What’s the difference between interacting with a Dell laptop and an Apple one? Fumbling through Blogger or gliding through Tumblr? Hyperventilating on Twitter or exhaling on Medium?
Call it user experience–or as the cool kids call it, UX. As Robert Fabricant argues at HBR, it’s the direction of leadership–and as empathic companies like Apple, Tumblr, and Toyota evidence, it’s a dapper way to dominate a market.
When we think about design-centric culture, we tend to think of Apple and its executive who, upon his untimely death, was described as taking the ugly world of technology and making it beautiful.
But beauty don’t come easy.
As Fabricant notes, Steve Jobs brought about the idea of CEO as “Lead Product Designer,” as per frequent collaborator Glenn Reid’s description:
“(Steve) told me once that part of the reason he wanted to be CEO was so that nobody could tell him that he wasn’t allowed to participate in the nitty-gritty of product design. He was right there in the middle of it. All of it.”
Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr sparked a torrent of reflections about what made Tumblr tumble so dang well. One of the most articulate–and heartfelt–came from Instapaper founder Marco Arment, who started working with Tumblr founder David Karp even before Tumblr was a proper platform, though from Karp’s focus, Arment intones, the lightweight blogging service’s userbase grew and grew.
He describes Karp as preternaturally focused on Tumblr and its user experience–to the point that he didn’t want to think about “boring stuff” like support, scaling, or money.To Arment, Tumblr is a one-person product. That person is David Karp, he explains:
David has an impeccable sense of what’s best for Tumblr, and he doesn’t need anyone else telling him what’s best for the product. Many people, myself included, have tried to convince him to go different directions, and we’ve been proven wrong every time.
Tumblr is David, and David is Tumblr.
The grandson of the company’s founder has led Toyota to the perch of the global auto industry. Akio Toyoda’s an executive, yes, but also a gourmand.
He explained as much to the New York Times:
“If I am going to be at the top of the car company, I want to be the owner-chef — with knowledge not just of its vehicles but their ingredients. I taste my car, and if it tastes good, I provide it to the customer.”
In this way, Toyoda is placing himself in customer’s driving seat. An act of empathy–which, as has been argued here at Fast Company, may be the most powerful leadership tool.
In the Elements of Style, E.B. White argues that to become a better writer, one needs to become an advocate for the reader. This, we can infer, is a recognition of the way that whether we’re consuming language or laptops, the users’ experience is a kind of communication with a brand.
The key to UX leadership, then, is to get intimately familiar with the way someone might begin with a product. How can that be done?