UX and The Lawsuit

So you may have heard that Apple and Samsung are suing each other. I hate when mommy and daddy fight.

In general, this lawsuit really irks me. Patents are outdated, both sides are being petty bullies, and customers are the ones who are going to suffer.

I was wishing it would all just go away when something really interesting happened: on August 6, a confidential email thread detailing a Samsung executive meeting in early 2010 was admitted into evidence. The email describes a tirade by J.K. Shin, Samsung’s president of mobile communications, about how much better the iPhone is than everything they make.

And what specifically did he say was the iPhone’s upper hand? Its UX.

I have confidence in our products’ H/W [hardware], in their exterior design, and in their quality. But when it comes to the ease of use of our UX, I lack such confidence.

Influential figures outside the company come across the iPhone, and they point out that “Samsung is dozing off.”

All this time we’ve been paying all our attention to Nokia, and concentrated our efforts on things like Folder, Bar, Slide, yet when our UX is compared to the unexpected competitor Apple’s iPhone, the difference is truly that of Heaven and Earth.

It’s a crisis of design.

He later goes on to say:

When everybody (both consumers and the industry) talk about UX, they weigh it against the iPhone. The iPhone has become the standard. That’s how things are already.

Do you know how difficult the Omnia is to use? When you compare the 2007 version of the iPhone with our current Omnia, can you honestly say the Omnia is better? If you compare the UX with the iPhone, it’s a difference between Heaven and Earth.

We are at a moment in history where the definition of “UX” is being explained to a federal jury. They’re being asked to judge the similarities in the experience design of two competing products. I think that’s pretty outstanding.

Had any of the 12 jurors previously heard the term? Did the lawyers or the the judge know what it means?

We can barely define it within our own community of practice. What definition did they get?

If they aren’t having an easy time understanding what UX is, this bit of the thread isn’t going to help:

As for UX, see to it that it is a UX that is easy to use regardless of age, occupation, and level of education, that it’s a UX that’s not like a UX, that, just like the flow of water, its alarm rings when you wake in the morning then out comes the news while you’re getting ready to leave for work, see to it that you’re able to come up with that kind of UX.

To this the Senior Vice President said, That’s what we’re doing, to which Head of Division said, “No, I’m not saying do that for everything; I’m saying I like it this way, but others may have UXs that they like based on their individuality So, we should be able to accommodate that. UX that’s not called UX and not like UX. I don’t mean UX needs to disappear; it’s something that is a matter of course, so even if we don’t call it UX, if we use it it’s as a matter of course.

But Shin is clear what UX means to him, and his frustration rises as he challenges his team to do better. This is my favorite part:

“For goodness sake let’s get things done while working within the realm of common sense. When it comes to UX, fix things that make sense first. I’ve always said this, haven’t I? A UX that can be used by anyone from six year olds to senior citizens. Ease of use is the answer.”

So tell me, if Samsung really understood UX, would they have copied the interaction design of a competitor with a different brand identity who serves a different target audience?

Designs can be stolen, but can experiences? Would anyone really argue that Samsung was able to recreate the iPhone experience on an Android?

These issues are at the core of our profession and bring into question the value we bring to the table. The verdict could change the shape of intellectual property for UX.

Design and user experience is the new intellectual property. - Ron Conway

My judgment: our IP isn’t our ideas and it isn’t even our execution. It’s our process. And no one can take that away from you.

[Read the translated meeting notes in full] and share your thoughts in the comments!

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  1. says

    Interesting post – and great to see such a newly defined practice getting mainstream visibility – albeit court. I’ve said for eons (well as far back as Apple was making computers) that the difference for me was the experience of using the machine and the OS. I simply felt more inspired, more creative, working in that environment. Just as we design our offices, our homes, our communities – we must design all experiences to be more human. Inspiration is often hard to describe in design terms, and we defer to “easy to use”. But effortlessness does come close to inspiration – any great artist or athlete or anyone who’s accomplishing great things will tell you when they are in the act of “doing” it feels effortless. They are one with the experience. This is the kind of experience Apple has managed to capture in their operating systems and device designs and in their UX design. I look forward to the ongoing discussion of how to accomplish effortless and inspiring UX.

    • says

      Yep. It all comes down to understanding that there’s a big difference between UX and UI, and just because you copy a UI doesn’t mean that “its UX” comes along with it.

  2. John Rivard says

    This is not as groundbreaking as it seems. UX was discussed an length in a courtroom in 1994 during arguments in Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corporation. The term “User Experience” wasn’t in common usage, but the lawsuit revolved around whether Microsoft copied the “Look and Feel” of the Macintosh OS in Windows 2.0 and 3.0.

    Short version; the court found that MS may have copied Apple, but that Apple had inadvertently licensed them to do so (so it became a matter of contract law and didn’t speak to whether a user interface is copyrightable).

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Computer,_Inc._v._Microsoft_Corporation

    • says

      John, I appreciate your comment and bringing our attention to that case. But do you think that UX really equates to “look and feel”? What about long-term impact like effectiveness, efficiency, productivity, pleasurability, learnability, connectedness, inspiration? There’s a big difference between UX and UI and I think it’s pretty clear that companies like Samsung and many others just aren’t getting that.

  3. says

    Couldn’t agree more! There’s another doc that came out this week [1] that reveals that Samsung set out to copy the iPhone, but ended up copying aesthetics, because they failed to understanding the underlying principles behind the iPhone experience.

    Apple’s differentiating factor is that they elevate design and empower designers in the process of product design. Samsung dictates their design decisions from the top-down, which is why they can’t replicate the UX of the iPhone no matter how hard they try.

    I actually just wrote about exactly this earlier today:

    [1] http://www.scribd.com/doc/102317767/Samsung-Relative-Evaluation-Report-on-S1-iPhone#page=121

    • says

      Sash, thank you so much for posting the link to that document here as well as your own blog post. I think you hit the nail on the head: it’s about principles. Samsung designers would probably be hard pressed to articulate what their design principles are. But as you said, it may not entirely be their fault, if they’re not being empowered to do their best work by upper management. But something tells me Samsung isn’t hiring and retaining the best talent if they don’t get how this stuff works — which they clearly don’t.

  4. says

    I totally agree. It’s neat to see UX so prominently featured in a case that has this kind of national attention. The patent wars have reached absurd proportions and it would be clear to a monkey that the UX of these two devices is no where near close enough for a legitimate lawsuit.

    • says

      @Jake — The scary thing here is that this trial could set a legal precedent for what defines UX. The patents at the center of this case are “design patents” which are defined as patents on the “ornamental design of a functional object.” These patents are invalidated if the design has a functional application. Therefore, Apple has to prove that the design elements in question are purely aesthetic, *not* functional. So, the term UX is now being thrown around in a high profile legal case debating whether or not design elements are functional. If Apple wins this case, does that set a precedent that UX is ornamental, not functional?


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