From Concept To Consumer, An Inside Look Behind The Secretive Product Development Process At Apple

FEATURE: 12.24.21 – Everyone knows how Santa and his elves make toys up at the North Pole to deliver to children all around the world on Christmas but have you ever wondered how Apple’s products are created in-house before they end up at the company’s retail stores and into the hands of eager customers across the globe?

An anonymous writer — writing under the pseudonym “LeaksApplePro” — has given readers of iDrop News an inside look into the secretive product development process that takes place behind closed doors down at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California. In the very informative and eye-opening piece from October of this year, the author, who does not cite their sources nor any details about their background, spills the beans (so to speak) on how Apple turns a mere idea into reality.

holiday-themed display in the storefront window at Apple Valley Fair
A photograph taken by this writer in 2008 of a holiday-themed display in the storefront window at Apple Valley Fair in Santa Clara, California featuring one of Santa’s elves using an iPod nano. (Photo: Joe Leo / MacPrices)

The author indicates in the article that this process is, in their own words, “a bit obscure” and not many people know the exacting details so they explain to the readers of iDrop News how it all works.

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Apple & Design

According to the author of the iDrop News article, at most companies, its engineers work on a product first, and once it meets all the technical requirements, it is then sent to the designers who create a design based on what the engineering team produced. The Cupertino, California-based company, however, does the exact opposite. At Apple, when a new product is approved, the project is given to the design team first which then works on (of course) designing the item and once it meets Apple’s exacting standards, only then will that design be sent to the engineers who then proceed to make technology like internal components, as the writer puts it, “fit the mold” that was given to them.

All Apple products typically go through what the author describes as a, “back and forth” design process before a product is finally manufactured.

Apple’s design process involves a weekly meeting where a company executive reviews what its designers are working on. There, they will give the design team feedback and, ultimately, approve — or, reject — what has been designed. If this step fails, members of the team will make notes of any necessary changes and will immediately take care of them following the conclusion of the meeting and, at the next weekly meeting, an executive will review the design again.

Once a product’s design has been initially approved, it then is passed on to the engineering team to focus on the technological aspects of the device (or hardware). If a particular aspect of the current design does not work properly, it will be sent back to the designers who then will try to solve the problem which results in yet another weekly meeting where a company executive will review the revised design for approval (rinse and repeat, as it were).

The author also notes that the design team is not allowed to discuss what they are working on, only reporting to company executives along the way. In fact? It’s so secret that, to prevent any information from leaking out, there are special rooms inside Apple Park (click on link to see behind-the-scenes photos of Apple’s designers at work) with security measures, such as body cameras for everyone in the room or even security personnel making sure only those who are allowed to enter are in it.

The Product Development Process

Apple’s product development process consists of several phases, all detailed in what is commonly known among employees as the “Apple New Product Process” (ANPP) or, as the author describes it, where the design team is given everything they need to start working on the device (or hardware). During this stage, they lay out what needs to be designed, which designers are responsible for each phase, and when the final version of the design is to be delivered to engineers.

According to the author of the iDrop News article, the major phases of the ANPP are as follows:

  • “Engineering Validation Test” (EVT) – in this phase, engineers try to build several prototypes to see if what they developed with the design team works as it should, or if there are problems that must be fixed; if that fails, the prototype goes back to (square one, as it were) the initial step of development to solve the problems found.
  • “Design Validation Test” (DVT) – in this phase, the company checks if it’s possible to mass-produce the device while keeping the design intact and making sure that the technological aspects of the device work as they should.
  • “Product Validation Test” (PVT) – the final phase is where what has already been tested in the DVT phase is further validated on a much larger scale; if everything is in order and there are no other problems, these devices will (then) be sold to customers pending any last minute modifications.

Finally? After the product being developed passes all three tests, per the author, the device gets manufactured and is subsequently released to the public by Apple.

Of note is that the author does not indicate in their article the average length of time that the product development process usually takes.

iPod: From Concept To Consumer

Take, for instance, the iPod (something one might assume would have involved the exact same product development process, as outlined by the author of the iDrop News article, prior to ending up in the hands — or, pockets… filled with 1,000 songs on it — of customers everywhere). As detailed in an article published by Business Insider from January 2020, Tony Fadell, the man credited with leading the creation of the now iconic device, recalled how Apple’s plan to create a portable digital music player went from concept to consumer in only six months time (nearly instantaneously) before being unveiled to the public by the late co-founder and former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, in October 2001.

“There was no team, prototype, designs, nothing,” said Fadell (in an interview the former Apple senior Vice President did with Stripe CEO, Patrick Collison, for a post about the history of the iPod on Collison’s blog from January 2020 which was cited in the Business Insider article).

In an article published by Invision from November 2019, Bob Baxley, the former director of design for the Apple online store, shared some insights into Apple’s product development process during an interview for Invision’s “Design Better” podcast. Baxley, who also was in charge of design reviews at the company, described it as being, “a very intense process” where people had to show their work every 48 hours.

According to Baxley, design reviews at Apple followed a rigid weekly meeting schedule, with in-flight projects and deliveries for the week discussed on Mondays while Tuesdays had a two-hour review in which the entire design team showed what they were working on with everyone present making comments and taking notes. The rest of Tuesday and Wednesday were devoted to improving what had already been completed to-date. Thursdays mirrored what took place on Tuesday and on Fridays, the designers sat with a company executive — along with a team of other executives — who would spend another two hours reviewing what had been designed.

On working with the “design-obsessed” (as Jobs was described by the author of the Invision article) former Apple CEO, Baxley said the following (recalling an interview the late co-founder did with Wired magazine while serving as Apple’s chief executive officer): “The interviewer was saying something like, ‘Your job must be so much fun, just to sit here and have these designers bring in all this great work. And you just get to kind of see it and comment on it.’ And he’s like, ‘No, it doesn’t work that way at all… if anybody ever brings in anything that surprises me, something’s wrong in the process.'”

Related Reading: previously published in the “Mac Potpourri” column (October 2021) – “A Look Back At ‘The Gadget Of The Century,’ Apple’s Digital Music Player, The iPod

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