Interview with Dean Hovey

About Dean Hovey

Dean Hovey was one of the co-founders of Hovey-Kelley Design, the firm that did much of the design work on the mouse that was used in the Lisa and Macintosh (and later became the standard mechanical and electrical design for mice produced the world over). Like other members of Hovey-Kelley (and others involved in Apple design projects, like Jerry Manock and Bill Dresselhaus), Dean Hovey graduated from the Stanford University Product Design Program. After receiving his M.A. from Stanford, he and David Kelley founded Hovey-Kelley. The company was introduced to Apple through Jerry Manock.

In early 1980, Dean Hovey met with Steve Jobs to pitch several products his company was interested in developing for Apple. Jobs countered with a proposal to have Hovey-Kelley develop a mouse for the Lisa. Hovey oversaw work within the firm on the mouse, and was the principal liaison between Hovey-Kelley and Apple.

After leaving Hovey-Kelley, he founded Trace Systems, worked as venture capitalist, and is now a vice president at Pensare, and online education software company.

About the Interview

The interview was conducted by Alex Pang on 22 June 2000, in Hovey's office at Pensare, in Los Altos. The interview was transcribed and edited by Alex Pang, and reviewed by Dean Hovey.

The original recording (a cassette tape, with an interview of Larry Tesler on side B) has been deposited with Stanford University Library's Department of Special Collections.


Starting the Mouse Project

Hovey: Let me just start by telling you some recollections about how we designed the mouse.

Meeting with Steve Jobs

As I recall-- and sometimes you reconstruct these things over time when you try to remember-- I had scheduled an appointment with Steve Jobs on a Friday afternoon. The point of the appointment was, we'd been doing product design for Apple as a consultant for quite some time, but our goal always had been to do some of our own products. I had a few ideas and wanted to talk to Steve about them, and we scheduled a time, and got together. I started running down my list, and he said, "Stop, Dean. What you guys need to do-- what we need to do together-- is build a mouse." I had no idea what the mouse was.

But my recollection was that at this time Xerox had wanted to invest in Apple. As I've pieced the story together, Steve said, "Yeah, I'll let you invest; but I get to run around Xerox PARC for a few days and see the stuff you're doing." I believe he did that on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the Friday meeting he had with me. So he explained what this thing was, and what it was all about, and I said, "Gee, that sounds kind of interesting." And as the young product designer I was when I walked out that door, I was ready to change the world.

Building a Quick Prototype

But I needed to build something. So I went down to the mouse parts stores, of course, and bought the parts so I could build some mice, right? [Pang and Hovey laugh]

The first place I went was to Walgreen's, and I bought a number of things there. The first thing I picked up was all the roll-on deodorants I could find on the shelves. [Pang laughs] They had these plastic balls in them that roll around [demonstrates application of roll-on deodorant].

Then I went over to the housewares area, and bought some butter dishes, and plastic things that were about the size I might need to prototype something. Then I went to the plastic store, and got some casting resin, and other stuff.

Over the weekend I hacked together a simple spatial prototype of what this thing might be, with Teflon, and a ball. The first mouse had a Ban Roll-on ball. But it just shows, particularly in Silicon Valley, how you take a good idea and run with it and improve it. It's very rare that a lightning bolt strikes, and you come up with something that's never been thought of before; it's a lot more taking from this, taking from that, and trying to make something work, and going for it.

I came back to Hovey-Kelley on Monday, excited about the work: I said, "I think we can do this. Let's do it." We had a number of business discussions about how we might want to approach it-- royalties, speculative, do it ourselves, blah blah blah-- and we finally came to the conclusion that this was still a big leap of faith, and we couldn't fund development on our own. So we decided to work with Apple to figure out how we could do the project, and get some upside if we could. But it seemed like a fun thing for us to do, and we decided to proceed and build it.

A-Ha! Moments

[Looks in box of drawings and mouse prototypes, pulls out and unfolds papers] I'm looking at a couple large sheets that look like they were from a brainstorming session. It looks like we were trying to figure out how we were going to get around the fundamental problems we had seen in the limited production-run mice we saw from Xerox.

Problems with Xerox Mouse

One of the key elements of the Xerox mouse was a large, stainless-steel bearing, that they encoded off of, just like normal mice. But the bearing was also a support, so just like a ball bearing supports load, they used that ball to support the load of the case. So there were pressure points on the ball pushing down. What happened then was as a result of that extra friction, the ball would slip on the table surface, so they had to require a special pad. Well, one of the things Steve Jobs said in my conversations with him was, "I don't want to have to use a pad; I want to be able to do my mousing on my Levis."

So we were struggling with this because the ball continued to slip, and when it slips, you would then not get encoding from the ball that would indicate its motion. So we were trying to brainstorm around that. One idea was, why don't we have a lead-filled rubber ball? Rubber would track better on a surface, and lead would give it weight. Well, that would work fine, but now it couldn't be load-bearing.

Eliminating the Bearing

I remember there were a couple "A-has!" when I was designing the mouse. We were located in a building on 514 Bryant Street in Palo Alto, which was above a woman's apparel store called Kitty O'Hare, and Jim's Coffee Shop. Jim's is still there, but I think a Starbuck's is beside it. We had our first office there, and there were a number of other painters, writers, etc.; there was a linoleum floor, and the building was quite tipsy. I remember having balls of various size on my desk, and after you'd leave them they'd roll off the floor, following the slant of the table. And I said, "That's exactly what I want it to do: I want it to roll without slipping." And I remember grabbing the ball that was with me-- we had gone with steel balls with some sandblasting to get some surface friction [pulls a sandblasted, steel ball bearing out of box]-- and I remember saying, "You know, that's what I want it to do. How do I get it to continue to roll without slipping?" And I put my fingers around it like a little cage.

When you do that, you immediately realize-- if you think about your physics-- that you can touch it at the point of rotation, there's no lever-arm to introduce friction. So at some point on the ball, which is at that center, you can touch it and you won't add any friction. So we said, "If we took encoding off that point, and also guided at that point, we could actually minimally affect the friction on the ball." So that was the big "A-ha!" The ball was no longer being pushed on as a bearing support, it was actually free to roll, and we'd barely touch it to get the information about where it was moving. And we redesigned it as a result of thinking of that.

Pang: Bill Lapson tells the story of you demonstrating this at a meeting with you and several other people--

Hovey: I don't remember that, but it's possible.

Pang: So this was something that happened first in your office.

Hovey: Yes.

Pang: Is it possible that Lapson was there? I'm trying to line these stories up.

Hovey: Maybe. I remember where I was when I had that "A-ha." Immediately I got up and grabbed some people to tell them. It was either David Kelley, or Jim Sachs, or maybe Jim Yurchenco. It was just one of those things were you go, "That's it."

Cleaning the Mouse

The other thing that was causing significant problems on the Xerox mouse was that it would collect dirt, which would gum things up. And while this may just seem obvious, I said to myself, "Well, we're not going to change the world, there's going to be dust and grit, so let's just make the mouse easy to clean." So this little thing on the bottom [removes ring] makes it possible to take the ball out, blow on it [demonstrates], wipe it off, and put it back in, because we're not going to be able to get around the problem.

Pang: How did you clean the PARC mouse?

Hovey: You literally had to take it apart with a screwdriver. And because it was a bearing surface, that just complicated things dramatically. As soon as you get grit in there, it gummed up even faster than this mouse [holds up Apple mouse]. So I remember those being the two significant "A-has."

The thing I think Hovey-Kelley did was take a neat idea and executed on it in a way that would inexpensive, reliable, manufacturable, and usable by people. That was the value-add. Xerox had obviously come up with the idea of the mouse, and had implemented various versions of it, but the execution around it was still flawed. It wasn't something that would scale such that it could change the world as it had the potential to.


Another one of fun parts about the project was that all the part drawings were anatomically named for mice. There was the ribcage, the outside cable was the tail, the cover was the hide, and a guy named Douglas Dayton did some wonderful sketches animating the mouse character. We definitely had fun on it.

I believe it was one of the things that was actually under budget and on time on the Mac project. We had working prototypes in the late 1980, early 1981 time frame, and Mac didn't actually make it out the door until 1984. I think the first mice actually came out on the Lisa, rather than the Macintosh.

Team Members

There were a number of people on the project. I was running it, and had several of the "a-has" on the design. Jim Sachs really worked on the software side, and the optical encoding side of it. Jim Yurchenco and Doug Grundstrom worked on the specifics of the plastic parts-- designing them and putting them all together. Jim Yurchenco designed these marvelous structures to hold everything in place, and Doug Grundstrom did the mechanical drafting and getting prototypes built. Douglas Dayton was mainly involved in designing multiple outside shapes of mice-- he must have made 20 of them, showing what the mice might feel like and look like.

It was quite a group. I think we tried to reflect that on the patent, in the sense that just as you take an idea and run with it, it's a team that all contributes, and we tried to share the patent because I thought that was the right way to do it.

Bill Lapson was really our contact point at Apple, and was assigned to make sure we were marching down the right path, and he oversaw contracts and that sort of stuff. There was also one point where we actually did some math around the friction points, and he helped us with that. We were also for a while heading down this steel textured ball path, and we had rollers that were made of foam, which I was sort of fixated on for some reason, and he convinced me that those should be hard, as opposed to soft. In my mind, there were contributions that Bill made in those conversations that made a difference.

But he was the inside guy who made sure the trains were running, and gave us input as he saw fit.

Pang: I get the sense that on a day-to-day level, Apple wasn't trying to micromanage what you guys were doing.

Hovey: I felt like we were pushing it more than we were. Bill was working on other things at the same time-- heat studies, and hard drives for Lisa-- he had a number of things he had to do. It was absolutely driven by Hovey-Kelley and our passion around it. We had gotten engaged, and there was no stopping us from trying to make things happen. It was more us pushing for the next purchase order, and getting the okay to do the next prototype, than them wondering what we were doing.

Stanford Design Program

Pang: One of the stories Jim Sachs told involved your spouse discovering that kitchen appliances stopped functioning because you needed some part from the refrigerator, or the toaster, and you cannibalized it--

Hovey: I don't remember what it was, but that wouldn't surprise me in the least. When you're in one of those modes where you're building something, and you need a part, and it's already past time when the stores are open, but you're in the middle of it-- if there was a switch or there was something you had, you figure, "Either I can stop and wait, or I can go forward and so I wreck it, but it'll be $20 to fix it, it's no big deal." But when you're in the midst of the passion of designing, and you just do it.

I think that partially came out of the Stanford design program, which we all came out of. There was a very interesting loft area where all the designers used to hang out. It was a very crazy space. There were bins and piles of stuff with wires coming out of them, and gears, and chips, and we often would rummage through those piles for that little treasure that would make our switch flip, or our widget move. We just kept that tradition: you just find what you need, and get it done.

Pang: That brings up a larger question about the Stanford program. Everyone in Hovey-Kelley comes out of there, and some people at Apple-- Jerry Manock, Bill Dresselhaus-- who were also products of that program. I'm trying to piece together whether there are features or qualities in the mouse that reflect the training or the influence of the product design program. There's a style of working that you see, with rapid prototyping, and putting things through a bandsaw to get what you need--

Hovey: The product design program at Stanford-- and I'll say this affectionately-- Bob McKim particularly was trying to create little Leonardo da Vinci's. A person who was diverse in their expertise, skilled in many things, and diverse enough to create a whole product. However, in today's work, with technology moving so rapidly, it's very difficult to grasp all those disciplines in one head, and make it happen.

It turns out that the mouse had the right balance of mechanical design, ergonomic design, software design, and electronic design, that really mapped well with the generalist, mini-da Vincis that Hovey-Kelley had. Jim knew the TTL logic, and he could do some programming; you had to put in some LEDs, and make sure things weren't bouncing. But there was nothing truly advanced in the electronics, truly advanced in the encoding, only advanced in the ability to manufacture to the tolerances necessary to get the encoders operating accurately. The mechanical design was relatively simple, in the sense that it elegant in its function-- it didn't use ball bearings, everything was molded plastic, high-volume injection molding.

And there was ergonomics involved. Whether it was going to be one-button, or two-button, or three-button was a concern. We didn't actually fight that battle to much, that seemed to be more one that raged inside Apple. We just said, "We'll put whatever you need on it. Don't worry, we can do any of those." But even down to the tactile aspect of the click.

It was a perfect scaled project for a Stanford product designer. Any more electronics it would have been over our heads; it was just perfect. It was one of the first products at Hovey-Kelley that had all of those pieces to it. Usually we had to do something for manufacturability, or worry about human factors, but in the mouse it all came together. I think if there's anything that made Hovey-Kelley, was being able to say we did the mouse. It's something that everybody knows, there are probably several hundred million people who use it on a daily basis, and they don't even notice it's there.

So from a product designer's perspective, you've done something wonderful because it's disappeared: the technology is not in the way, it's one with the person, and it works. And as a result, we can point to that, and it put aside anyone's skepticism about who you were working with. It was worth all the effort we put into it for how it helped us grow our business.

Apple as a Client

Pang: Can you talk a little bit about what Apple was like as a client?

Hovey: Well, Jerry Manock is who introduced us to Apple. He went through the product design program, and I don't remember how it happened, but he was the one who did the Apple II. As soon as that started to grow, he looked outbound to see who could help him. We were literally four or five blocks away: he was on University, and we were on Bryant. He asked if we could help on the next product that was coming out, which was the Apple III.

I suppose the great part about Apple was Steve Jobs appreciated product design early on. I'm not sure that he could name it at the time, but he's brilliant at figuring out what a computer ought to be "for the rest of us." He had an attraction to that aspect of it. While we were not the best stylists from an industrial design perspective, we had a more holistic view. So the head of the organization appreciated what good product design can do, and you still see that.

Second, they were a rapidly-growing company, expanding faster than we could. So while there were always new people coming in there, and because they appreciated product design they got product designers more and more in there, it never felt like they were trying to push us out; there were always more things to do. So theirs was always an open door.

Third, as I recall, we were there when Apple was in Bandley, and when they were doing Apple III they were opening up the new buildings; so we would go over and do our presentations when it was still pretty small.

So there was generally an appreciation for our work, there were very few constraints-- they kept things in budget, but they were never hammering on us or saying no, and if you made a good proposal to move something forward they seemed to go along with it. There were few companies at that stage that were reacting like that: there were some people trying to get into the PC business, and we did a number of things with them, but the difference in success also changed how the relationship was. Apple was always successful, and we could always participate. And because we interacted with Jobs, there were more opportunities to have a relationship there. In fact, I think David Kelley still keeps in touch with him.

Pang: Once Hovey-Kelley was working on a project for Apple, did Steve Jobs continue to be involved?

Hovey: He was most active in the conceptualization, to the point where we'd done some foam core models and some sketches. It usually takes some time to get to the next stage, where you do a mockup of what a product will actually look like; and at that stage you'd see him again. Then you didn't really see him until the next project: it was intense at the beginning, and tricked out over time. And we learned to work with Steve [Hovey smiles], in terms of how you get ideas across.

Xerox PARC Visit

Pang: Sachs and Yurchenco talked about going up and visiting PARC. Did you go on that trip?

Hovey: I can remember going up and seeing the Star system. I do remember doing that, but I can't remember the context. It might have been in the context of the mouse project, it might have been later or earlier, for a product design class, but I don't connect the dots.

Pang: But even if it was connected to this project, there weren't any big revelations that came out of the visit, it sounds like.

Hovey: No, I just remember thinking that there was lot of money being spent on stuff I didn't really understand, and a lot of smart people, but I don't remember on the tour coming away with, "Oh, let's do that now." There was something going on with networking, or networking and printing, that was pretty leading-edge, but there wasn't a strong sense of personal benefit in it for me personally. I think it was more just a wonderful experience wandering the halls and seeing all this equipment, and all these people.

Macintosh Prototype

One other data-point: Jerry Manock did most of the product design for the Mac, and it got down to close to knowing what it was going to look like, and there was a board meeting coming up. Steve wanted a 3D visualization showing what this was going to like it. It was, like, 3 or 4 days before the board meeting, and he said, "I need it." Jerry came to us-- and there might even have been a weekend involved-- so we said, "Okay, we'll build one." Myself and Jim Yurchenco went down to my house-- I had some table saws and other things-- and we built in a few days the exterior skin of a Mac prototype, with the handle and stuff. It was one of those 20 hour-a-day things to get it done.

I can remember stopping at one point, because it was the day of the first space shuttle landing. We knew it was coming up, so we set up a TV outside, and Jim and I sat down and watched it landing. I don't know exactly when it was, but you could go back and figure it out. [Note: According to a NASA Web page, the first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1, landed at Kennedy Space Center on 28 April 1981.] It was just a day away from the design being finalized such that Steve could take it into the Board to get the okay for whatever next commitment he needed.

It was whatever he needed to sell the Board on something. I have the feeling it was, "Okay, you've screwing around with this idea long enough Steve, let's see something," and he needed something to show and say, "Here, this is what we're talking about."

Mouse Buttons

Pang: The person who had started the Mac project in 1979 was Jef Raskin. I know he was involved within Apple over debates over how many buttons the mouse should have; did you guys have any contact with him?

Hovey: Very little. I had some contact with him later on, on a whole different project. I visited him in Pacifica, to see a prototype of the Cat. The main contact I remember around the mouse was Larry Tesler. I believe he was the strong proponent for the one-button mouse.

Pang: Do you remember anybody who supported a two-button mouse?

Hovey: No, I really don't. I think I sided on one button for simplicity, and because there was less to learn.

Pang: I can't find anyone now who was a two-button advocate.

Lisa and Macintosh Politics

Another thing that was going on within Apple was a conflict between the Lisa and Macintosh group. Did this create issues that you had to manage in your dealings with Manock and Dresselhaus?

Hovey: I don't remember having to manage it too much. There were a couple people-- Dave Evans and Rick Tompane-- and we had quite a bit of contact with the Lisa project, because we were involved in the design of the case. We worked closely with Bill Dresselhaus. He worked as a consultant for Hovey-Kelley before he went to work for Apple. I don't remember it tugging on us very much. We started to have inquires from the Mac folks as well as the Lisa, and I remember delivering some of the clear models to the Mac group as well as the Lisa: they needed several because they needed to get their machines running, though the Lisa group was the one paying the bills.

Document created on 3 July 2000;