If you can’t explain it to someone not in your field, you don’t understand it.

Richard Feynman’s ‘Prepare a Freshman Lecture’ Test

Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

John Gruber continues, regarding Brian Merchant’s The One Device:

Schiller didn’t have the same technological acumen as many of the other execs. “Phil is not a technology guy,” Brett Bilbrey, the former head of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, says. “There were days when you had to explain things to him like a grade-school kid.” Jobs liked him, Bilbrey thinks, because he “looked at technology like middle America does, like Grandma and Grandpa did.”

A couple of Apple folks who’ve had meetings with Phil Schiller and other high-level Apple executives (in some cases, many meetings, regarding several products, across many years) contacted me yesterday to say that this is pretty much standard practice at Apple. Engineers are expected to be able to explain a complex technology or product in simple, easily-understood terms not because the executive needs it explained simply to understand it, but as proof that the engineer understands it completely.

Based on what I’m hearing, I now think Bilbrey was done profoundly wrong by Merchant’s handling of his quotes.

I concur.

If you cannot explain it to a beginner in your field in the form of a “freshman lecture”, it means you do not understand it.

And if you do not understand it, it means whatever it is you’re producing will be an unmitigated disaster–because if you don’t understand it, chances are if you’re coding it you’re just piling up code until it seems right; if you’re designing it you’re just piling up images until you think you’ve dealt with the design; if you’re selling it you’re just using smoke and mirrors to avoid the gaps which make your product an inconsistent and incoherent mess.

Apple’s strength, by the way, does not come from being the first mover in the market. Apple has never been a first mover in any market they now dominate. Apple did not invent the personal computer. Apple did not invent the smart phone. (They didn’t even invent the touch screen smart phone.) Apple did not invent the music player. Hell, even iTunes started life as an acquisition; the current user interface still contains many of the elements when it was SoundJam MP, a CD ripper app with music player synchronization features.

What Apple does, which has allowed it to dominate the mobile phone market, the mobile player market, the table computer market and have inroads in the mobile computing and desktop computing markets, is to make things simple. To create products that can be explained to Grandpa and Grandma.

To make things that work.

And if you want to beat Apple at its own game, make products which are beautiful but simple, whose form follows function and whose function is suggested by form. Make a product which is beautiful but obvious, which are well designed from the hardware through the software to the user interface.

In other words, make a product which explains itself (through good design) to Grandpa and Grandma.

Sadly, given the amount of disdain shown by most people in the computer industry–from programmers who don’t understand what they’re doing and who refer to their user base as ‘lusers’ to designers who don’t realize they’re telling a story and are just drawing pretty pictures–Apple’s monopoly on good design won’t be challenged in a meaningful way anytime soon.

Not even by the likes of Google, Microsoft or Facebook–who may pay lip service to good design, and who may even have some really top notch designers on their staff–but who are still seeped in the mock superiority and arrogance of Silicon Valley.

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