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Former Apple Watch engineer talks Apple design culture, secrecy, more in interview

Former Apple engineer Bob Messerschmidt, who headed up the group responsible for the highly regarded Apple Watch heart rate sensor, recently sat down with Fast Company to offer an inside look at what it was like working with Jony Ive's secretive Industrial Design Group.




Messerschmidt started at Apple in 2010 after his startup was acquired by what was then a company run by Steve Jobs, reports Fast Company. Over the course of three years, Messerschmidt worked closely with Ive's design team, as well as other teams of engineering specialists, to workshop, research and develop what would become Apple Watch.

Like all Apple products, user experience was of paramount importance to the Apple Watch project. Messerschmidt's group was in charge of developing candidate technologies for integration, which would trickle down to numerous teams of engineers, designers and other divisions for vetting and productization.

The entire process was user focused. For example, Messerschmidt said he floated the idea of integrating heart rate sensors into Apple Watch's band because the underside of the wrist yields more accurate readings than the top. Ive's Industrial Design Group dismissed the idea, citing general design trends and Apple's plan to release interchangeable bands.

Apple owns patents describing watch bands with embedded sensors, and was rumored to release "smart bands" that connect to Apple Watch's diagnostics port. A shipping product has yet to materialize, however.

Messerschmidt came back with a design that integrated the sensor array into the bottom of the watch, but noted the strap would need to be tight to facilitate good contact with a user's skin. Again, Ive's group pushed for more, saying people normally wear watches "really floppy on their wrist." The process, while tedious, results in a product focused around user wants and needs.

"That's kind of what we had to do. We had to listen to them. They are the voice of the user," Messerschmidt said of Ive's team. "There's the whole field of Industrial Design that focuses on the use case, the user experience."




Moving on to other topics, Messerschmidt discussed Apple's penchant for secrecy. With Jobs, stealth was employed mainly to illicit a big surprise when a product was ultimately announced. Under the new guard, however, a contingent is using secrecy to "maintain an empire," or make projects feel more important than they really are, he said.

The sentiment of change within Apple is echoed in Messerschmidt's take on whether the company was successful in carrying on the innovative spirit fostered by its late cofounder. Apple University is a good example of the lengths Apple went to ensure the culture Jobs created, though Messerschmidt believes the effort was in vain.

"You may remember that right after [Jobs] died there was all this stuff about 'can Apple go on?' Could anybody have the capacity to do that job [Jobs' position as CEO]? All I can say at this point is that the jury is still out, but so far I think the signs are kind of pointing to 'No," he said. "It's definitely not the same place."

Messerschmidt goes on to talk about Apple's business model —which looks more like a startup than a traditional corporation —Apple marketing, design theory and more.