There's a nice article over at all tech considered about the symbiotic relationship between Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive. Ive has designed Apple products since the fruit colored iMacs, and Steve Jobs is, well... Steve Jobs. The article describes the intimate working relationship between Jobs an Ive since The Steve returned to Apple in 1992.
The big takeaway from the article for me was this:
Apple famously avoids user-centered design. Their philosophy is to design for themselves and hope the world loves the designs. However, I would argue that what Apple has is a closed-circuit UX design process. They have a situation where they've paired one of - if not the - best designers in the world with the world's most demanding user. Jobs is famous (or infamous) for last minute design improvements.
A friend of mine told me a story where Jobs was visiting an Apple Retail Store the night before it's grand opening. He was riding in the elevator and noticed that the lines on the railing in the elevator from the way the metal was brushed were vertical (because they brushed around the railing), while the lines on the walls of the elevator were horizontal. Steve asked the store manager, who was riding with him, "Don't you think it would look better if the railing was brushed horizontally?" She agreed and he said, "So, you'll make that happen before open tomorrow, right?" She spent the night tracking down a metal fabricator to get the improved railing in place by the next morning.
Most people would not have noticed this detail, but for those that would it was no longer an issue. The basic operating principle is that if you can keep Jobs happy, you'll keep everyone happy. The flip-side to this approach is the big dollar UCD done over at Microsoft. Countless hours and countless conversations with countless users produced Vista and Kin (and we know how those turned out).
Think of it this way: If you are a vintner and you're about to produce some wine, you could start by asking people who self-identify as wine drinkers what they like in a wine. You could take then take that data and get a pretty good idea of the wine that would satisfy all of those people. Then you could choose your grapes and processes to produce that wine. The result will most likely be a pleasant, yet unexceptional bottle that will neither offend nor elate anyone.
Or... You can analyze your vinyard, grow the best grapes possible, strive to ensure that the entire experience (from taking the wine off the shelf and holding the bottle, opening the bottle, pouring and, most importantly, drinking the wine) is enough to make a sommelier giggle with glee. This wine is sure to keep everyone happy. The folks drinking the UX Red Blend will eventually figure out that there's better wine out there.
If you are relentless in your demands and relentless in your approach to designing solutions to those demands, you will arrive at a result that will exceed the expectations of the vast majority of users. Or, you may go on to be the most valuable tech company in the world...