conflicts with their knowledge of trends, fashion and user behaviour …

One great example is [when] I went to a meeting and said I’m going to put sensors in the watch but I’m going to put them down here (he points to the underside of the Apple Watch band he’s wearing) because I can get a more accurate reading on the bottom of the wrist than I can get on the top of the wrist. They (the Industrial Design group) said very quickly that “that’s not the design trend; that’s not the fashion trend. We want to have interchangeable bands so we don’t want to have any sensors in the band.”

Then at the next meeting I would go “we can do it here (on top of the wrist) but it’s going to have to be kind of a tight band because we want really good contact between the sensors and the skin.” The answer from the design studio would be “No, that’s not how people wear watches; they wear them like really floppy on their wrist.”

You might expect engineers to find this a frustrating experience, but Messerschmidt says not. He said that you had to respect input on real-life issues, and treat the constraints as a challenge.

That creates a set of requirements that drives you toward new engineering solutions […] Engineers left in a vacuum might say “well, that’s maybe not so important; we can get a better signal by doing it the other way so let’s do it that way.” So, left to their own devices, that would be the way the product would end up. So you have to have a really strong voice supporting the user. I think the idea of focusing on that is uniquely Apple.

I’ve long argued that debate about innovation at Apple largely misses the point: Apple has rarely been first to any new technology. Its USP is its ability to watch what other companies do, then figure out a way to do it better. In particular, Apple has never been afraid to wait until a piece of tech is sufficiently mature to deliver a great user experience. Apple did that with the iPhone, said Messerschmidt, and it’s doing it now with VR.

If you look at products like the iPhone or the iPad there aren’t too many totally new technologies included in those products. The real elegance and differentiation doesn’t have a lot to do with the technology idea itself; it’s about the packaging and the value add it gives to people. Those big (new technology) ideas generally happen elsewhere, and they happen earlier.

Virtual reality is a good example. Why hasn’t Apple jumped into VR? It’s because nobody really knows whether there’s really a “there” there. I don’t. Apple’s interested in products where everybody’s going to get some benefit out of it.

Messerschmidt is not, however, uncritical of Apple. The company’s famously secretive approach, for example, has been abused by some.

There is really a contingent at Apple that has resorted to the tools of secrecy. Steve Jobs wanted secrecy for very specific reasons. He wanted to be able to make the big splash at the product announcement. And that’s almost as far as it went. There’s definitely a contingent at Apple that wants secrecy because it helps them maintain an empire, in a sense. It helps them create a sense that they’re doing more important things that they really are.

He also ends on a rather disappointing note.

You may remember that right after he died there was all this stuff about “can Apple go on?” Could anybody have the capacity to do that job (Jobs’s)? All I can say at this point is that the jury is still out, but so far I think the signs are kind of pointing to “No.” It’s definitely not the same place.

The full interview is worth reading.


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