September 20, 2021

Role Model: Lessons on leadership and user experience from Steve Jobs


With the passing of Steve Jobs, the world lost a great innovator. Just as his work will resonate in Apple products yet to be released, the example of leadership set by the company’s founder and former CEO will continue to inspire and inform many, including those of us in the library world.

Jobs (pictured, with Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg) maintained an unwavering focus on the full user experience and demanded excellence in that area on the part of Apple. Moreover, his pursuit of innovation was unrelenting. And in those memorable presentations, Jobs was unabashedly passionate about his product. We can all learn a great deal from this approach.

Teacher-librarians need to grab the mantle of leadership in our schools, especially in view of the digital shift. Passion, knowledge, expertise, and a strong dose of confidence put Jobs at the forefront of the technology world. The same qualities in a librarian will go a long way toward securing a leadership role for our profession in schools and districts.

Libraries might also glean from Jobs’s constant focus on the entire user experience. The success of the iPhone and iPad is as much about the software as it is about the hardware. With over-arching control, Apple was able to create a higher level of software integration than is commonly found in the Windows environment, where numerous external device drivers and a wide variety of software have to function with various hardware. Despite the criticism of Apple’s walled garden approach, one of the benefits of having control over your domain is ensuring that everything works properly. This is one of my concerns about individual publishers presenting their digital content on unique platforms with their own features and navigation. This can frustrate our users, who face having to relearn a new system with each new ebook.

Apple sweated every detail of the customer’s interaction with the product, and there’s a lesson in that. From the initial unboxing of a device through all aspects of setup and usage, it was all about creating a positive user experience. Have we taken the same care with library services? As a student enters the physical or virtual media center for the first time, is she greeted with signs that explain and inform or ones that attack and condemn? When you first boot up a new Mac, you’re greeted with a pleasant tone and a welcome message. What you won’t find are messages warning you not to do certain things. Consider the experience of returning a book. Does it inspire a young reader to check out another one? You might post “if you liked X book title, you might like Y” signs. Displaying book reviews near the return area can also lead users to a new reading experience.

Still, clever signage—and for Apple’s part, superlative design—won’t replace innovative products and services. Jobs always delivered an exquisitely perfected one, or no product at all. And each Apple release revolutionized our interaction with technology and the world around us. Within our institutions, we can strive toward greatness in service to our communities. What can we do with digital resources to wow and inspire our students and colleagues?

Jobs brought that sense of wonder to his presentations, where he seemed amazed by the capabilities of a new product that he must have envisioned for years. In faculty meetings or student lessons, try to bring that same energy and passion for what you provide. We’ve done this with book talking; we need to do the same around ebooks.

Over the past month, I’ve been re-watching some of Jobs’s presentations. Beyond Apple’s innovative technologies, his leadership and persona continue to resonate. When it comes to building an amazing user experience filled with wonder, passion, and dedication to quality, he has a great deal to teach us.

Christopher Harris About Christopher Harris

Christopher Harris ( is coordinator of the school library system of the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership.