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What Steve Jobs taught me about “old” people and product development

With the formal resignation of Steve Jobs, quite a few stories are coming out of the woodwork about Apple’s iconic CEO. One of my favorite stories takes place early in Steve’s rise to stardom when he attended the birthday of a 9-year old celebrity. Steve’s gift to the young man was, what else, a Macintosh computer. As the story goes, Steve pulled the boy aside during the party to personally watch him open the gift. As he was showing the boy how to use his new computer, two “older” gentlemen came up behind them and starting oohing and ahhing. The two gentlemen, clearly impressed with what they saw as a work of art, started asking Steve questions for which he quickly dismissed them and returned his attention to the young boy. As it turns out, the two “older” gentlemen were Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. At the end of the night, Steve continued working with the young man long after the other guests had left. Later, when asked by a reporter why he was so much happier with the boy than the two famous artists, Steve’s response was, “Older people sit down and ask, ‘What is it?’ but the boy asks, ‘What can I do with it?”

Steve’s reply could easily lead you to believe that the billionaire boomer is ageist – and you may be right. But as we’re about to learn in Steve’s first authorized biography, Mr. Jobs is a complex man.

My personal Steve story takes place about two years ago as he was dealing with the ugly realities of pancreatic cancer. Immersion Active was working on a special project with a client where we were exploring the idea of putting free iPads in the hands of seniors. As an early adopter of the iPad and someone who has watched a lot of older adults interact with technology, my gut told me this was going to be big with our consumers. What Apple had developed was something that we believed would close the gap on what is described as the “digital divide.” More specifically, we saw an opportunity to take aging-in-place and tele-health from an elusive dream to profitable and life-changing reality.

Knowing that Steve had a reputation for replying to personal email and thinking that this idea might resonate with him given his state of health, I decided to reach out to him. Within 24 hours I received the following reply:

Steve has asked _____ to speak with you about your email. Please contact her at _________ to arrange a date and time of your convenience.

That next week, Apple flew three executives to Maryland to discuss the idea.

That week, I learned four things from Steve:

  1. Big and responsive aren’t mutually exclusive: I don’t care if it was Steve or the Prince of Nigeria that read my email, the bottom line is that someone did, a plan was in place to respond quickly and intelligently, and meaningful action followed.
  2. Apple is unintentionally ageist: This is going to be tough for some of you to hear but some of the most ageist people I know are boomers. At Immersion Active, we’re very careful about generational stereotypes but this one unfortunately sticks. Steve may have been accurate in his assessment of how older adults looked at technology at the time, but Apple’s marketing obsession with youth (until the most recent iPad commercials that is) has been borderline bigoted.
  3. Apple is intelligently ageless: I honestly believe that Apple doesn’t develop products for old people or young people (as Steve’s people so adamantly reminded me), but they do develop products that aim to delight that which they’ve taken the time to understand about us as humans beings.
  4. Compelling simplicity is the tough investment that follows complexity: There’s nothing simple about the iPad. From the product development lifecycle, to the technology inside, to distribution and maintenance of the “App ecosystem,”  the iPad (and it’s iOS siblings) are complex with a capital “C.” The fact that our experience with Apple products, from pre-sale to support, is so eloquent is because they invested the extra effort to make it so. This “extra effort” is so often written off by smart executives as unnecessary and “not worth it.” Really? Apple is now not only one of the largest companies in the world but, more importantly, most profitable.

So let me wrap up by posing a few questions:

  • Do your product development and marketing efforts aim to delight or merely satisfy?
  • Where do you invest your time understanding our consumers — before, during or after you’ve developed your product? With them as human beings or as a “bucket” of attributes?
  • Do you seek the advice and expertise of others who are truly vested in our consumers as human beings?
  • Do you listen? Do you have an intentional and thoughtful feedback loop that customers (and your other stakeholders) understand and can easily access with some expectation of meaningful follow through?

For twenty years I’ve resisted being labeled an Apple “fan boy” but, call me what you want. If your thought after reading this is that Apple and Steve are some strange anomaly, then I’d ask just one final question: Do you really believe in what you’re doing?