Art & Design August, 19 2014

The Engineer of the Original Apple Mouse Talks About His Remarkable Career

Jim Yurchenco, the first full-time employee at the massively influential design firm Ideo, retired recently after a celebrated 35-year career. During his time as a designer, he helped build the mouse for the Apple Lisa, the first mouse ever used by ordinary people. In addition to the Apple Lisa Mouse, Yurchenco was responsible for squeezing the guts inside the impossibly slim Palm V. Until the Palm V, all Palm Pilots were made of plastic pieces that screwed together. “That was a really important product for us, and the industry,” Yurchenco says. “It was one of the first cases where the physical design—the feel and touch points—were considered to be as important as the performance.” The device sold incredibly well and helped shape modern gadget-lust.

Following his retirement, WIRED recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Yurchenco to talk about his incredible career. Excerpts from the piece have been inserted below, but be sure to head over to WIRED for the full article.

Building the Apple Mouse

Yurchenco was just a year or two out of school when he got a call from an old Stanford pal, David Kelley. Kelley had just started a new design firm and asked if Yurchenco might want to join as an engineer. That meant a proper salary—Yurchenco had been working at a medical tech start-up, being paid mostly in stock—so he agreed. The company was called Hovey-Kelley; Ideo was still a few years off at that point. But thanks to co-founder Dean Hovey’s relationship with Jobs, Apple became one of the young company’s first clients.

Becoming a Master of Making

The design process for the Apple mouse embodied a few things that continue to define Ideo. For one, it was very much a hands-on affair. “We were always making stuff,” Yurchenco remembers. “Prototyping as fast, as dirty, as rapidly as possible.” Ideo predates CAD, 3-D printing, and CNC, at least insofar as any of those technologies were cheap enough for a fledgling design studio to afford.

The Secret: Keep Asking the Same Questions

Yurchenco has had a ground-level view of the design industry from the start of the personal computer revolution. So what’s changed?

For one, he says, concerns like usability have become a major part of the design process from the beginning. That involves questions like: How do people react to a product? And how might they abuse it? What will they do wrong, and how can the product help prevent them from doing that? “If our design is allowing them to do something wrong, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault,” he says.

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