The Underappreciated Value of Incremental Design

There’s no such thing as a boring product update.

The Convair Model 118 Flying Car.

Apple announced iPhone 7 this week, and without missing a beat, the tech press decried it as dull. Tech pundits seem to have this same argument cued up every time Apple launches something that’s not game-changing innovation. I think they’re totally missing the point.

There are two ways to update an existing product:

  1. Make a brand new version that’s unlike everything before it.
  2. Improve it by simplifying it, making it more powerful, or adding new capabilities.

You can’t do #1 all the time. It’s just not possible. It’s a testament to Apple’s design prowess that they’ve pulled off #1 so many times, the public now expects it as a matter of routine.

Furthermore, making brand new versions all the time isn’t even necessarily good for customers. The iPhone is a stable, mature product that’s wildly popular and used by a massive number of people. Changing it dramatically every year is going to piss people off. Do you always want to relearn how your phone works every time you upgrade it? Do you always want to suffer the inevitable flaws and unforeseen bugs that arise when new moonshot stuff is launched at scale for the first time?

Sure you do, if you’re a tech reporter! But not if you’re a non-tech-obsessed human person who just wants to text their friends and check Facebook. If you’re that person, stability is a virtue, not a downside.

More importantly, there’s a critical aspect to these seemingly “mundane” product updates that people in the peanut gallery are missing:

Incremental updates help stack the deck for a big-splash release in the future.

When you have an existing product and you do want to make a big change to it, you can do that two ways:

  1. Bite the bullet, and launch it all at once in a massive blowout release that shocks everybody.
  2. Spread the changes out over a couple of releases that get you to the same end goal, but that aren’t as individually shocking to your customers.

In the case of iPhone 7, I believe the removal of the headphone jack is a tell that they’re doing the latter. I think whatever is coming after iPhone 7 depended on reclaiming that headphone jack space for something else. Every tiny bit of space matters!

By killing the jack in this release, they’re freeing themselves up to make a bigger move next. They knew everyone would whine and vent about that detail now. That means the next BIG launch won’t be marred by discussion about headphone jacks, because we’ll all have gotten over it by then. (People have a surprisingly short-term memory for the very strong opinions they held even a year earlier.)

The bottom line is, people get excited about changes and shiny new things, but they also hate changes — especially when they’re disruptive or different in ways that don’t seem to be a clear improvement over the old ways.

So, launching an update to an existing product is a difficult balancing act between these two extremes. Sometimes the big splash is fully warranted, but the rest of the time it’s best to be conservative and incremental. Apple’s carefully orchestrated release cadence is the perfect example of this, much to the chagrin of the overeager tech press.

Product releases are part of a larger long-term strategy, and they only make sense when you know the full picture. Only Apple knows theirs, but I’d bet on something big next time around. I suspect we won’t be “bored” for much longer!

Over at Basecamp, we dabble in big splashes and incremental changes. See both in action in the all-new (and constantly improved) Basecamp 3.

If you liked this post, please hit the ❤️ below, or holler at me over on the Twitters!

What’s new in Basecamp 3.1 for iOS

The latest version of Basecamp for your iPhone and iPad is here and it’s the most significant update so far in 2016. Here’s our latest GIF-injected look at what’s new…

Don’t take our word for it—launch the app and the Happy Camper will show you what’s new. He also likes reviews. Seems a little needy to me, but throw the guy a bone, would you?

Add the Basecamp 3 widget to your Today screen to see upcoming events from your Basecamp schedules and to-dos that are due soon. It also has a row of shortcuts to a few of your most relevent Ping and Campfire chats. I use it all the time to jump right into chats and to-dos from my phone’s lock screen.

Add Basecamp 3 to your Today screen to see what’s coming up and get quick access to chats you frequent.

We’ve also introduced a new and improved full-screen experience for writing and editing comments. It’s far less cramped and distracting. Need to peek back at the previous discussion while writing? Just tap on the preview at the top!

Write and edit comments in the new full-screen composer. Just tap the preview at the top to peek back at the thread for reference.

Smart people who use 1Password to make their lives easier and more secure can now use the 1Password extension to log in to Basecamp on iOS devices. I mean, don’t let me stop you from typing out 3PmL&nopav23)E#ohqa/ if that’s your thing (not my real password, don’t be creepy).

Basecamp loves easy and secure log ins. You should, too.

Google Docs
Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides in Basecamp now open with their apps (instead of Safari) if you have them installed.

Smoothly move between Basecamp and your Google Docs.

My new friend Rajiv (real name, don’t be creepy) is super happy about it:

Thanks for v3.1! 
A well deserved app store review is coming right up…

– Rajiv Sinclair

Now you can select an image that was copied to the clipboard after tapping the attachments (paperclip) button. The clipboard image is called-out specifically in the recent photos row with a special style.

The first image in the recent images list is from the clipboard. Copy and paste in Basecamp has never been so easy!

And more!
As always there were tons of small improvements, polishes and bug fixes. Every app update ever mentions these non-specific improvements so they might be easy to overlook but they are super-important for keeping the app fast and crash-free. It’s not exciting or sexy work that garners tons of applause but please tell the very much sexy Zach Waugh and Dylan Ginsburg know how much you appreciate their continuing to make this work a priority.

♥️ Team iOS,
Dylan Ginsburg, Zach Waugh, and Jason Zimdars

Basecamp 3 works where you do on iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows — anywhere you’ve got a web browser and an internet connection. Your first Basecamp is completely free so try it today, it takes just a minute to sign-up.