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Three Things Google Can Learn From Apple

Why P&G's slogan "Experience Matters" is relevant for tech companies, how tools can be funny, and why no one ever really needs a screwdriver.

Google versus Apple

Lately I have spent a lot of time thinking about how the '90s were a lot about technical innovation, how the '00s were about social innovation and how the '10s will be focused on innovation in the field of "Experience." I think some of the most amazing companies of the coming few years will be businesses that understand how to wrap technology beautifully around human needs so that it matters to people. In fact these insights are not new and was already well documented in Pine and Gilford's The Experience Economy from 1999. Its a bit surprising how few technology products and services actually take this into account. If we believe that the emotions of an online user are similar to how the feel offline, then great technology will, by itself, just not be enough; not even if it's designed in a clean and functional way—you will need to architect a great emotional experience for your users and then make it fit their daily flow to be a winner of tomorrow.

Here are a few things that I think that Google (and all technology-focused companies) could learn from Apple. That's not to point a finger at Google; it is clearly an amazing company with great minds that is doing very well. However, at a time when Google is moving into new services in which users have more options and are used to more experienced design, it might want to try to pick up a trick or two about human product experience design from the best in class on this subject: Apple.

1. There is a difference between good usability and a great experience

A traffic light has good usability—but using one isn't really much of an experience. It's a utility that allows us to navigate quickly and safely when driving. Many tech companies thrive on making Web sites that allow users to figure out easily what to do on a site. It's a tendency to have a big focus on clean and functional navigation, and, done really well (as on, it also becomes a great experience. However, most often, experience is far broader than just clean usability. It includes navigation, a visual look, the language used, the movement, the system's attitude toward users, the flow and so on. It all adds up to the feeling users have when they enter a site or service. What is important is that there is no such thing as a "non-branded" services. A user cannot have a "non-experience." This digital packaging is important, in the same way that a car with an innovative engine needs a great body to match it. What Apple has managed to do is to add a great and, importantly, consistent experience around even their most nerdy innovations and services. Apple has managed to add a strong design attitude and a personality to its product development.

2. A tool doesn't have to be boring

Now, some argue that certain services just need to be tools: pure utilities with none of the fluff. While I agree that some cases call for minimal experience design, I can't really think of any reason why you wouldn't always try to put a bit of an experience into your product. Even something that needs to be very professional can still have a bit of attitude. Take the example from earlier, about a traffic light: lately, I have seen traffic lights in Denmark appear with nicer iconography, nicer use of the nuances of lights, informative countdowns to when the light will change, and so on. It's still a great utility, but now also a better experience. The same goes for my funny new South Part voices made for my TOMTOM GPS navigation systems.

Reeves and Nass' classic book, The Media Equation, demonstrates very nicely that every time a person interacts with anything, emotions are evoked for them. The book claims that people interact with computers as if the computer were a person. In that perspective, when working on a new service, Googlers should perhaps ask themselves, what if our service was a person? What would that person be like? Would it be the nice, all-knowing, friendly guy next to you, helping with an IT problem, or the factual IT manager who solves your problem remotely with no interaction? The solution/utility is the same; the experience is different.

3. No-one needs a screwdriver

Most smart tech entrepreneurs I meet are in the process of making either scalable platforms or generic tools. The thinking is that if you can make a great solution for one problem, you can often make that into a scalable solution for many problems. This makes perfect sense from a business and from an engineering point of view. The problem here is that people don't feel they need tools; they need solutions to problems in their life. People never lack a screwdriver; they need to hang a painting on the wall. However, if you focus in on an amazing tool you just created, then you will naturally construct a narrative around the tool's features. Not only that, you might even stare yourself blind at all the things that the tool could be used for. Need to open a can of beer? No problem, the screwdriver can do that ...

What Apple has managed to do is to package their products around the user's needs, not around all the features of the tool itself. Sometimes they even package the same tool into various products/solutions for their users.

In that respect, it is very interesting to see how differently Apple and Google have presented their phone operating systems. Here are the two videos:

I'll leave it to you to guess who I think focuses on the utility and who focuses on experience. (One of them might even be a bit over the top :)

Reprinted from Hello Henrik

Henrik Werdelin was named one of Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business. He is the entrepreneur in Residence at Index Ventures, and adviser at Sunstone Capital. Before that, CCO of Joost & VP of MTV Development—check his bio link for more details. Follow him at

Add New Comment


  • Michelle Cubas

    Apple has always been about the experience, hence the "intuitive GUI." That's why the users will forgive Apple for the iP4 for the antennae issue. The users want the bragging rights of getting the phone first.
    True to IBM's old adage, "It's better to be first rather than best."

    The Android is ideal for IT gurus and data crunchers. They'll eat up all the detail. -MC

  • Simon Hill

    Usability vs. Experience is the wrong distinction, and a common misunderstanding, even by those who use it to explain their work. The right distinction is about what "rung" on the problem/solution ladder a particular product design is intended to address.

    For any human desire, there is a hypothetical problem-solution ladder that can be constructed, of means and ends, that gets you from the expressed desire to its satisfaction. Products exist as means to satisfy those desires. However, companies, esp. engineering-oriented companies, generally focus too low down the ladder, and produce and market products that focus on the means; other companies, like Apple, have a clear eye on the ends - they have been making the products to address the same ends over and over again, trying to perfect the achievement of the ends (that is Jobs' vision), ends which have to do with productivity, lifestyle, personal identity, entertainment, enjoyment, connecting with people with the means as invisible as possible, or if they must be visible, as beautiful and appealing as possible so we may love them as things in themselves and forgive them their less than human intelligence.

    If any of you have a philosophical background, you'll know that the very idea of "designing experience" is utter gibberish.

  • Travis Rogers

    Great article. The auto comparison is apt and enforces the relationship between form and function. The difficult task for an engineer who is solely responsible for the function of a device or feature is to be able to step back and try to appreciate the user experience.

    The two videos for Android and Apple phones are not really applicable for comparison since the Android video was meant for a developer audience and the Apple video was focused on presenting the hardware improvements of the new iPhone to consumers.

  • Shubhadeep B.


    The focus on Experience instead of Technology is spot on & I agree there is a lot to learn from Apple on the topic.

    But the example given for the "No one needs a screwdriver" is slightly off for me - not exemplary of the point being made. To be fair, the Google video seems to be targeted at developers whereas the Apple video at the consumer. And for the target audience (developers), the Google video does focus a lot on the benefits than the features.


  • Tim Jones

    The only best in class that Apple is the epitome of is sleazy overhype. I can't help but think that everytime Steve Jobs opens his mouth, nothing that comes out is the truth. "Best of..", "Incredible that..", "Magical browsing.. (but no Flash)" blah blah blah. hey Steve, why don't you focus on making good products, like phones that can be actually used for calling, instead of overhype. Consumers should really someday experience honesty from Apple.

  • Richard Cappin

    The lessons are interesting and sensible. Probably even useful for me to think about for my own ventures. And I think the insinuation about Apple and Google is true.

    But the comparison of the videos is just a bit unfair. The Android video is shown on the Android website, which is a website targeted at developers not at consumers. The iPhone video is for consumers. It's not as if people buy a mobile phone and then decide, I think I'll put Android on it.

  • Rob Day

    If I could title this comment it would be "One Thing You Can Learn From Your Own Website." Almost one year ago today FastCompany posted the article "Horrible Idea of the Day: Microsoft to Build Retail Stores Right Next to Apple's." This article was a decent post with some good points, but the quote that has stuck with me since it's publishing is as follows:

    "Why is it that everyone competing with Apple chooses to compete on Apple's terms? If you've got to beat Lance Armstrong at something and you get to choose the game, would you really roll up to his front door, pedaling your Huffy? No. You'd pick a game that he's not good at. Duh."

    What a genius statement being ignored by the same publication only one year later with the posting of this "expert blogger." I understand these are "his views alone" and it offers an interesting (albeit biased) point of view. But for FastCompany to basically contradict itself in post selections is hard to understand; never mind to do so with a post that ignores the fundamentals of marketing while calling it expert.

    The Droid phenomenon is the precise reaction and smart thinking that the previous quote was meant to inspire. Droid does not roll up to Lance on its huffy; rather, it shows up with some pots and pans saying "let's cook." Google sees the "Apple Experience" and says I'll pick a game that they are not good at... utility.

    Hell this is the whole essence of the of the Droid campaign. Droid Does! Google is not trying to BE Apple; it is trying to BEAT apple, and the only way to do this is to focus where Google is strongest and Apple is weakest. This is marketing 101.

  • Cory Lu Lu

    I agree cold heartedly. the fact that this article showed no specifics rather than the "Developers video" posted by Google and the Ad campaign video posted by Apple. o___O'

    Other than that, they just said that the Apple experience was just better. But I really don't see that with Froyo out. The experience is the about the same in almost every factor. Only difference is Apple claims the experience is better with no REAL application to speak of.

    Facetalk sure... but the Evo had this before the iPhone. And you can only do it in Wifi Areas, but at that point, why not just use an actual computer since you are probably at your houses wifi anyways.

    I'm sorry, but this article holds very little ground.

  • Rob Day

    Thanks for the follow up, and I agree. See my response to the first poster for a good link comparing the Evo and iPhone 4

  • Isiah Davenport

    An absolutely awesome article! Totally right in every respect... I can't tell you the times I've said the same thing. In peticular, the iPhone was never sold to compete with features... It has always won from sheer user experience.

  • Rob Day

    Sheer user experiences such as dropped calls from actually holding your phone to your ear? Lack of Flash, the most popular web application?

    I'm not trying to be cynical and I actually love the innovation of the original iPhone and envied my friends who had them. That Shazam app blew my mind! HOWEVER, iPhone was clearly beat this time around and millions of iDrones can't even see it or worse don't want to admit it.

    See this video for a good example. Warning it is exaggerated and has some foul language, but said by cartoons so you cant take it too seriously: