Former Apple Watch engineer talks working with Jony Ive’s design team, secrecy, and more

Apple Watch sensor

Former Apple engineer Bob Messerschmidt recently sat down with Fast Company for a wide-ranging interview. Messerschmidt joined the iPhone maker in 2010, when it purchased his startup, and led the team that designed the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor.

As you can imagine, the interview is pretty interesting. Messerschmidt talks about everything from working with Jony Ive’s vaunted design team, to how secrecy is embedded in Apple’s culture. We’ve highlighted some of our favorite excerpts from the article below.

On designing the heart rate sensor in the Apple Watch:

One great example is [when] I went to a meeting and said I’m going to put sensors in the watch but I’m going to put them down here (he points to the underside of the Apple Watch band he’s wearing) because I can get a more accurate reading on the bottom of the wrist than I can get on the top of the wrist. They (the Industrial Design group) said very quickly that “that’s not the design trend; that’s not the fashion trend. We want to have interchangeable bands so we don’t want to have any sensors in the band.”

Then at the next meeting I would go “we can do it here (on top of the wrist) but it’s going to have to be kind of a tight band because we want really good contact between the sensors and the skin.” The answer from the design studio would be “No, that’s not how people wear watches; they wear them like really floppy on their wrist.” That creates a set of requirements that drives you toward new engineering solutions.

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

On secrecy:

There is really a contingent at Apple that has resorted to the tools of secrecy. SJ wanted secrecy for very specific reasons. He wanted to be able to make the big splash at the product announcement. And that’s almost as far as it went. There’s definitely a contingent at Apple that wants secrecy because it helps them maintain an empire, in a sense. It helps them create a sense that they’re doing more important things that they really are.

On Apple being structured more like a startup:

There were no business units at Apple. There was only one profit center. So what that means is there aren’t 10 different people trying to make some number—their revenue number or cost number or whatever the number is. That’s totally different (from other tech companies). So nobody has to compete for resources, really, because it’s all the same bucket of money.

[…] Actually, when you think about a startup, a startup has that same structure. So Apple maybe figured out a way to be a big company but still behave a little bit like a startup. Because you don’t have different business units in a startup. Everyone is kind of answering to the same number.

The entire interview, which you can find here, is worth reading. Fast Company also had a lengthy interview with Tim Cook earlier this year that is worth checking out.