Central control

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Tue, July 14, 2015 - 11:14:10

Two impressive New Yorker articles described powerful, laser-focused leaders whose vision affects technology design and use. Xi Jinping consolidated control of the world’s largest country. Jonathan Ive did so at the world’s most valuable company. Both have reputations for speaking frankly while avoiding impolitic statements. They listen, then make decisions confidently. Each is a good judge of character who assembled a highly capable and loyal inner circle. They triumphed through strategic, non-confrontational politics.

“Before Xi took power, he was described, in China and abroad, as an unremarkable provincial administrator… selected mainly because he had alienated fewer peers than his competitors” [1].  Xi volunteered for geographically remote posts that distanced him from the Beijing struggle—until a call came for a new face that would address corruption.

“Ive’s career sometimes suggests the movements of a man who, engrossed in a furrowed, deferential conversation, somehow backs onto a throne” [2].

Once enthroned, each extended his control with a clear sense of purpose.

Some analysts argue that centralized management is not viable in the complex 21st century global economy. In the late 20th century, Ronald Reagan, the autocrat Lee Kuan Yew who created modern Singapore, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates made impacts. Today, presidents, prime ministers, sultans, and sheiks seem to struggle as large corporations drift from one CEO to another. However, the careers of People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping and Apple Chief Design Officer Jonathan Ive suggest an effective new leadership style.

The roused lion and the Internet

Xi Jinping set out to attack corruption, address pollution and environmental threats, assert China’s place on the world stage, and maintain economic growth. The first two goals will take time. Xi chose initial steps toward them that also consolidated his power.

The understandable third and unsurprising fourth goals serve rational Chinese interests, but they will conflict at times with goals of other countries. Napoleon once described China as a sleeping lion. Xi remarked, “The lion has already awakened, but this is a peaceful, pleasant, and civilized lion.” We hope so. The treatment of China’s ethnic minorities undermines confidence. China’s efforts to control disputed islands are domestically popular but risk destabilizing the world. Should China’s economy falter, distracting the public with assertiveness abroad could be a temptation.

A few months ago China shut down all internal access to a range of Internet sites, including Bloomberg, Reuters, The New York Times; Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Filters that had previously blocked them could be circumvented by the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). Communist China has long granted special privileges to a hierarchical elite group, of which Xi was a member from birth. The elite are trusted to behave. The government decided that too many untrusted actors had acquired VPN access.

Restricting information to an elite is not new. For centuries, the Catholic Church tolerated discussion and dissent by an elite whose VPN was Latin and Greek. The masses were excluded. Indeed, to prevent the public from seeing how far church practice had strayed from scripture, translating the Bible from Latin to a living language was a crime more serious than murder [3]. The first person to publish an English Bible translation was executed. Martin Luther declared war by posting proclamations in German, not Latin.

That was in the age of monarchs. How widespread is elite governance today? Chinese leaders grew up together, many British leaders attended Eton, and all nine current Supreme Court Justices plus all U.S. presidents since Reagan are alumni of Harvard or Yale [4]. Five million Americans—more than 1%!—have security clearances that permit them to access information but not discuss it publicly. Differences are mostly of degree. No doubt many in Chinese military, intelligence, and economic planning retain Internet access, even apart from those using it to hack our systems. 

To maintain economic growth, China may steal intellectual property through hacking and informants. Annoying, but again, nothing new. Americans stole carefully guarded British water power intellectual property to launch our industrial revolution. The French bugged high-price Air France seats to collect economic information. A colleague at a previous job pretended to drink alcohol at business gatherings to catch gems that fell from loosened lips. But it’s not fun when it’s your turn to be victim.

Will curtailed Internet access pay off for China? Suppressing dissent could build consensus and national spirit—would that compensate for reduced innovation and nimbleness? Mass media enjoys focusing on technology negatives, but many of us appreciate the information access provided by Wikipedia, YouTube, and Facebook. China could drive hundreds of thousands of budding entrepreneurs to emigrate. Of course, that would leave a billion people to soldier on. Mao reportedly said that China should kill one person in a thousand to remain unified. A more civilized, pleasant lion might send them into exile, perhaps buying time to prepare the country for greater openness. We’ll see.

Empowered design

Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple in 1985. When he returned in 1997, he gave Jonathan Ive, an award-winning designer who had joined in 1992, responsibility for the group that designed the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad hardware. After Jobs’ death, Ive’s control extended to software and architecture. Ian Parker describes Ive working tirelessly with a tight-knit group and a clear vision, focusing intensely on Apple’s first major post-Jobs product, the Apple watch.

In April, the watch was available for pre-order. In May, Ive became Chief Design Officer, Apple’s third chief officer. Lieutenants assumed responsibility for the day-to-day hardware and software operations. Ive’s focus was said to be Apple’s ambitious building project, but that seemed well underway months earlier. Is Ive focused on an unannounced project, such as Apple’s rumored automobile? Will he remain broadly engaged despite his lieutenants’ promotions, or did the watch project exhaust Ive, who reportedly took his first long vacation when it was done? In any case, more than Apple’s financial returns may ride on the success of the watch.

Does direct contact with users have a future?

Steve Jobs thought not.

Substantial human factors/usability engineering went into the Macintosh. Most of it was done at Xerox PARC. An eyewitness account depicted in the film Jobs  starts with Steve Jobs accusing Bill Gates of stealing the Mac GUI. "Well, Steve, I think there's more than one way of looking at it,” Gates replies. “I think it's more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

Apple hired Xerox’s brilliant advocate of user testing, Larry Tesler. But only after Jobs was forced out in 1985 was Tesler able to form a Human Interaction Group. Between 1985 and 1997, Apple built two HCI groups, one in the product organization and one in “advanced technology” or research. Joy Mountford arrived in early 1987, recruited outstanding contributors with backgrounds ranging from psychology to architecture and theatre, and led Apple in staging bold demonstration projects at CHI, publishing research papers and the influential book The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, and forging new links between HCI and the fields of design and film. In 1993, Apple hired Don Norman, who became the first executive with a User Experience title.

The meteoric rise of HCI at Apple was followed by a faster descent when Jobs returned in 1997 in the midst of financial challenges. Jobs laid off Don Norman and the researchers, reportedly telling one manager, “Fire everyone, then fire yourself.” He eliminated the HCI group in the product division. Some graphic designers were retained, but of the usability function, Jobs reportedly said, “Why do we need them? You have me.”

For almost two decades, Apple has been absent from HCI conferences. Ian Parker describes Apple engineers walking about waving prototype watches to see if they behave but systematic user testing has not been a priority. Consequences include products such as the hockey puck mouse that quickly disappeared and performance problems more generally.

Nevertheless, Apple has succeeded spectacularly. This success calls into question the value of direct interaction with users. HCI conferences such as CHI, HCII, and INTERACT draw thousands of submissions and attendees every year. Apple ignores them, yet outperforms rivals who participate. How do we explain this? Possibilities:

  1. User research is important. Apple got lucky. The string of successes were rolls of dice that also came up with the Lisa, the Newton, and Apple TV.
  2. This is possible, but it would be unfortunate because few will believe it. Management experts are like the drug cartel chiefs in a Ridley Scott movie, about whom one character says ominously, “They don’t really believe in coincidences. They’ve heard of them. They’ve just never seen one.”

  3. User research is no longer cost-effective. Brilliant visual designers, telemetry, and agile methods that enable rapid iteration with a delivered product can fix problems quickly enough.
  4. This would suggest that much of the HCI field risks being an academic promotion mill that could implode, leaving the job to visual design and data analytics.

  5. User research isn’t needed for consumer products for which everyone has intuitions. Brilliant visual design and branding provide the edge. User research may be needed when developing for vertical markets or enterprise settings where we lack experience.
  6. This is probably at least part of the explanation. Visual design was long suppressed by the cost of digital storage. When Moore’s law lifted that constraint, a surge of innovation followed. From this perspective, the prominence of design could be transient or could remain decisive. For established consumer products like automobiles and kitchen appliances, design is a major partner. In more specialized domains, equilibrium will take longer to reach.

  7. User research is important unless someone with extraordinary intuitive genius is in control. Apple did just need Jobs.
  8. Ive and Jobs collaborated intensely for a decade, designer and design exponent. If Jobs had intuitive insight into public appeal and channeled the designers, guiding Apple and Pixar products to success, what happens now that half the team is gone?

Ive personally gravitates toward luxury goods. He drives a Bentley Mulsanne, described by Parker as “a car for a head of state,” flies in a personal jet, buys and builds mansions, hangs out with celebrities, and designs unique objects for charity auctions. Does he have deep insight into the public? The nature of Steve Jobs’ contribution or genius may be revealed by the subsequent trajectory of his partner.

If the smartwatch succeeds, (2) and (3) are supported, (1) and (4) are not. Initial reports are mixed. A class of master’s degree students peered at me over their Macbooks a few weeks ago. “Who plans to buy an Apple watch?” I asked. No hands went up. “That seems to have come and gone,” one said. But some media accounts hail the watch as a runaway success. It is early: The iPod was slow to take off and the Mac itself floundered for 18 months, a factor in Jobs being fired in 1985 [5].

Are design and telemetry enough?

Apple’s success in relying on design has been noticed by rivals. At Microsoft 10 years ago, user research (encompassing usability engineering, ethnography, data mining, etc.) was a peer of visual design. Today, it is subordinate: Most user researchers, re-christened design researchers, report to designers. Fewer in number, most have remits too broad to spend much time with users. In another successful company, a designer described user researchers as “trophy wives,” useful for impressing others if you can afford one.

Management trusts telemetry and rapid iteration to align products and users. Usability professionals discovered long ago that to be most effective they should be involved in a project from the beginning, not asked at the end “to put lipstick on a pig.” Telemetry and iteration propose to fix the pig after it has been sold and returned. It can work with simple apps and easygoing customers, but not when an initial design led to architecture choices that block easy fixes.

Useful telemetry requires careful design and even then reveals what is happening, but not why. Important distinctions can be lost in aggregated data. Telemetry plays into our susceptibility to assume causal explanations for correlational data, which in turn feeds our tendency toward confirmation bias. Expect to see software grow increasingly difficult to use. A leading HCI analyst wrote, “Apple keeps going downhill. Their products are really difficult to use. The text is illegible. The Finder is just plain stupid, although I find it useful to point out the stupidities to students—who cannot believe Apple would do things badly.” As Apple’s approach is emulated, going downhill could become the new normal.

Maybe it is a pendulum swing. The crux of the matter is this: A few hours spent watching users can unquestionably improve many products, but when is it worthwhile? Quickly launching something that is “good enough” could be a winning strategy in a fast-paced world of disposable goods. The next version can add a feature and fix an egregious usability problem. Taking more time to build a more usable product could sacrifice a window of opportunity.

A new leadership style may emerge. Osnos concludes, “In the era of Xi Jinping, the public had proved, again, to be an unpredictable partner…‘The people elevated me to this position so that I’d listen to them and benefit them,’ he said... ‘But, in the face of all these opinions and comments, I had to learn to enjoy having my errors pointed out to me, but not to be swayed too much by that. Just because so-and-so says something, I’m not going to start weighing every cost and benefit. I’m not going to lose my appetite over it.’” 

On a more cheerful note, systematic assessment of user experience may be declining in some large software companies, but it is gaining attention in other companies that are devoting more resources to their online presence. For now, skills in understanding technology use have a strong market.


1. Evan Osnos, Born red. The New Yorker, Apr 6, 2015.

2. Ian Parker, The shape of things to come. The New Yorker, Feb 25 2015.

3. This was a plot element in the recent drama Wolf Hall.

4. Reagan’s principal cabinet officers were from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

5. The first Mac had insufficient power and memory to do much more than display its cool UI. This is discussed here and was briefly alluded to in the film Jobs.

Thanks to Tom Erickson and Don Norman for clarifying the history and terminology, and to Gayna Williams and John King for suggestions.

Posted in: on Tue, July 14, 2015 - 11:14:10

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin works on support for education at Microsoft. Access these and related papers at under Prototype Systems.
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