When I look at Apple software and hardware, I’m amazed with the simplicity of what sits before me. It’s not simplicity that makes you wonder what to do with it and it’s not simple for the sake of being simple. It immediately makes sense. That sense of wonder is replaced by a need to touch it and interact with it.

Apple products offer a sense of clarity not found in most products on the market today. Clarity of design, clarity of purpose and clarity of function.

This is why a young child can sit down in front of an iPad and instantly know how it works. On the same device, an executive can parse data and make business decisions that affect thousands of employees. It’s clear to both of these groups—and many others—how it works.

New customers to Apple will often ask me how they find something in a Mac or iOS app, or how they do a certain task. My answer has been the same for years: “Think of the simplest way to do it. That’s the way Apple will do it.”

More often than not, I’m right. If you ask someone what they believe the simplest way to get something done is, they will usually find it. Ask them the same thing on a PC and they could be lost for days.

Consider the iPhone. It has one button. If you put an iPhone in front of someone that hasn’t used it before, they know instinctively what they should do. Pressing that one button opens up a whole new world. There is nothing else they can do, but to press on that button. It’s simple, it’s clear, and it works.

iPhone button

The most daunting task for any company is to make their product so intuitive that any person, anywhere, will be able to pick it up and start using it. Apple has been able to do that in a way that has shaped an entire industry.

Providing that clarity isn’t as easy as some may think. Microsoft, for example, tried to make Windows 8 simple—one operating system for every device. No Compromises. On the surface (no pun intended), this sounds like a noble goal. The mistake they made is trying to shoehorn a software product into a device that it wasn’t meant to fit in. The proverbial square peg in a round hole.

Microsoft did its best to convince people that having one OS was the best option for every aspect of your life. It wasn’t. Software that isn’t made for a touch-enabled device provides endless hours of frustration—you feel as though your on a desktop; the software is made for a desktop; but it wants you to tap like a tablet. Confusion and frustration ensues.

One of the triumphs for Apple over the last decade was providing users with powerful software with a very simple interface. iPhoto, iMovie, Keynote and others showed people that software didn’t have to be complicated to be useful. That’s not to say that Apple’s consumer-level software isn’t powerful, because it is.

GarageBand, for example, uses the same audio engine found in Logic Pro, Apple’s professional digital audio workstation, but GarageBand has allowed millions of musicians to record music easily.

Generally, people don’t care how something is executed once they click or tap on an application button. The fact that it’s done and the results are what they expected, is more than enough. Apple understood that and made it an integral part of its software strategy.

Clarity also extends to the product line itself. If you want an iPhone, you have two choices: the newest iPhone 5s or the iPhone 5c. Very clear and simple choices. The differences in these choices are also very clear—The iPhone 5s provides newer hardware features like Touch ID. If you want the latest and greatest, then that’s the phone for you.

Compare that to Samsung’s Galaxy S4. Even sites that regularly report on Samsung are frustrated with the over one dozen models available for sale.

Companies like Samsung throw out as many products as they can and see what sticks. To me, this shows a complete lack of confidence in what they are offering in their product line. When you add Android’s lack of upgrades for certain models, you end up with the complete opposite of everything Apple offers to its customers.

Knowing your future upgrade path, operating system support, app ecosystem, and indeed, what you can actually do with the device, provides something that everyone else is missing: Clarity.

  • studuncan

    Agreed. To a degree. Go wander through the settings on iOS. That’s not always what I’d call clarity.

    • Matt

      I can see where you’re coming from, but what’s funny is that one of the major complaints about iOS is the lack of customizability. Imagine what the Settings app would look like if you could customize every itty bitty piece!

    • Adams Immersive

      Settings does need a fresh organization. Expecially when it comes to “General” which hides certain things a needless extra level deep. I don’t know the answer; maybe combine things more logically to have fewer Settings categories total, move them all out of General, and organize them in something other than a long list? Two columns with short enough names? It’s a challenge, I know.

      • I think it would be cool to search in the settings app. Pull down reveals spotlight, from there search what you’re looking for in the settings app.

        I personally always have the hardest time finding the option to just have the battery percent left instead of a battery icon. General > Usage. Next to things telling you how much storage you have left, doesn’t really make sense.

        • Billy Razzle

          That’s where Siri should take over.

          “Siri, display battery percentage instead of icon.”

          “Okay, I’ll do that.”

          • that would be cool.

            today, Siri can help to a small degree — you can ask to go to certain settings screens.

          • Dan

            You can also say, “Siri, turn off Bluetooth.” Tried that on a whim and to my delight it worked.

    • gjgustav

      I hear you. But on a product my company made, we used to get complaints the there weren’t enough settings, and complaints that the settings panels were too difficult and complex.

      Balancing simplicity with power is difficult. Perhaps a “pro mode” to the settings app is warranted. Of course, that means there’s two settings apps for Apple to maintain.

      • George

        The android system settings app has managed a pretty decent balance here by making good use of categories, icons, and logical separation. I prefer iOS overall (although ios7 is a regression in terms of stability and ui lag), but in certain areas, android has not only caught up but now surpasses iOS in user friendliness and lack of lag. Just try a nexus 5 to see what I mean.

        • gjgustav

          And yet, I think the Android settings still have a ways to go. Categories, icons, and logical separation are good of course (what consumer OS doesn’t use that technique?) I should have added that earlier, on top of balancing simple/complex, users have different skillsets and opinions.

          FYI, already have a Nexus 5. It’s a good effort, but I still prefer iOS.

    • iTunes.

  • George

    Some things that aren’t’ so simple: how to easily put photos on an iPad? An android device is drag & drop, while an iPad requires all kinds of iTunes finagery. Not so simple. How about a simple sideshow of your pictures? Much easier on Windows than on OS X. I am currently using a mac as my main workstation, but that only helps me to see the flaws more clearly. Apple still has a ways to go in some areas.

    • gjgustav

      How to easily put photos on an iPad? Turn on photostream and they appear automatically. That’s pretty easy. Or, in iTunes, select “Last X albums” or however many you want. Hardly “all kinds of finagery.”

      Slideshow? Select them in iPhoto and click Play – I’m not sure how that is difficult.

      Do not confuse “feature available without launching separate app” with easy. What if you don’t have all your photos in one folder? It’s not so easy to do a slideshow then. What if you want different effects, music, etc. in your slideshow? And seriously, I show slideshows on my TV so people can see them using an AppleTV.

      There are things that aren’t so simple on OS X. But those aren’t good examples.

      • George

        How is any of that easier than literally plugging a device in and drag & drop? How would you explain photo stream to a 60 year old? Would they find it on their own? What if your photos aren’t in iPhoto?

        I have 60 year old in laws, and to them, drag and drop just works. The rest, they don’t understand and I have to help them, and I admit it wasn’t intuitive even for myself. Opening up a picture on windows and pressing left or right just works.

        If you’re already familiar with the apple ecosystem, perhaps it’s all clear to you. However, for those that aren’t, trying to get their photos from camera into iPad, or even to see a sideshow on OS X using said photos is anything but simple, with the proof being obvious when you have to explain this to your 60 year old inlaws and they are frustrated. But I suppose because they’re not doing it the way they’re supposed to, they’re the ones that are wrong.

        • gjgustav

          When you set up your Mac or iOS device and enter your AppleID, photostream is but a single switch, and I believe it’s turned on by default. So, to answer your question, that is easier than literally plugging in a device and drag and drop. I don’t even have to plug in the device. As soon as I load or take a picture with one Apple device, it’s transferred to all of my Apple devices. And if you don’t want to use iCloud to sync photos, I already showed how easy it is in iTunes to get them. Choose it from a popup menu. Just as easy, if not easier, than drag and drop.

          And you haven’t answered my question, what happens if the photos aren’t all in one folder? This is likely if a user just uses a general file system browser (Explorer) to store photos – there’s no forced automatic organization. Navigating the file system regular is one of the hardest things for novice computer users. Now you could argue that your in-laws always drag the files from their camera to the same folder, but man, after a while, if must be a pain if they want to show only a subset of their photos. Going through such a long list to pick what you want when they aren’t organized by album or event is certainly more difficult than just “drag and drop.” So either they’re all in one place and they have to wade through a huge list to pick and choose, or they have to navigate around the file system. Both are more difficult than just drag and drop. I can’t see how choosing from a huge list is easier than picking, for example, “Last 20 events” from a popup menu.

          And by the way, my 60 year old in-laws can load photos from iPhoto to their iPad just fine. And I don’t have to help them do it. They can also figure out how to do a slide show. I don’t know why your 60 year old inlaws couldn’t understand “open iPhoto, select the photos or album you want to show, and click the Play button at the bottom of the window.” My family doesn’t seem to have that problem.

          But if that’s the way your inlaws learned to do it, and it works for them, good. I never said they shouldn’t do it that way. I only disagree with your assertion that it’s not simple to do it in OS X. There’s no point arguing this any further.