What Apple's headphones can teach us about user experience design

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I've always been fascinated by things that simply work. By the details that convince, by the experience that fulfills expectations. Enter the case of Apple's headphones. They may be just an accessory that supports something else, but this little gadget is a brilliant example of how ux design should be approached. I'm not saying other vendors don't make equivalent or even better headphones (don't know, so please comment!), but Apple has proved many times that they really know what they are doing, reinventing stuff as they go along. Bottom line: as weird as it may seem, when your are designing user experience, you should think about Apple's headphones. They are one of the most perfect examples of how to do it right.

Form follows function

As most great designers will tell you, the design is only as good as its ability to solve a problem. The focus is not so much on aesthetics, as it is on function. If you manage to persuade someone to do what you wanted, design did its job well. Otherwise, it failed, even if it looks great.

Apple's headphones come with a controller for the iPod and other phone functions. This controller is ergonomically shaped in such a way, that you can use it with your eyes closed, or while running. Your finger will always find its orientation. The volume up button is physically on the top. The form follows function, being beautiful comes secondary.


Apple iPhone Headphones Controller

The controller is designed in such a way it does exactly what you expect it to do, without guessing.

There are infinite ways you can implement this philosophy into software, but you have to know what you are trying to do. That's the main objective of user experience in general, understanding your goals, and adapting everything to help users reach them.

"Less is more" generates intuitiveness

The controller comes with only three buttons, but these buttons can do more that it seems. The age when a single control could perform only one function is over, and this fact can easily be applied to the new generation of software, supporting advanced (native and HTML 5) interactions (swipes, multi-finger gestures, etc.) on devices such as smartphones and tablets. Here's what these three buttons can do:

  • volume up and down are dedicated
  • the main button can play and pause with a single press. The same goes for answering and hanging up the phone.
  • pressing the main button twice goes to the next song, three times for the previous song
  • holding the main button activates Siri / Voice control

Less is more is a very important approach, and it's one of the reasons why the iPhone did what it did, having a single button instead of many. Users shouldn't be faced with too many options and choices, it's better to design these choices in such a way they offer advanced behavior. Only then, users will find something intuitive and easy to use.

Think adaptation and multi-functionality

As mentioned before, the headphones controller can adapt its behavior to the state the system is currently in. When you are listening to music, it controls music, when you're on a call, it controls the call, when you are using Siri, you're the weirdo who's talking to your phone. Software can do the same; when I launched this blog, I played around with the idea of the home link adapting to the fact where the visitor currently is.

Software users come in various shapes and find themselves in various situations. First time user vs. second time user, potential client vs. client etc. Advanced systems can adapt to this fact and offer a different kind of experience to each of them, acting multifunctional. You want to present yourself to the first time user, and inform the second time user. You want to close the potential client, and do everything to retain the current client. Software is not static anymore, it adapts to different personas and scenarios.

Consistency FTW

Great user experience is consistent inside a product and across multiple channels. Even if something is not solved perfectly, analog functions must be solved in the same way all across the same and other systems, to avoid confusion. Apple's headphones also work with a Mac computer. With the controller, microphone and everything. The little cherry that makes Apple's complete listening and controlling ecosystem a platform.


Apple iPhone Headphones Controller

The headphones are fully compatible with a Mac.

This is very important fact, making user experience a holistic strategy, that goes beyond the single product / implementation. A part of mentality that CEO is not about Executive anymore, it's about Experience.

Summary

Great user experience is becoming a competitive advantage, but at the same time something that's really hard to master. Knowing what problems and goals you are trying to solve is crucial, everything else must adapt. Thinking outside a single product and implementing the same philosophy across multiple systems and channels is slowly shaping (user) experience design into a strategic business function.

Apple's headphones with their controller are a great example of how to do user experience right. Something so basic, but at the same time so advanced. Solving so many problems with so little, by fully understanding what you are trying to do in different situations, and leaving you only with the choices you need to make in the specific moment. It simply doesn't get much better than that.

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Comment
written 17.6.2012 13:25 CET on chronolog
2497 views   •   9 comments  •   Like   •   
Oh come on Will, you have to give me some credit, you picked the worst two examples out of 50. :)
commented 20.6.2012 20:09 CET by Stritar
Are you kidding me?! This is your example? Apple headphones? "The volume up button is physically on the top." "volume up and down are dedicated" Waste of 5 minutes of my life...
commented 20.6.2012 18:47 CET by Will
What Apple could learn, though, is how to manufacture headphones that don't leak noise into the surrounding space. Pleasant for the wearer, no doubt, unpleasant for nearby commuters.
commented 18.6.2012 14:32 CET by Iian
@John McRee. Bummer. :( #fail
commented 18.6.2012 13:45 CET by Stritar
There are many other cases of great ux, the one you mentioned actually works on most mobile browsers. Perhaps another thing to blog about. :)
commented 18.6.2012 13:41 CET by Stritar
One hit against them is the length of the cable. I'm just a touch over six feet tall and can't put the phone in my pocket with the headphones in my ears. It just doesn't reach. This is a huge miss.
commented 18.6.2012 13:40 CET by John McRee
It really is a sweet feature. Perhaps I should've made more emphasis on the whole emotional connection...
commented 18.6.2012 13:28 CET by Stritar
One of the things that I also find with these headphones is the enjoyment of discovering hidden functionality. You mention the double click for skip track and triple click for previous track. I'm not sure if this functionality is described anywhere but most people are unaware of this and discover it accidentally, creating a moment of 'oh that's cool' and enhancing the emotional connection with the product.
commented 18.6.2012 12:48 CET by Swain0
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