Apple often embarks on projects that seem excessively ambitious, even foolhardy at the outset and Apple has most often emerged stronger. As many have pointed out "Mapgate" appears to be yet another example of this. Even if it was an accidental success. But how could Apple have managed this fiasco better? I'm sure there are many ways and it's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback but I believe there is at least one critical lesson to be learned from this debacle.
In September of 2012 Apple released a new incarnation of their built-in Maps application for iOS devices. The new system was, as Scott Forstall put it during his June WWDC address, "an entire new mapping solution from the ground up" for which Apple did all it's own cartography. Forstall enthused about the updated application in typical Apple style calling them "beautiful, beautiful maps" and underlining the "100 million business listings" they had "ingested" as well as the "great traffic service", Siri integration, and the "gorgeous" fly over feature.
Unfortunately Forstall forgot to mention one critical thing that that may have hastened the end of his career at Apple and almost certainly created the perfect conditions for the media firestorm that followed. In his address Forstall set a high bar for Apple's "upgrade" to maps but didn't once mention the complexities of rolling out a world-wide mapping system.
The lesson I see is best illustrated by looking back ten years to another ambitious product announcement from Apple. When Steve Jobs announced Safari, Apple's then new browser, from the stage of Macworld in 2003 he enthused much like Forstall, calling the browser hot, sweet, and proclaiming it the fastest browser on the mac. As he bounced back and forth across the stage he could hardly contain his enthusiasm. As he gave his demo he punctuated nearly every sentence with "boom" as the browser quickly reacted on the screen above. But it was what he did next that made all the difference.
You see launching "the first major new browser in five years" was a pretty risky thing. It's easy to forget the open source community's initial skepticism (and sometimes anger) at Apple, the criticism they received from pundits for "reinventing the wheel", or that Apple had tried and failed to build a browser before (see Cyberdog). However they faced one risk that made all of these pale by comparison.
Apple's maps application allows us to navigate thousands of monuments, millions of businesses, billions of homes and more. This network of interconnecting streets and points of interest ebbs and flows with emerging and disappearing information. It is not unlike the World Wide Web of information that Safari was meant to navigate. And in much the same way Safari faced the risk of rendering the world incorrectly.
The early days of Safari were filled with incompatible websites, rendering errors, and browser switching. But this was not a surprise for Apple. We know this because as Jobs concluded his demo of the browser he stood up and said,
"Now there are over 10 million websites out there. And I'm sorry to report that we haven't had the chance to test Safari with each one. So, what we've done is if you encounter a website that's got any problems there's a little bug button over here and you just push it and it puts that site in here and you can describe the problem. You can even tell us what the problem is if you want to be more specific and send the source of the specific page. Just hit the submit button and this will submit it to Apple and we will have that and we'll be able to address any problems that you find." @1:05:10
Announced by Jobs, placed prominently in Safari's navigation bar, and promoted on Apple's website the "bug button" was a clear statement that Apple was placing a high priority on quickly improving their browser's ability to render the web. It provided a release valve for frustration and set clear expectations regarding the unfinished nature of the product.
By comparison the Maps application was announced as a finished project, had a hidden "bug button" (which is reached by tapping a button that does not appear to be a button and searching for small, low-contrast text), and the Apple website gave no indication of Maps being a work-in-progress (until Tim's apology letter).
It's easy to make these observations given the benefit of hindsight and I know many talented designers and developers poured themselves into Maps. Personally I love the updated Maps application and use it regularly. The first time I get the chance I will seek out the hidden text that reads, "Report a problem" and do just that. It is important however, for me as a designer, to recognize the lesson that can be learned here.
Good design is humble and a good designer recognizes their design is incomplete until it has encountered it's audience. Whether we are designing for utility, influence, or delight our designs require people and are wholly dependent on their context. I will look for ways in my designs to allow users to provide feedback as directly as possible. Especially when launching something complicated, new, and important.