Q&A with Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini

The founder of Apple's Human Interface Group explains why he thinks the iPhone will be a hitand why Apple is so far ahead of the industry's other "giant noninnovators"

Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini is pretty familiar with the ways of Apple (AAPL). After all, he was Employee No. 66, hired in 1978 by Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin to work on human interface design, eventually founding the Apple Human Interface Group. He stayed with the company for 14 years, witnessing the personal computer revolution at first hand and observing Apple's negotiations of good times and bad. After leaving the company, Tog went to Sun Microsystems (SUNW), where he was Distinguished Engineer for Strategic Technology and where he first began to experiment with gestural interfaces, designing new programming and also building on the research and development of others, including Bill Buxton, now principal researcher at Microsoft (MSFT) (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/18/2007, "Why Products Fail").

Nowadays, Tog, former Sun cohort and Web usability pioneer Jakob Nielsen, and another Apple alum, Don Norman, work as co-principals at the Nielsen Norman Group. Consulting for companies such as Adobe (ADBE), American Express (AXP), Verizon (VZ) and Google (GOOG), their aim is to help companies understand how to make technology and in particular, the Web, work for them. "We help companies work out systems that ensure the products they design will be successful," says Tog. "We don't do the design ourselves. Rather, we give wisdom on how to organize and carry out methodologies that will ensure that every design they come up with is going to work."

Though NNG's head office is in Fremont, Calif., Tognazzini spends nine months of the year living and working from his mobile home, a bus installed with the flat screens and connection devices a tech pioneer truly needs. BusinessWeek.com Innovation & Design Editor Helen Walters persuaded him to pull over and talk iPhone.

As one of Apple's first employees, you're in a good position to judge the company's products. What do you make of the iPhone?

It looks like the iPhone will be a hit out of the box. Both Steve Jobs and Apple now have 30 years experience bringing entirely new products to market. They know now to wait until the silicon technology is available that will allow them to produce a full-featured, mature product on Day One. [In contrast,] both Apple's Lisa and Newton were terribly underpowered, leading to their failure in the marketplace. Gesture technology as incorporated in the iPhone has been under development in the lab for more than 15 years. It is well understood, and the power and speed of today's silicon is well up to the task.

What do you make of the iPhone's touch screen technologies? Given what's possible today, is the implementation successful?

The iPhone is implementing a small subset of what's possible, given the narrow range of tasks required as well as the small size of the device. That allowed them to focus high effort into getting that subset absolutely right. The design is right—brilliant, really—and I will be quite surprised if the execution is not equally perfect.

Do you expect to see the technology migrate to other Apple products?

It's really about time for gesture to take hold so users are not just one-trick ponies with one click available to them. [The technology] could certainly be brought down into video iPods—and it could scale up to notebook computers, though you don't want to have people raising their hands to a vertical screen.

Why not?

The arm of a 200-pound man weighs around 15 pounds. That's a lot of weight to hold in a roughly horizontal position several hours a day while interacting with a vertically oriented touchscreen.

Bring the screen down to the desktop, however, and the hand can glide over the surface with the weightiest portion of the arm hanging straight down from the shoulder. That's what the mouse allowed. Similarly, the iPhone will be held in front of the user at around belly-button height, with the upper arms hanging straight down.

So touch screens and laptops are a bad combination. What about desktops? As part of some research you did for Sun Microsystems in the early '90s you created a film of a woman using a very big display. Is that a workable scenario?

In the film you can see that she is able to carry out the bulk of her work gliding her hands around the flat portion of the display directly in front of her. It was for this display that I developed the multitouch pinch and stretch gestures.

In a blog post earlier this year, you criticized the iPhone's apparent lack of message integration, meaning that a user has to check for SMS [Short Message Service], e-mail, or voice messages in three different places. It's a great point. Why do you think that breakdown happened?

I bet you there were three different teams in three different places who didn't consider the problem from the user's point of view…But actually I don't think I would characterize it as a "breakdown." Apple has more tightly integrated these services than we have seen in the past by supplying each with a similar user experience, as well as making switching among them far simpler. The paradox is that, once I saw them that well integrated, I immediately questioned why they had not gone all the way.

So maybe that's a feature for the future?

It is the nature of invention that a second product is better than the first because the first product spawns the new ideas that become incorporated in the second. I think it is fair to say that this team is bringing out what would quite possibly be a sixth- or seventh-generation product for many of the giant, noninnovators that are dominating our industry today.

What other Apple products—or specific features—have stumbled as a result of independent product teams and then been corrected in the second generation? You were a vocal critic of the iMac's original round mouse, which was a clear example of style over usability, and which was quickly replaced.

Quickly? It seemed interminable to me. And I'm also only speculating that that is why SMS, voicemail, and e-mail are not fully integrated. It could be they had a big design meeting and someone said, "Well, no one would ever want to have just one list, so let's make three." Though I doubt that happened.

I know your question is limited to Apple, but the classic example, one that will go down in history, is the new Airbus A380. They split the electrical wiring work between the various partners—France, Germany, Spain, and the U.K.—for political reasons. The Germans and Spanish built their half using an old 2D CAD/CAM system while the French and British used a 3D CAD/CAM system. When they tried to connect up the plane's 100,000 wires, they didn't plug together. That, plus weight overruns, etc., have threatened the future of the company and are expected to result in more than $2.5 billion of losses. Apple has never suffered that kind of meltdown.

How does the company avoid it?

For these kinds of efforts, Jobs tends to put together a small team of brilliant young people who work 100+ hours per week in a tightly integrated environment. This eliminates much of the organizational echoes that can permeate a large-team project. Again, this particular SMS/voicemail/e-mail (dis)integration echo, if it is indeed an echo, is a small one considering the overall integration the iPhone design reflects.

Apple is constantly held up as a paradigm of a company that has mastered smart design thinking. What can other businesses do to emulate its success?

Well, they could take Steve Jobs!

Is it that simple? Is he really so influential?

Not in the early days, because he didn't run the company. But Steve is a man with three elements that make up the story of his success. First, he worships good industrial design and good behavioral design. He wants to make every product a jewel, something that can be exhibited in MOMA [the Museum of Modern Art] and that people will be attracted to.

The second thing is his common sense, which is greatly undervalued as one of his strengths. He looks at something and knows whether it'll work or if it's simply a quirky, cute thing. The third thing is that he's got a marvelous lack of fear, which could easily get him killed. He does things like betting the company on the Mac—or the iPhone. He's more often right than wrong, so it pays off. But in my experience, his courage is something that's sadly lacking at many other large corporations.

With Jessie Scanlon.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.