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Design Rule #004—Obsess Over Tiny Corners

After a number of half-hearted attempts over the years, I’ve started running, hoping I get to the point of at least jogging through the Bay to Breakers.

Of course, this means I need to find the right iPhone running app.

My quest for the right one has been frustrating—none have all the features I want, and the one that comes closest is still a bit too funky and wants a larger sum than seems right for the critical element (interval training).

My needs are reasonable, if not simple:

  • Accuracy for the GPS tracking
  • Pleasant voice prompts, with good user-experience properties
  • Automatic control over music playlists
  • Automatic swapping between high-BPM and low-BPM music, tracking the intervals
  • Support for Bluetooth Smart heart rate monitors
  • Facebook and Twitter integration

None of the running apps do all of this. I’ve tried a half-dozen, and investigated that many more, and I doubt I’m finished looking yet.

For now, I have settled on RunKeeper, although it has several funky problems. A fellow runner switched from it to Map My Run because RunKeeper was giving him grossly inaccurate distances–claiming he ran 30 miles instead of 15, for instance. Its voice prompts are worded in an order that I find difficult to parse while running. And it has no means of selecting music based on BPM.

This led to a key insight about product design and market fragmentation.

I postulate that whenever a market is this fragmented (I suspect there are many dozens in the iPhone app store alone), it is a sure sign that there is room for an Apple-like player to create a product far better and friendlier than the competition and take over the market.

Even if this company is a new entrant into a years- or decades-old market.

It’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen often, because it’s hard. You have to be as obsessive about quality and minor details as Apple is.

I do not use the word obsessed lightly, or in a clinical sense. It must be strong, and derived from a genuine passion to create great things.

Take, for example, this recent article on EE Times about Apple’s industrial design process:

While the “kitchen table” meeting area of the group sounds cozy, it is not always a comfortable place to be.

“It’s a brutally honest debate [there], that’s where all the ideas happen,” Stronger said. “We sketch and trade ideas and go back and forth–that’s where the brutal criticism comes in,” he said.

Once the group settles on sketches it likes, it takes them to a separate team of CAD specialists that creates computer and 3-D models of them as subjects for further brainstorming and debate. Sometimes the models “might be just a little corner of a product,” he said.

“We will even sketch on models or use a sketch from a different design session, [the process] weaves and knits [ideas] until we think we have something really special,” Stringer said. “We’re a pretty maniacal group of people, we obsess on details, every single detail is very carefully crafted,” he said.

Notice how important little details are to this team. They will spend hours designing, debating, and obsessing over “just a little corner of a product”.

This can only happen if the company culture allows and encourages this attention to detail. The culture must be one where “good enough” isn’t really good enough.

As to why a company like this hasn’t emerged in the iPhone running app market? That’s one riddle I haven’t deciphered yet.

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