Book review: Inside Steve’s Brain

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When I picked up this book I thought it would be a biography of Steve Jobs, and doubted whether this would make an interesting read for interaction designers. But it turns out, it’s very interesting for designers indeed. Obviously, there’s a lot of biographical information in it, but it’s not a chronological story of Steve’s life… It’s a book about Steve Jobs’ vision on products, user experience and innovation.

The introduction starts about how Steve Jobs gives as much thought to the box his gadgets come in as the products themselves. Having recently bought an iPhone myself (my first Apple product), I know Apple’s ‘unboxing experience’ is very nice. What I didn’t know is that Jobs already paid a lot of attention to package design in 1984, for the original Macintosh. This illustrates how for Jobs it’s all about the user experience and that every single aspect must be very carefully thought out. I’ve picked a few of the chapter titles to tell you something about this book. Let’s have a look.

Apple’s One-Man Focus Group

This book confirms the image many have of Steve Jobs as a dominant man who likes to control everything and who shouts at his employees. That may be true, but the other side of this coin is that Jobs is incredibly passionate about what he does and truly has a great sense for good design and what the user wants.

People don’t know what they want until you show it to them

It is mentioned that when the Walkman was developed, all the marketing research said it was going to fail, but it they went through with it anyway – and the Walkman became the biggest selling gadget ever. That’s why Jobs doesn’t believe in focus groups. He is quoted: “For something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. So Steve Jobs doesn’t need user research, because Steve Jobs is a user experience expert. At Apple, ‘the user’ is Steve Jobs. Jobs thinks like a layman, demanding his designers and engineers to make the products as simple as they can be. If he can use it, anyone can use it. That makes Apple a user centered company that never actually talks to its users. Okay, maybe Steve Jobs really is a genius who knows everything best, but I doubt that this kind of approach works for all companies. I personally believe more in open innovation: getting users involved in creating new products, and other big companies show that this works too (take a look at Google).

Perfectionism: Product Design and the Pursuit of Excellence

Steve Jobs is as much of a perfectionist as perfectionists get. It’s not right until it’s absolutely perfect. In order to make things perfect, there needs to be lots of room for iteration. At Apple, only 10 percent of the time is really spent on designing. The other 90 percent is for making endless variations, prototyping and testing, constantly tweaking and refining. This is really the core of Apple’s design process: prototype until perfection. Even the first Apple Store was prototyped: a full-size mockup was made inside a warehouse. Steve Jobs practices his keynote speeches for weeks before the presentation. Apple’s design team make lots of variations of a single design, and lay their prints out on a table to discuss them over and over again. This is something I think interaction designers should definitely aspire to do more: spend less time on design, and more on variations, prototyping and getting the details right.

Instead of adding features with each iteration, Steve will always push his team to make the products as simple as possible. That means they need to focus. And focus means saying no. That’s a very simple truth, but I think we often don’t realize the saying no part. We know we have to focus in order to make good designs, but throwing things away we put time and effort in is rather scary, isn’t it? Steve Jobs has no problems saying no. He’ll cancel projects that have been running for years, if he thinks they are not part of Apple’s core business. That’s what he did when he came back to Apple in 1997 and that focus has saved the company and made it one of the most innovative brands in the world today.

Focus means saying no. Stay focused; don’t allow feature creep

What struck me is that actually, Apple doesn’t practice ‘user experience’ design at all – at least not as we here at at Johnny Holland often talk about it. Apple doesn’t start out with the user. They don’t start out wanting to create a ‘friendly’ PC. They start with the materials and technology, trying out how they can advance the state of the art. Design for them is a craft and an art, not solving user’s problems. In fact, Steve Jobs doesn’t consciously think about innovation at all, because “trying to systemize innovation is like somebody who’s not cool trying to be cool”. He only thinks about making great products.

Total control: The Whole Widget

This is the name of the final chapter and sums Steve Jobs’ vision all up: in order to create the best customer experience, you need to control every aspect. From the hardware to the software, from the packaging to the stores, every touchpoint with the user is controlled by Apple, and eventually, by Steve Jobs. He believes this total control is the only way to guarantee stability, security and ease-of-use, of which the iPod and iPhone are probably the best examples.

At one point in the book, Leander writes about Jobs’ historic speech at Macworld in 2001 about the digital lifestyle (where the first iPod was introduced). While I was reading it, I thought ‘I wish I could look at a video of that keynote’. I then realised I had one of Steve’s products in my pocket, so I took out my iPhone, found the video on Youtube and watched what I had just been reading about, and thought to myself: ‘How cool is that? The digital lifestyle he talked about has come to life’.


This book is a quick and compelling read, full of interesting facts and anecdotes. Its not only about Apple, but about Jobs’ other successful company, Pixar, too. Each chapter is followed by a bulleted list with ‘Lessons from Steve’, so if you don’t like reading a lot, you can quickly distill the essence from the book from those pages.

But this book is not just a bunch of business lessons. It’s an inspirational book that hit me in my designer heart. When I read it, I  really got a ‘I wanna be like Steve’ feeling: I admire his pursuit of excellence, not willing to compromise for quality. That’s something we designers are too often forced to do, with time and budget constraints, or clients who see it completely differently. The book inspired me to really want to put the user experience in the first place at all times and let everything else come second. Sometimes it feels like the praise for Steve Jobs is a bit too much, though. Leander portrays him almost as a god-like person. I think you need to put that into perspective and realize that Apple’s strategy is not the only way to successful products.

Whether you’re an Apple lover or hater, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in user experience.

Book Details
Inside Steve’s Brain
author: Leander Kahney
publisher: Portfolio, 2008
details: 294 pages, hardcover

Patrick Sanwikarja

Patrick Sanwikarja is an interaction designer at Fabrique Communication and Design in Delft, The Netherlands. He wants to make the future happen by designing it.

4 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: Posts about Steve Jobs as of July 4, 2009 » The Daily Parr

  2. Chris McLay on

    “That makes Apple a user centered company that never actually talks to its users”

    Can someone actually point to a reference for this assertion? I hear it all the time, but not from reputable sources, and there are lots of article talking about the research that Apple does do – such as building multiple versions of the Apple retail store to see which ones worked best.

  3. Bram on

    Very nice book review! Bought the thing right away.

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