The iPhone showed us that good design will disrupt the market. Why have we still not learnt?


Zachary Owen Usabilty, User Experience, iPhone...

To disrupt the market is the ambition of all companies starting out on a new venture, whether that be a startup or an established corporation branching out in a different direction. There is a tendency to believe that disruption with innovation requires vast change and the realisation of ideas that have previously not been touched upon but some of the biggest breakthroughs of recent times have instead been about challenging existing concepts and refining them to create a superior product. There are countless examples of such developments whereby small changes in design have fundamentally changed the very nature of the market. One only has to look as far as the demise of MySpace at the hands of a small social network run out of a Harvard dorm room to realise that in a digitalised economy, small changes in design can shift the balance of power and dethrone companies that previously seemed untouchable.

Last week was the 10th anniversary of one of the greatest examples of market disruption of the 21st century. The iPhone burst onto the scene in 2007 amid much fanfare with Steve Job stating at the launch that “What we want to do is make a leapfrog product that is way smarter than any mobile device has ever been, and super-easy to use. This is what iPhone is. OK? So, we’re going to reinvent the phone”. Apple crucially realised that innovation and technological advancement were pointless if they were not user friendly. Usability is at the core of their design principle and it has led to the company snatching an extremely large share of the market (14.7%, second only to Samsung) for a product that comes with a high end price tag. As new generations of the iconic phone are developed, there is often the recurring complaint by many that the advancements and updates that are implemented are simply not sufficient, yet Apple continues to hold its large market share.

It would be easy to point to the fact that it is the genius of the company’s marketing department that has led to an almost cult like following but perhaps a more convincing reason is the fact users find it difficult to move onto other operating systems once they have experienced the usability of an Apple product. A blog post from 2008 by UX expert Joe Natoli correctly predicted that the iPhone would fundamentally change the market for one reason, not the technological advancements that it offered but rather the fact that it was a so much better to use than any of its rivals and in many ways continues to be.

UX design is at the core of what makes Apple such an influential player within the market. It set the bar for smartphone usability back in 2007 and faces a challenge to continue to differentiate itself from competitors as the industry becomes increasingly competitive.

The cases of Facebook and Apple show us that refining an existing concept to create greater usability can be a revolution in itself. Established brands should seek to innovate in order to not fall victim to the incessant charge of newcomers who seek to disrupt the market. The signs are everywhere to be seen, even the highly inaccessible world of the financial sector is having its margins cut into and authority challenged by companies such as Monzo and Transferwise who put usability at the core of their business model. There is a strong case to suggest that companies both large and small must in invest UX if they wish to disrupt a particular market. It is through design and usability that brand affinity can fostered. As the famous Italian designer Massimo Vignelli said “styles come and go. Good design is a language, not a style”. To disrupt the market, the language of design must read loud and clear.