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Apple Doesn’t Always Get It

By Phil Charron on October 7, 2008

Apple almost always Gets It. Design is integral to their brand and important to their customer base. But my recent experiences at the Apple store have demonstrated to me that even the mighty can slip.

We all know your users will always enter into an interaction with expectations for how things work. These expectations are based on conventions (good or bad) that your users have been conditioned to accept.

As a retail store consumer, when I walk into a store I feel compelled to execute my transaction at the counter with an object resembling a cash register. At an Apple store, you can go to anyone in a Genius t-shirt to complete your purchase. This is a great idea. Why shouldn’t I be able buy stuff from the folks on the floor? They’re smart enough to teach me how to set up my wireless network, they should be able to run my credit card through their nifty wireless devices. It’s Floor Clerk 2.0. Great idea, but bad execution…

Still looking for a good case

Still looking for a good case

You see, nobody told me I could buy things from FC2.0. I went to the things that look like cash registers. For ten minutes, I stood in a huge line of frustrated customers at the counter until FC2.0 walked up to the line and told us we could buy stuff from any of the t-shirt clad FC2.0’s walking around the store. I left the line, found the closest FC2.0, and walked out in three minutes flat with my booty: a black and funky iPhone case that expressed my unique style and personality.

Two days later, I walked into the store to return the worst iPhone case ever made. I quickly found the closest FC2.0 and explained my dilemma. He took me to a shelf of iPhone cases, recommended one that was blacker and funkier, and this time expressed my sensitive intelligence. He then sent me to the register: “Sorry, we can’t do exchanges on the floor, only purchases,” he said.

The line at the counter was eight people deep. One by one, the folks in front of me got to the counter. Half of them wanted to buy something, the other half just had questions, I was the only one who had to be there. It took me twenty minutes to get to the counter, three to complete my transaction.

Now, when I walk by my local Apple Store, I cringe… I know I should go in there – my iPhone case is cool, but it’s just not me. I’m a funky, intelligent and sensitive guy with style, personality, an iPhone and a MacBook. I’m supposed to want to be in there with all those funky people who are unique just like me.

So, how can Apple fix this? If I was the consultant on this project, I’d tell Apple to try doing what they’ve always done best:

  • Focus on making evangelists out of users: Apple is challenging convention. No matter how good that idea is – and this one is good – they’re letting lines of frustrated users build up. Those frustrated users will now go to Best Buy when they need something else.
  • Don’t rely on the notion that your users will figure things out: Maybe there’s someone at the door telling people to find a Genius to help them, but they never found me or those other people in front of me in line. If there’s a line building in the back of the store then something ain’t working.
  • If you’re going to break the rules, go all the way: T-shirt clad Geniuses can make recommendations, answer my questions AND conduct transactions… but only some transactions… what’s up with that? Find out why they can’t do returns and fix that. If you’re going to destroy the checkout line then OBLITERATE it – don’t just make some of it go away.

Or, I may tell them to just put up a sign in the back that says, “Returns Only”. I know, I know… no designer likes to put instructions on their design. Everything has to be sleek and automatically intuitive. If I have to put a sign next to my design, I’ve failed.

We are creatures of habit. Things are intuitive when their appearance or position attributes some clues to the user. Whether you like it or not, a counter with a register says to us, “Buy Stuff Here.” People WILL line up there to buy stuff and you WILL have to constantly shoo them away unless you find a better way to do things.