What can the iPhone teach you?

If you want to be a bad product manager, don’t get caught up in all of the hype around the iPhone. Apple is a completely different company than yours and what works for them wouldn’t ever work for you. It’s a neat gadget, but nothing more.

If you want to be a good product manager, see what lessons you can learn from the iPhone. Look past the hype and see it for what it is — a number of great case studies wrapped up in a well-designed and potentially revolutionary product.

Only time will tell as to whether the iPhone is as important a product as the iPod or as trivial as the Mac Mini, though either way there are lessons to be learned. The iPhone is one of the biggest product launches in recent memory, and the product development aspects involved and marketing strategy is certain to provide fodder for case studies for years to come.

Good product managers use everything as an opportunity to learn. Rather than dismissing the iPhone launch as irrelevant since it doesn’t relate to their industry or product, product managers can take away valuable lessons around what to do and what not to do. Less than a week after its launch, there are already hundreds if not thousands of articles on the product design process, reviews from experts, and commentary from actual customers. These are all data points that can serve as valuable input and perspective on all products.

There are many angles to the iPhone story, most of which have already been told comprehensively by numerous news outlets and are not worth rehashing here in less detail. One is worth highlighting as it touches on what is the essence of Apple — the ability to Think Different.

Dozens of different cell phone manufacturers have been offering incremental improvements for years, touting each new model for some distinctive new feature or capability. While there have been some useful improvements, for the most part they are just technological improvements that provide little to no extra value to customers.

Apple, on the other hand, has consistently shown the ability to take a step back and rethink the entire idea around a product. Once you got past the candy colored shell, the iMac was a simple but effective “how did we not think of this?” challenge to the standard desktop computer. Rather than loading more features on the MP3 players of the day, the iPod was groundbreaking in that it recognized the value in simplifying the entire music experience — from CD to computer to portable player to online music store.

Whether a success or failure in the long run, the iPhone shows Apple’s ability to think differently about what a cell phone is and how a person interacts with it. Think about your own product — would your customers call it groundbreaking or innovative or see it as drastically different from the competition? Or would it be marginally better (or worse) than what the competitors have to offer, easily substitutable on features and functionality and capabilities? Does it matter to your product and your company?

Ignore the hype around the iPhone and look for the many real stories that exist about how Apple has designed, developed, and marketed it. See what you can learn that can translate to your business. Analyze what they did well and see how you can adapt based on it; understand what they did not do well and plan for how you can avoid it. Use one of the most publicized product launches of the past several years as an opportunity to improve your product.

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6 thoughts on “What can the iPhone teach you?

  1. Product management lessons are everywhere. While the media has been focused on the iPhone launch, the real message is how Apple looked beyond the status quo and solved the bigger problem.

    Likewise, product managers should look beyond the “me-too” features of their competitive landscape and see the bigger problem that could be solved. As you said, “See what you can learn that can translate to your business.”

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Great observations. The iPod in particular is a great example of rethinking the total solution. The player itself could have been criticized for a lack of features, but it provided all the really necessary pieces of the whole solution – a hard drive for much moire capacity than the flash players that were most of the market, software to manage your music easily, a dock to sync and charge at the same time neatly, and a built-in way to browse and buy music – all in one integrated package.

    Apple is the master at this “total solution” approach. Microsoft, by contrast, tries to play the platform game and make an ecosystem for others to provide parts of the solution. Few but Microsoft can do this, but more importantly, Apple’s solutions are usually more satisfying.

  3. Hi, are you sure you’re first line is correct?

    “If you want to be a bad product manager, don’t get caught up in all of the hype around the iPhone. ”

    It seems to make more sense if it were written as:

    “If you want to be a bad product manager, get caught up in all of the hype around the iPhone.


  4. Saeed –

    I think this is an admonition to product mgrs who want to dismiss the hype as empty media fluff – something we’ve been rightfully conditioned to do. The hype around the iPhone is important as it reflects both Apple’s product design and marketing mastery. I’ve already been told by one colleague from our design team that I will ignore the iPhone at my own peril.

    (Ooh, maybe, I can charge it to my R&D budget…)

  5. As with everything in product management, moderation is key. Ignoring the iPhone (or any other similar new product or development that could have a major impact on your market or society) because it’s unrelated to what you do is missing an opportunity to learn; focusing intently on the iPhone (ditto above) and getting too caught up in the hype is misplaced enthusiasm at best and distracting at worst.

    Product managers shouldn’t ignore the iPhone because of the incredibly amount of hype around it, nor should they get caught up in it and assume it’s going to change the world. (Remember the hype around how the Segway was going to change the world?) Look through the media circus and see if there’s anything tangible there that can help you meet the needs of your market better.

  6. Great post. One of the things I respect Apple for, is how they create elegant solutions that don’t try to do everything, but do few things absolutely well. Product planning in a lot of ways is mostly figuring out what not to do than what to do. All the bells and whistles that get added to products is what compromises a product’s usability. Apple is one of few companies that gets this. Other companies always want to add features because they fall victim to the “what if the customer wants to do this?” resulting in products that are bloated pigs. Apple is bold enough to answer this question and say “then the customer has to buy another product”. This is one of the most valuable lessons I have personally taken away from Apple’s success.

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