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Wozniak's five rules for building technology people love

The two analysts who flanked Steven Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc., at last night’s Gartner Symposium keynote might have landed the easiest speaker assignment in the world. All Ken Dulaney and David Willis had to do was open up a treasure trunk stuffed with tech items — a battery, a cable, a CD — and ask Wozniak what he thought. In seconds, Woz, as he’s affectionately known, provided a breathless stream-of-consciousness analysis, each object acting as a trigger for an unexpected destination.

The talk covered immense ground — from wearable technology and mobile payments to the future of batteries and how he came to be chief scientist at Fusion-io, a startup recently acquired by SanDisk that specializes in flash memory solid state storage. (The answer: The company designed systems the way he did.) Tightly interwoven in all of the tech talk were personal anecdotes that touched on Wozniak’s passion for Segways, his fascination with gadgets and the inspiration he finds in the world around him.

“I saw someone wearing Google Glass, and I wished I’d brought mine,” he said. It might not do much for $1,500, “but what it does is so nice and small and convenient,” he said. “It triggers ideas in your head of what the future could be.”

The talk was breezy — more popcorn than peas — but it contained kernels for CIOs on how to build systems and processes for the business in a way that highlights simplicity and human nature. Here are five.

Build for yourself first. Why was the Apple II computer so successful? Because Wozniak so badly wanted to design a personal computer for himself. “That’s where the greatest products often come from,” he said. “Not thinking about what other people want or how to make a great product for other people, but how to make it for yourself.” That kind of personal perspective influenced how Steve Jobs designed the iPhone and Elon Musk his electric car. “Why is it such a beautiful car? Why is the business model of that company so different and so right?” Wozniak asked. “It was thought out from his own personal point of view.”

Convenience is king. It’s hard to describe Wozniak’s affinity for tech. “It’s in my heart,” he said, describing his drive to absorb manuals and textbooks from college courses. But just because he loves tech doesn’t me he’s a fan of every gadget on the market. Smartwatches? “I’m turned off by them,” he said. For him, the experience is too much like what a smartphone offers. A ring that acts as a key or even a payment device by using two-step authentication connected to the phone, on the other hand? Wozniak would love to see it, but isn’t holding his breath.

Voice recognition is the way forward. Wozniak said Apple’s Newton tablet “changed his life forever.” When he scribbled a reminder on the note pad and pressed the “assist” button, the random thought he jotted down — dentist, Tuesday, 2 p.m. — transformed into a calendar item. He sees the same kind of power in voice-recognition software and natural language processing found in technologies like Apple’s Siri and IBM’s Watson to cut out having to “go through the procedures” of typing or writing. “I want to deal with things the human way,” he said. “To speak … and have machines understand me.”

If it walks like a duck. The last item Wozniak pulled out of the trunk was a miniature trashcan. “On the Mac, we wanted to make things so human and understandable; we had a picture of a trashcan to delete files,” he said. No one had to explain to the user what the trashcan (an icon still used on Macs today) was for because it “was too human,” he said.

Invest in builders. Advancing systems such as voice-recognition technology or building something as intuitive as a digital eraser that actually erases won’t happen without builders, Wozniak said. It’s the engineers who have a keen eye on what new materials and resources are needed to get a product to market. But how do you spot the next Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak? “I don’t know the answer to that, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’ve tried to do it and failed.” One tip? He suggested building relationships with universities to tap talent and even to just tap opinion. “Steve Jobs would keep in touch with young people — high school and university students who kept him apprised of what they thought about product — and that meant quite a bit to him,” he said.

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That first rule (build for yourself) is interesting - we often hear that companies should build things for users and not let their personal feelings/preferences get in the way. To be successful, you need to build for an audience of more than just one person. But product creators are often users, too, so at least at the outset it can help to build something that you want and need. If nothing else, it will keep you interested.