The Value of Apple’s Knowledge Navigator: Gruber Has It Partially Right

Jared Spool

November 9th, 2011

John Gruber has it partially right: When companies release these futuristic videos (like Microsoft and RIM), they are doing it for PR. And I agree with Gruber that if those companies don’t have a current experience that matches the awesomeness of the videos, then they are sending mixed messages.

However, where I think Mr. Gruber gets it wrong is the value to the internal design team. The Apple Knowledge Navigator created a ton of discussion internally and set the company off on a 23-year journey that now brings us some amazing technology, which was impossible to imagine back in 1987 when the video first came out.

When an experience vision, like the Knowledge Navigator video, works, it gives the teams a chance to ask the question, “Am I getting closer to that design?” with every decision they make. It helps the team, as a whole, understand where it’s trying to go.

When teams don’t have a vision like that, each person is walking around with a different understanding of what the end of the journey should look like. When there’s no common understanding on what that end point looks like, each decisions is evaluated on a different criteria and the resulting products end up looking like crap.

I think the Microsoft and RIM videos are interesting. However, there’s too much in there. Apple’s Knowledge Navigator was simple in its delivery, covering only a few concepts. There are so many concepts in each of these new videos that I find it hard to believe the design teams can talk about what they are really trying to say.

I’m also betting that Microsoft and RIM have made classic mistakes: the visions represented in these videos are not put together by the teams that will be working towards them. They were likely created by marketing folks (and, even more likely, by outside agencies with no connection to the internal product development and design teams). It’s possible that the developers and designers at these companies saw the videos at the same time we did.

Unless the design and development teams have a voice in what their future is, they are unlikely to buy into it and will probably take their designs in a different direction. Team collaboration on the vision is critical for success.

I don’t think these visions need to be publicized to be useful. And, as Mr. Gruber asserts, it’s brings into focus the failings of the current products when they do.

However, there is real gold in having a solid vision and these videos can be a great way to represent that vision within the organization.

5 Responses to “The Value of Apple’s Knowledge Navigator: Gruber Has It Partially Right”

  1. Joshua Muskovitz Says:

    In the 90s, AT&T had a series of ads of their vision of the future. All of their predictions came true as well. There’s a montage here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MnQ8EkwXJ0

    Let’s see: Kindle, GPS, Tablets, 3G connectivity, EZPass, Touchscreen kiosks, Skype, Digital medical records, Video on demand, Distance learning, RFID scanners, Telemedicine, Google goggles, Siri.

    I’d love to see a compelling prediction of 30 years from now.

  2. Jul Says:

    I agree.

    With all due respect, why is Mr Grubers point of view held as a reference in our new technology world ? I read his wikipedia page and I fail to grasp why he could be so influential.

    I read his blog and he mostly looks like an Apple fanboy of some sort, really.

    I mean, on uie.com I can see your work and references, all the writers here know what they are writing about. I’m just a nobody so I don’t write. But Gruber ?

  3. Darrell Estabrook Says:

    I agree with your idea that these may serve as a focal point for the design team (IF they are working towards it), but there’s nothing any more visionary here than in any movie from Hollywood.

    I would go as far as saying any company publicizing a video like this (even Apple) is doing more than sending mixed messages, they are undermining their credibility. What happens when they don’t deliver the promise? Think about it–can we watch the Microsoft video, replace the ending logo with “Apple” and feel more confident of this future as reality?

    It always comes down to interpreting User Needs and using technology to address those needs. These concept videos are exactly that–concepts. There are so many impractical and unusable interfaces demonstrated, but that’s what sets people’s expectations (this is why we never do spec design work before having user requirements). Even the reality of the Knowledge Navigator demonstrates impracticality, but it’s the concept which is beginning to be realized with Siri (really, will we ever have an interface with a generated persona talking to us? Won’t we feel awkward if we don’t look at it when we’re talking to it).

    Since videos like these do little to generate loyalty to the company in the short term (I did not run out to buy a Microsoft product after that video), companies should keep these videos in-house and focus on and actually delivering the future now. Then I’ll buy into it.

  4. Jared Spool Says:

    Darrell, I’m going to guess that the biggest perceived benefit to publishing those videos is to increase shareholder confidence, more than creating customer loyalty.

  5. Product vision and roadmaps Says:

    [...] Spool in The Value of Apple’s Knowledge Navigator: Gruber Has It Partially Right: When teams don’t have a vision […], each person is walking around with a different [...]

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