Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Kocienda, Creative Selection

Ken Kocienda was the principal engineer of iPhone software at Apple, so he writes with authority in Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs (St. Martin’s Press, 2018). I should say up front that I have never owned an Apple product and that I got my first smart phone only last year. I’m not normally a slow adopter, but I simply never felt the need for a mobile phone since (1) I’m rarely mobile and (2) I almost never use a phone of any sort. And so, that I found Kocienda’s book fascinating is a real tribute.

Kocienda had the unenviable job of creating a touchscreen keyboard for what became the iPhone. The BlackBerry, first released in 1999, had a physical keyboard with little chiclet keys beneath the screen, but this of necessity reduced the phone’s screen size. Apple was determined to have a software keyboard, where “plastic keys would give way to pixels.” But early efforts didn’t go well. Thumb-typing produced nothing intelligible, “not just wrong words but babble.” Engineers tried having bigger keys, “ganging up multiple letters on each key as they did on flip phone keypads and developing various means to choose the correct letters: sliding, double taps, long presses, and others.” But the user had to think about every letter, and even Apple engineers often got lost in the middle of typing a word.

Kocienda took another stab at this problem, using a big-key QWERTY keyboard with multiple letters per key “but that offloaded the decision of picking the letters to the computer.” This, of course, required the creation of a huge dictionary. But it didn’t do the job. It failed in ways both humorous and frustrating. And so, smaller, single-letter keys were reintroduced. With the assistance of touchscreen keyboard autocorrection (and a great deal more work on Kocienda’s part), “junky key presses produced perfect typing,” well, at least some of the time. Kocienda has an amusing article in Wired, published to coincide with his book’s publication date, “I Invented the iPhone’s Autocorrect. Sorry about That, and You’re Welcome.”

Although Kocienda structures his book in terms of seven elements of innovation (inspiration, collaboration, craft, diligence, decisiveness, taste, and empathy), what makes it a good read is nothing abstract. It’s his account of the actual process of creating a winning product.

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