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The 90/10 rule- why Apple generates fan loyalty

Apple_logoI had a couple of conversations today where the subject of Apple customer loyalty arose and it made me realize that I have never written about my feelings about that.  You find a number of terms bandied about describing those who are big fans of Apple products, from "fanboys" to the "cult", and while these are often used by Apple’s detractors there is little doubt that there is a fair bit of envy behind them.  What company wouldn’t love to have a customer base that is so happy with their products that they are recognized as zealots?

When you analyze why many Apple products are so well received anumber of factors come into play.  No question sexy product design is afactor as few produce better looking gadgets than Apple.  They havelong tapped into the sleek, thin, sexy materials and form factors andno one does this better.  Quality components is another factor thatenters into fan dedication as there is a strong reputation for usinggood parts to make their gadgets.  Apple is willing to do this as theycan usually command a higher unit price than the competition whichmakes it easier to do.  All other factors aside though you have toadmit that Apple has a strong reputation for their products being easyto use.  You have no doubt heard this stated as "they just work" orsomething similar but the basis of that reputation is because they maketheir products drop dead simple to use.

This ease of use is because Apple design folks have become masters at following what I refer to as the "90/10 rule"in product design.  It doesn’t matter what the device is, the sameprinciple apples to the sophisticated MacBook Air as it does to theiPhone.  I have come to understand that the average user spends atleast 90% of his/her time with a gadget using just 10% of itsfeatures.  For example on the iPhone the user is making calls orchecking email, maybe surfing the web.  While the phone has many otherfeatures and in some cases more sophisticated features these are theones that the Apple design team has determined they spend 90% of theirdevice usage time doing.  So they make these 10% features work rightout of the box as intended and very simple for the consumer.  They makesure these 10% work as well as possible and without giving the usererrors or problems.  So at the end of the day the purchasers of thesegadgets are very happy about the device and tell all their friends.More importantly they also show them how they do those 10% and theirfriends immediately say "ooh, that just works".  See how it happens?

The 90/10 rule comes into play in an even bigger way on Applecomputers but the principle is the same.  Most consumers spend 90% oftheir time checking email, surfing the web, creating documents or thelike.  The sophisticated computers running Leopard can do much, muchmore than that but for the average customer they only rarely doanything else.  So Apple makes these things work very simply right outof the box and every time the customer does them.  It’s only naturalthat they get the reputation that Leopard works more simply than thecompetition because for the 10% of the most used functions it does.Apple is very smart about figuring out what user functions make up the10% and it shows in how well their products are received.

When you compare competitor’s products to Apple’s in a given genreyou often find those that have more features or offer a better bargainthan Apple’s.  Most companies cram as much function as they can in adevice to offer more value to the consumer but Apple proves again andagain that this practice is not necessarily the correct tactic togenerate customer loyalty.  Often the competitor’s product with morefeatures is harder to use or it takes a while for the user to figureout how to get things to work right out of the box.  When that happensthey’ve already lost to Apple because the Apple designers are smarterthan that.  Apple products fire up right out of the box and performthose 10% tasks from the get go and the out of box experience (OOBE) istop notch.  This means Apple customers are satisfied from day one andnot frustrated as competitor’s customers often are.  Technologyproducers would be very wise to pay attention to the 90/10 rule with new products.  It can make or break a product’s reception and go a long way to welcoming the customers to the cult.

19 Responses to “The 90/10 rule- why Apple generates fan loyalty”

  1. I agree with your statement. I think Apple is a great company and your comparison using the Pareto effect is great !

    One point is that Apple stuff works together and they look similar too.. compared to Microsoft stuff where they seem to work together but they don’t look at all similar .. I mean there are so many weird Pocket PCs out there.

    Anyway, I think that although the functionality in iPhones already exist on the Pocket PC for years, Apple has redefined and refined the user experience and I think that’s why they are so successful.

  2. Alex Baird

    In RE: to tnkgrl…
    “There are one of two explanations. First, like many new Mac users from the land of Windows, you may be trying to use your new Mac like a Windows computer. That way lies madness. Your computer isn’t Windows. It is a Mac. There is an underlying logic to how a Mac works – it isn’t difference for difference sake. Try to accept how the Mac works, try to understand why it works that way. If you do, you’ll eventually understand why Mac users are so exuberant.”

    Not sure what you mean. Are you saying that experienced windows users are so used to a difficult and illogical windows workflow that the simple and logical workflow of Macs becomes actually more difficult for them to use? So a kind of windows detox period is necessary to appreciate the Mac?

    I am giving the Mac more time before I make a final judgement. There are somethings that I do like about the Mac. Video and sound editing are better with the included iMovie and GarageBand applications for instance. Right now I see the Mac as an alternative OS to Windows but not an exceptional one.

    And there in lies the problem for the Mac with gaining market share. If experienced users and IT departments can’t see a big gain in switching to Macs, then what is the point? Still waiting for the big “wow”.

  3. Apple’s support forum is full of complaints – proof that Apple hasn’t gotten it right? No, proof that *nothing* is perfect. But since I spend a lot of time on various support forums – that’s the nature of my job – I’ll point out three things that makes Apple’s support forum different. First, it isn’t full of people bitching and moaning about the company. Yes, moderators delete posts, but moderators delete posts at every support forum. The number of people at Apple’s support forum who are fed up and just venting rage is significantly lower. Second, people are giving – and therefore getting – help. Third, the overwhelming majority of posts are from inexperienced people who need a guiding hand to get them going again. Sure, there are people with busted equipment and dead on arrive computers, but most questions can be answered by any reasonably experienced Mac user.

    To the underwhelmed switcher: There are one of two explanations. First, like many new Mac users from the land of Windows, you may be trying to use your new Mac like a Windows computer. That way lies madness. Your computer isn’t Windows. It is a Mac. There is an underlying logic to how a Mac works – it isn’t difference for difference sake. Try to accept how the Mac works, try to understand why it works that way. If you do, you’ll eventually understand why Mac users are so exuberant. The second possibility is simply that the MacWay doesn’t jump up and bark in your face. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Give it time and one day you’ll go, “Oh!”

    In my opinion the iPhone is and isn’t a good example of the 90/100 rule. In most instances of the 90/100 rule the device can do tons of stuff but the details are extra sweated for the most important features. In the case of the iPhone, this isn’t quite true. What Apple did with the iPhone was identify what 10% most people wanted to use a cell phone for and then made sure that all of that 10% was included in the iPhone and worked great. They left the other 90% out altogether. That’s why the iPhone feature set looks so puny compared to a WinMobile phone – the phone that can do 100 things and none of them well.

  4. James, you know I’m definitely an Apple fangirl, but the 90/10 rule is also probably why MMS, Bluetooth stereo (A2DP) and video recording are missing from the iPhone…

    Sometimes Apple pushes so far in accommodating the average user that it leaves the power user disappointed! Why can’t we have good usability, nice design and lots of features?


    i think what jim is trying to say that if apple products are so perfect, how come apple have to maintain a support forum at all. ;)

    anyways, if apple would not play their “mac vs pc” meme to the nth degree, and people would stop doing stuff like this:

    this apple “envy” would settle down. but as it is, the apple brand seems to be used just as much for show (i can afford a apple computer, im oh so much better then the rest of you) as for actual use.

    hell, look up the raven character from penny arcade ;)

  6. “look at the support forums for os X! they’re full of complaints.”

    Look at the support forums for ANYTHING. Are you going to see people going, “yay, it works great! I’m so happy!”

    No, because they’re support forums. Everyone there is having a problem, and thus needs support.

    It’s like going to a hospital and saying, “oh my gosh, everyone here’s sick!”

    Of course they are, it’s a hospital, it’s where you go if you’re sick!

  7. John in Norway

    What’s this apple of which you speak? I’ve never fallen for all that religious rubbish but didn’t an apple supposedly cause a lot of problems a long time ago?

  8. “The 90/10 rule- why Apple generates fan loyalty”

    You could also wonder: why is it an growing succes now?

    “Technology producers would be very wise to pay attention to the 90/10 rule with new products. It can make or break a product’s reception and go a long way to welcoming the customers to the cult.”

    It all depends what a company’s vision is and what kind of market they’re aiming for. Because it’s just like people: they’re all different and not everybody wants to be an trendsetter. Some are just in for the money …

  9. I had not used an Apple computer since my family’s Apple IIc in the ’80s and did not see the point in switching to an operating system used by a small percentage of the market.

    However, I decided to purchase a mac book pro because I have an interest in developing for the iphone.

    I have to say that I am very impressed so far. Sometimes it’s the little things like:

    – speedier and more stable wireless connection;
    – the fact that the standard text editor reads word documents;
    – programs are really easy to install without “registry” hiccups;
    – I can still get a fix of windows with parallels which automatically recognised my bootcamp partition;
    – no need to install Acrobat reader as preview does it all;
    – easy putting the computer to sleep and almost instantaneous wake up;
    – good battery life considering it has a discrete graphics chip;
    – none of the vista resource hogging or disk thrashing;
    – comfortable to use and pretty slim exterior having regard to the inclusion of latest intel processor, discrete graphics, 2gb memory, 2.5 inch hard drive etc

    Thankfully I haven’t had any problems and I am very pleased with my purchase.

  10. I just purchased my first Mac and I gotta say that I am underwhelmed. I am a long time PC user and computer consultant and have received more and more requests from clients about Mac related issues. This coupled with the unending tide of MS/Vista bashing from both apple users and the press made it prudent for me to start familiarizing myself with the OS and the hardware.

    After a month of daily use I am scratching my head trying to figure out when that Mac euphoria will over take me. OS X and the mac are supposed to be vastly superior to any PC operating system. The “it simply works” philosophy should make simple computer tasks like browsing, word processing and and communication a simpler and better experience. It just isn’t so.

    The Macs are good computers with decent hardware and OSX is a solid OS. But I have already had to do a complete system reinstall (this was done on the recommendation of Apple support after only 2 days of the operation of the machine…and no I wasn’t using time machine) and have had some niggling issues from networking to system lockups that don’t really tell me that the Mac is that much different then any other computer. Vista, for all the criticism it has gotten, is just as reliable for me and most of my customers.

    So what is the big deal? Macs and OS X are a good alternative to PC’s and have their strengths. However all the hyperbole that is foisted on them by users just doesn’t pan out in the real world.

  11. Guthrie

    Great take. just switched to Vista of all things from Leopard for home use. I wanted a tablet and Apple doesn’t.

    But at work we use Macs still and it struck me how much more fluid and productive OSX can be with core tasks. it gets in the way far less.

    But at the end of the day I enjoy a good game and exploring the tablet interface, so it all evens out.

    I’m glad we have such choice, even if both are imperfect.

  12. @Jake: I agree about Office 2007. I like the design better than Office 2003; I just hardly use Office any more so I don’t think about it. Also Office 2007 is very different from Office 2003, which requires some learning, but for someone new, Office 2007 seems much better.

    It was odd that Office 2007 and Internet Explorer 7 came out at the same time, and Office 2007 was so good and IE7 was so terrible. I never figured out why there was such a difference but wondered if Bill Gates as very involved with one of them or if the IE7 project was driven into madness by competitive fears.

  13. Russell

    Speaking as a guy who’s bought two Macbooks, five MacMinis, two G5s, a couple of ipods, and and two iphones, let me just point out that this is largely a load of crap. Apple does some things really well, such as industrial design (though the G5s were stupidly big), and some of their UI is fantastic (ipod and Final Cut Pro). In my opinion, their biggest win is that they control the ecosystem so they can provide a better integrated experience.

    But just works? Check out their support forums some time. They have many, many problems with a lot of their software. I remember when Tiger came out and broke printing on my mother in law’s Mac. That required a format and a reinstall to fix. I’ve had numerous Macs break on me (audio glitches, drives fail and replacement drives not fit, mysteriously loud fans, etc., and their stuff is insanely expensive to fix.

    As for a simpler operating system, I’ve moved five different family members (none of who lived under the same roof) to the Mac a few years ago. All but one went back to Windows because the computer wasn’t friendlier for them. Some of that is undoubtedly that whatever you already know is the simplest system, but some of them had no real knowledge of how Windows worked. Only one of them is still on the Mac and happy.

    I have nothing bad to say about Apple, until someone starts talking about how intrinsically better they are. That’s what gets me aggravated, because they’re more different than better. They have their own host of problems and issues, but Apple people never talk about them.

    Why did I get so much Apple equipment if I’m not blown away by them? I thought the iseries of apps was really compelling for a while, and Final Cut Studio is the finest application I ever use. That seems like genius to me. The Apple OS? Meh.

  14. I think with the iPhone, the 90/10 rule is reversed in one way: People can actually access *90%* of the phone’s features! Aside from the 3 things you mention, they can also easily get weather, maps, YouTube, buy music, and take pictures. Each one of these is incredible easy to do.

    One of the 10% of the puzzlement is apparently clearing the Safari browser. This has been a popular search term that led people to my blog, so I even had to do a post about it! (Perhaps in the next revision, Apple will include a Reset Safari option up front, as they do with the desktop version!)

  15. @Mickey: I think Office 2007 fits into that category. Each time I use Word, Excel, etc. I’m amazed at the improvement. That’s was my first thought too.

    James, I appreciate that you like your Mac and Apple have undoubtedly made some good design and marketing decisions lately but I don’t think it’s necessary to describe their computers as sophisticated again and again. At the end of the day they have just as many flaws as any other PC.