Transparency in Design: Giving the Consumers What They Want (AKA Why Your Phone Doesn’t Have a Headphone Jack)

There's a Simpsons Episode  where Homer Simpson builds "The Homer", a car built to Homer Simpson's wants and needs as a consumer buying a car.

Just it's Homer Simpson, so of course everything is wacky, out of proportion, and incredibly unnecessary: three horns, shag carets, bubble domes, etc. 

Homer Simspon is obviously not a designer. He does not know how to build a car. He doesn't know how to think as a designer. Homer designs the car he thinks HE wants but fails to realize that his "dream" car is instead a nightmare. 

If good design is form > function, Homer's mess of a car is a lopsided function > form nightmare. A good artist, designer, photographer, etc., needs to keep the fundamentals of good design at the heart of their work, even if it perhaps comes to the confusion or frustration of the average consumer. 

An example of this could be a photographers insistence on perfect highlights in a shiny product or making micro movements with their camera to make the composition just right. It's something the average person likely won't notice, and it will likely not alter sales or units sold or give any financial hardships to the company hiring the photographer. A photographer may take 2 hours to take a photo that perhaps could, at a bare minimum, only take 30 minutes to do but the good photographer / designer / artists needs to keep in mind that THEY are the key authority in what is considered a good image or piece of art. 

Basically, its attention to detail. They are small, but they make a great difference.

Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.” — Joe Sparano

So, let's look at 2 Apple products that are ubiquitous for being designed poorly: The current Magic Mouse and the removal of the headphone jack (to be fair, Google and other smartphone makers have taken away the jack too. Spoiler: They fail in doing this while Apple succeeds).

So for those who don't know, Apple's "Magic Mouse", a touch enabled wireless mouse, changed from accepting 2 AA batteries to being charged either wirelessly or via Apple's proprietary Lightning cable. You can see it being charged above. It is upside down. Yes, this means that when you need to charge the rechargeable batteries you have to turn the mouse upside down and plug in a cable, rendering it unusable. 

Remember, form > function. Form over function. Form. Over. Function.

Ok, so for the average user this is very, very, very stupid. The video game peripheral company Razer sells a wireless mouse that can be either plugged in via USB or used via bluetooth. When plugged in, it charges. But it can also be USED while plugged in for the added benefit of lower delay when operating the mouse, or when you just don't want to deal with bluetooth connection. 

This is good design from Razer. It's highly intelligent. It's very good design. 

So why doesn't Apple do this? If they put the charging port towards the front of the mouse you could do the same thing, right? Use it wirelessly when needed then plug that bad boy lightning cable in when you want to use it as a wired mouse or when you want to charge / use the mouse at the same time. Good design, right? Nope. That would be BAD design in Apple's eyes.

In fact, making it impossible to use the charging cable + the mouse at the same time is, for Apple, Great design (going back to the quote: good design is obvious, great design is transparent).

For Apple, its a bit of the opposite situation we saw earlier with Homer Simpson. It is isn't the average Joe making a car to show to the big corporations. It's the bigger corporation showing the consumer what THEY want through design.

In Apple's mind, wireless is the future. Repeat: Wireless is the future. Their idea of a clean, minimalistic desk is one with few wires and a plethora of wireless accessories: wireless mouse, keyboard, trackpad, headphones, internet (wifi), etc. They even wish to do away with the classic PC interface of screen + PC and instead headline their iMacs as their latest and often greatest pieces of tech. 

And it really is a sexy setup: an iMac with a wireless mouse and keyboard is amazingly minimalistic and clean. It's what they want the ideal Apple user to want. Homer Simpson, meet Apple.

Does this make sense? Having the wireless mouse suddenly become useless is Apple's way of saying, "hey, use this mouse as a wireless device. Wires suck". And to make sure no one even dares plug in a wired mouse they make it so you CANT use it while plugged in. And what better way to do that than to make it charge from the least convenient place? 

For Apple, the idea of this ultra sleek and well designed piece of tech (the magic mouse) being ruined by a thin, stringy wire is appalling next to their bastion of design, the glorious iMac.

It seems stupid, but they have a point: Force users into using the products they make in a very specific way. Embrace a wireless lifestyle. 

Now, for computers there are easy workarounds. Plug things in via USB. Buy another companies wireless mouse. Apple begrudging lets you do this. But they'd very much prefer an all wireless life for their desktops.

So...everyone's favorite "old school" plug: the 3.5mm headphone jack. Gone. GONE! Gone from all newer iPhones. And from some other new smartphones as of 2018.

This follows a very similar design choice for Apple: Yes, it makes sense to include a 3.5mm jack. Why not? It plays music. It makes selfie stick operation possible. It's used with some third devices, like external light meters for your phone. It probably costs pennies to include.

However, Apple's philosophy of a "no wires lyfe" transfers to the phones too. For Apple, their once iconic white wired headphones are now something they cringe at. Wires? Yuck. Apple's future is wireless, and their highly popular and well received Airpods are evidence of this.

"Your phone doesn't have a 3.5mm headphone jack? Shucks! Better buy our fancy Airpods!" -Probably an Apple store employee...i mean, probably not.

With Apples partnership with Beats headphones (also wireless / bluetooth for many models) you can see why Apple wants to do away with the headphone jack. They find the wireless life much cleaner, much more modern. Futuristic, even. And to be fair, the Airpods work well across all of Apple's devices and make wireless / bluetooth listening a breeze. 

By removing the 3.5mm jack its forcing the hand of their consumers: instead of giving them a choice they are limiting options. Instead of letting us charge the mouse and use it at the same time, they make it obsolete while charging. Instead of including a headphone jack, its removed or needs to be used with a dongle or adapter. 

Apple wants the ideal consumer to be using Airpods, bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and ideally a mac computer (or two) and an iPhone. 

And for Apple, this makes sense. Many of their devices talk or work well each other. So heavily promoting Airpods makes sense considering how well they work with their other products.

In this sense, its also why a company like Google with their Google Pixel 2 actually have a very poor choice in removing the 3.5mm jack: They don't necessarily have an amazing "Google-Buds" headphone or an immediate solution. Google's endgame isn't a wireless free world in the same vision that Apple has. While Google copies one of Apples most controversial decisions in removing the headphone jack, it does it without copying the underlying reason WHY Apple chose to do so.

In this sense, any Android phone maker who isn't also pushing their own great wireless headphones has little business removing a headphone jack in their phone—unless of course you want to make ultra thin phones, but even then, its a negligible difference. This is why Apple's decision makes sense while the competition just looks like they are helplessly copying Apple.

So, yes: Lots of Apple's design is often labelled "anti-consumer"...and from a certain point of view, yes, it is highly frustrating for consumers. But Apple's idea of the perfect consumer is one that buys all of their peripherals and is subscribed to their lifestyle. You don't complain about a lack of a headphone jack when you have great bluetooth headphones. And you don't care about using a proprietary lightning cable for your phone because you already own a dozen of those cables from your iPad, Apple Watch, iPhone, etc. So for Apple, it isn't their goal to be "anti-consumer". Their goal is to show the consumer what they want before they want it, which was very much Steve Job's vision.

But let's not let Apple off the hook just yet! I believe the Magic Mouse and headphone jack issues are their most known examples of "bad design" (when in reality, its quite brilliant and great in design...from a certain point of view). One of their lesser thought out choices comes in the form of their newest laptop, the MacBook Pro.

For those unaware, the newest MacBook Pro comes with 4 USB-C cables. These cables can double as charging cables or as extremely fast connection ports for displays, ethernet, audio, any USB devices, etc.....just, quite often, they require a dongle or adapter.

Apple's approach to design takes a bit of a mis-step here. They want to create a similar world that we talked about: Wireless is the future! Just the issue is that while a laptop really is the king of the 'wireless' world (i.e doesn't need a mouse or keyboard as its built in. Has wifi, etc.), Laptops are also used in many more situations than Apple's other counterparts. In their controlled ecosystem the iPhone only has to deal with the user owning a charging cable and maybe a wireless pair of headphones. At home, their iMac can happily work in their clean desk environment. 

But what happens when you throw a laptop—something that travels everywhere—into the world with 4 ports that aren't widely adapted by the world? You get issues.

It's a bit of a different overall idea to design too: Apple doesn't want to make their laptops FULLY wireless and, unlike removing the headphone jack, they aren't eliminating ports to make it more enticing to buy Airpods or whatnot...instead, they're aiming to make something that can be used in any situation, save that you have an adapter. USB-c is highly adaptable but and fast, but you do need an adapter at this point, which seems rather pointless. 

It's...honestly just a very awkward design choice. Yes, having USB-C is great when you can actually use it. USB-C hard drive to another USB-C device is fantastic and ultra fast. However. There aren't a lot of people that have that, and unlike the magic mouse or the iphone, Apple isn't necessarily coming forward with a lot of devices that utilize USB-C. In the same way Android phone makers are failing in removing the headphone jack while Apple succeeds (by providing the consumer with a clear alternative), Apple doesn't give their users much of a choice. Their phones are not USB-C. Many older peripherals, like say the CD reader, are not USB-c. Their USB keyboard is not usb-c. Apple is stuck with waiting for the competition and other companies to start making devices that will work seamlessly with USB-c. Microphones, mice, keyboards, USB sticks, cameras, you name it. 

Imagine owning one of the worlds first cars when everyone else is still riding horses on dirt roads. Now, when you manage to reach a city that has paved roads I mean, MAN, you car flies and works great. But once you get back on the country dirt roads you might as well use a horse. This is USB-C in a world that hasn't fully adopted it yet.

I'd say the USB-c only design is 'OK' to 'Good' design. It's not bad, its just wildly unnecessary. This is your dream laptop in 20 years. Right now, its really just a fish out of water. Yes, they're, kind of, doing what Apple does best: Showing the consumer what they want before they want it. And, yea, USB-C is indeed what we should want...but only if there are products that really support it. Otherwise, they are just like the Android phone makers cutting the headphone jack out: they're providing consumers with no obvious solution and forcing them to use a dongle or adapter. If the goal is to make a perfect environment for the user, USB-C only is not the way. Removing the headphone jack but giving a good solution? Fine. Making the bluetooth mouse unusable with a wire but encouraging a wireless lifestyle? Fine, within the scope of Apple. But having a USB-C only solution without, well, any clear solution is really going to be the downfall of the laptop until it becomes widlely adopted—and when it is finally well adopted, it'll be an old laptop.