“It just works”

For many years Apple fans have pointed out to detractors that the reason they love their latest Apple product is simple – “It just works”. This is a phrase which Steve Jobs repeatedly used at product announcements and it has become a generic catch-phrase to describe anything which works in a manner which doesn’t require the user to know how it works.

Steve Jobs recognised that most of us aren’t interested in what’s under the bonnet – we’re more interested in what it does for us, rather than how those clever Cupertino people managed to make it work like magic.

It’s an easy message to spread virally, and it’s positive – people like that.ItJustWorks_2

But it’s just not good enough. You can’t say “It just works” and expect to leave it at that.

What exactly does it do?

That’s a good question! In most cases “it” isn’t described explicitly, but left to the user’s imagination to fill in the detail. Users often aren’t too demanding, and they make purchase decisions based on what they have already seen in the hands of a trusted person, so there are rarely surprises. And of course there’s always safety in numbers – “millions of others are happy with it and I can’t be too different from them, so I’m likely to be happy with it too”.

Jobs wasn’t trying to hide anything from anyone when he used the phrase; he wasn’t using it to distract attention from the detail. He was making the point that because the detail has received so much attention from the designers, the user no longer needs to worry about anything – “we’ve thought about absolutely everything; don’t worry, it just works“. But the message can easily become confused with the subtly different “it works perfectly“.

It’s a dangerous phrase to use in isolation because there will always come a time when something doesn’t work for someone. You only have to do a web search for “it doesn’t just work” to see how irritated people can become when something goes wrong, or “it” doesn’t work as expected.

“It just works” is a phrase which could reasonably be expected to apply to other products too, but never is. My car just works – exactly as I’d expect. So does my fridge, my credit card, my office printer or the road traffic signals. Indeed, why would I buy or use anything which doesn’t? I’m quite sure there’s all sorts of clever stuff which keeps those things working smoothly, I’m just not too interested in how. But the phrase is a nice positive one and it reinforces the ease with which something can be used.

It’s often important to know what something does


It’s not always as simple as Ronseal have made it look. They have distilled the absolute essence of each product in their range into a simply-stated value proposition. In doing so, they not only created clarity in the customer’s mind, but also delivered a slogan which quickly became a byword for no-nonsense marketing. It’s hard to think of a message clearer than “It does exactly what it says on the tin“, especially when accompanied by wording on the tin which states “waterproofs & protects all exterior joinery for 5 years“.

So what about more complex products where “it” can’t be as easily stated? Take, for example, your wireless router; the radio in your car; the oven in your kitchen; or even the phone in your pocket. Each of those almost certainly has features which you aren’t using.

There are two likely reasons for this:

1. It isn’t obvious those features exist

There are usually “bigger” reasons for purchasing a product than the less obvious features which can easily remain hidden. Unless the product designers make them discoverable, they will remain unused. And making them discoverable isn’t always easy. In the case of smartphones or PCs, features are often discovered through collaboration – watching someone else do something and thinking “oh, that’s neat. I didn’t know about that”. But where the interaction is less collaborative, it is more difficult, and product managers and marketeers need to be more inventive in spreading the message.

2. Using them isn’t intuitive

Even though I know my oven can be set to come on at a specified time and heat itself to a specified temperature, it is a completely unintuitive process. Every time I want to use this feature, I need to refer to the manual and go through it step-by-step. And because it’s such a tortuous process, I rarely do it. So my experience isn’t full of the delight it should be.


Thinking a few years back, how often did you see the clock on a VHS recorder flashing 11:59? How easy was it to set the time? It wasn’t, and clocks all over the world remained stubbornly un-set!

I’m sure I should be able to set my wireless router to disable browsing by specified devices at specified times of the day – this would provide a degree of parental control. But again, it’s completely unintuitive and consequently remains an unused feature. What a waste!

So what’s the answer?

If “It just works” is to be applied to your products or services, there are a few essential steps:

1. Make the secondary features the primary features!
Don’t even bother to tell me about the basic things which are entirely implicit in the product itself. Use the vital “out-of-box” experience to tell me the things I probably don’t know about – the secondary features. That’s when I’m likely to be most attentive and receptive to the idea that my router can do all the other clever stuff.

2. State “on the tin” exactly what it does
Be absolutely clear about what “it” does, and make that into the marketing message – at least one of the marketing messages. Again, don’t worry about the obvious “what”s – concentrate on the less obvious. The router “with parental controls“; The oven “with programmable preheat“; The car radio “with always-on traffic replay“. These are likely to be far more memorable for the user, and will do more to encourage the user to investigate further.

3. Concentrate on intuitive processes
It should go without saying that any process should be intuitive, but clearly this doesn’t always happen. For regularly used things, familiarity will usually beat intuitiveness (“don’t think about it too much, just do it“) but in less-frequently used cases, lack of intuitiveness can fail completely – such as in the case of setting the time on an oven or a VHS recorder. Those are prime instances where intuitive processes will deliver high customer delight, especially at the lack of frustration which they were perhaps anticipating.

What do you think? Please add a comment.

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