Sky Full of Bacon


Thanks A Lot, Geniuses

Note: This is a customer dissatisfaction rant, if you want food stuff, go to my latest video podcast, In the Land of Whitefish. Or click Video Podcasts at right.

Like a lot of folks in creative pursuits, I’m an Apple partisan going back to the dark days when it seemed to be hanging on by the skin of its beige plastic teeth in the face of imminent annilhation. And like a lot of Apple fans, I may have enjoyed seeing The Dictatorship of Steve fire missiles at the lumbering Microsaurus, but I also knew that if Apple ever had me by the short hairs, it was unlikely to be a fun experience. Though Apple vs. Microsoft may be a duopoly, it’s one made of, basically, two individual monopolies; they’re competitors the way Christendom and Islam were competitors during the Crusades, not a lot of free flowing traffic between the two sides to make a real marketplace.

Surprisingly, the place where Steve has applied the iThumbscrews to me is the one that ought to be one of the shiny happy places where they convert you to the cult: the Apple Store. (Woodfield mall in the Chicago suburbs, specifically, if you want to know where.) Apple software I mostly revere, Final Cut Express for $99 is like getting a BMW for $150, but the much-admired Apple Store is actually a pretty poor user experience, beautiful… but dumb. Because Apple’s too cool for things like nametags with job titles and clear directional signage, you have to go in and find someone with an orange shirt who finds you someone with a blue shirt to tell your troubles to who then has to get you someone with a yellow shirt who’s not already helping three other people, to actually get anything done. All I can say is, I’m sure glad I don’t have to go through that to get corned beef at Paulina Meat Market on Saturday morning.

Oh, but I found a user experience within the Apple empire that is even dumber than that— maddeningly so. And in the process it revealed other, deeper dumbnesses in the Apple experience that had me thinking, for the first time in a quarter century and probably $20,000 of Apple purchases (not counting what ad agencies have purchased for me to use), what alternatives might possibly exist.

It’s the process of getting to the Apple Store— that is, of getting an appointment with one of the geniuses or, as non-pretentious human beings call them, repair guys. You go to Apple.com, you click a few choices to narrow it down to your area and your equipment, and then you select times. Because it’s a widely-held opinion that Apple build quality has slipped as the prices have gone down, they’re very busy and you’re always at least a day (if not two or three) out from an appointment. Apple can get away with that in a way Best Buy could only dream of.

And here’s where Apple’s website team made an absolutely staggering, shoot your own foot and kill your customer when it ricochets bungle. Let’s assume you’re on your laptop, since it’s your desktop computer that up and died, like mine did. You’ve picked your time and location, and—this is very important—you’ve clicked a button called Confirm. Sounds very final, doesn’t it? Here’s what you see next:

What do you conclude from this? That you have an appointment for this time, right? After all, you Confirmed, no? You are “scheduled,” no? No and no, as a matter of fact. Scroll down, past the border of the box that seems to be the bottom of the meaningful content, past the border of the box it’s within, to an area beyond both of them:

You don’t have an appointment until you’ve both Confirmed, and clicked Done. Confirm was, in fact, Hmm I Don’t Know, Maybe, Let Me Think About It Some More.

And lest you think I’m the only person who would miss that button, realize that this was on a bestselling size of Apple laptop using Apple’s default browser. Probably 40% of all people who ever go to the page see it the way I did. How many never scroll down on that final looking page and thus miss that final crucial step the way I did? All of them, or just nearly all? It’s an amazingly lunkheaded bit of misthought-out user experience for a supposedly in-tune, online-leader company like Apple. 10 years ago Amazon put up a prominent message that says “Stop! Your order is not placed until you press ‘Place order.” But Apple thinks you’ll happily poke around for more buttons to press all night long. Everyone will.

But it can always get worse! So like me, you go to the Apple Store and find an orange shirt. And you discover that you don’t have an appointment like you thought, and the default response to that is the latest upgrade of Apple’s iDon’tGiveaShit ’09. Their only product at that point is 31 flavors of Start Over And Click the Right Invisible Button This Time, Dumbass. You might as well be asking the TSA if you can carry your timebomb collection on a 747 as to try to get any information about your screwed up Apple product from the Apple Store at this point, or to get moved up in any way from their next availability, which is Christmas morning at 6 am. You have qualified for a free upgrade to iHaveNoMouthandIMustScream.

The irony is, customer satisfaction in my case was amazingly close at hand, and yet Apple has deliberately designed their system to frustrate it. I pretty much knew my problem— a crash had farbungled my OS, and my question was, could I run Disk Utility etc. and try to repair it if the computer had the old operating system (Mountain Goat, I think) and I used the new one (Blue-Assed Baboon, I believe) to do it, since I couldn’t find my old Mountain Goat discs. In a restaurant, in a clothing store, even in freakin’ Best Buy, I suspect, the system could have worked like this:

Customer has no appointment, is turning purple with rage —>
Say “We’re really booked, but let me see if I can get someone to see if we can do something”
=Blue shirt comes out, answers my one question, sends me away happy
TOTAL ELAPSED TIME: 1:36

Instead it was:
Citizen has no appointment —>
=Say: “No appointment, comrade! Back to end of line!”
TOTAL TIME CUSTOMER WILL HATE YOU: One infinite loop

Apple makes a big deal out of training these geniuses in Cupertino but it’s clear that much of the training is, in reality, focused on making sure none of them ever deviate from the scripts to perform real problem solving on their own initiative. Your local geniuses are no more free to act to keep you happy than a call center in Mumbai. It is, in its own way, an oddly inhuman, binary-thinking kind of approach to customer service— if I fit the needs of Apple’s system perfectly, I will get service, but the slightest deviation and I’m ejected as a bad cog in the machine. It is an experience that not only belies the hippy-trippy atmosphere so carefully created in the Apple Store, but more crucially, the brand promise of Apple as a computer for creative individuals thinking outside the box. Not if you’re trapped in this box:

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6 Responses to “Thanks A Lot, Geniuses”

  1. Helen Says:

    I stupidly forgot to buy the extended AppleCare for my current laptop, but with all the other mac products I’ve owned that have in one way or another gone south: if you call the service number, staffed almost uniformly by friendly folks, they can schedule (and confirm!) a Genius appointment via phone, and I’m pretty sure they have a few prime timeslots set away for phone-service-scheduling use, since I’ve almost always managed to swing an appointment within an hour or two of calling.

  2. Andy Says:

    Funny this came through my RSS yesterday. I went to the Michigan Ave store to buy a new laptop and take advantage of the student deal for money off and free Touch. I’m a geeky guy, I do my own software hacking and upgrades, but I found this process alarmingly hard to handle.

    Like you, I had to meander the store, after a half hour of no one helping me (but helping lots of women), I went to an orange shirt, who in-turn radioed a blue shirt to help me. I literally was waiting a half hour to give them $1500 and they made it hard. I like the products, I really do, I find they are a better investment than a PC overall. In fact, my 5 year old iBook is still kicking and humming along nicely for it’s new purpose (Internet surfing device).

    When the screen on my iBook went south and was still under warranty with AppleCare I made the appointment mistake, like you, and finally got in days later. The Genius didn’t even open my laptop before he dismissed me and said there was nothing he could do. He had the gall to not actually even listen to me. End of story. After a scathing email to the store’s GM, I got a new screen, inverter and an apology. It was worth it, but the squeaky wheel does get the grease.

    Fight the fight man. Don’t let them win.

  3. Michael Gebert Says:

    Yes, they reinvented the shopping experience into incoherence. Two words: dedicated cashiers. Would make everything so much smoother. I’m convinced part of why they’re sooooo busy in those stores (besides the build quality decline causing many more repairs, which is unmistakably true) is that the processes are so poorly thought out that even the staff doesn’t quite know who is supposed to do what. It’s amazing that a store that only has five products has so much trouble selling any of them. Much easier to get an iPod at Target or Best Buy, frankly.

    By the way, my friend Wyatt, who gave me the advice that the Apple Store was too goddam self-important to offer, also told me his own in-store-stupidity story: he bought a desktop computer but wanted more memory put in it. This required taking out the memory that was in there, crediting him for it, and then charging him for bigger memory. And that required three people trying to figure out how to do such a thing on their little tablet checkout devices… for over an hour. I’ll say it again, Apple, dedicated cash registers and cashiers, with a sign over them saying “Checkout.” Sometimes thinking different is just screwing up what works perfectly well. Geniuses…

  4. dan Says:

    Wait. This might be a stupid question, but: Isn’t there a checkout at the back of the store? I know I’ve waited in line there before.

  5. Michael Gebert Says:

    Well, several answers to that. 1) Yes, though it’s not especially well marked, 2) the layouts of different stores are different, checkout may also be the genius bar where you are NOT encouraged to walk up and expect service, 3) when I got my wife’s new iPod it was some farbungled process of getting a green shirt guy who went and got the thing and then him having to get me a checkout person and figure where in the next five people she was supposed to help I fit. So the short answer is, even if there is, at the ones I’ve been to lately there’s nothing as simple as take your product to the easily recognizable checkout, wait in a discernable line and pay in the order in which you lined up. Or maybe it’s clearer when it’s less busy than noon on a Thursday, if there is a time when it is. Which is why, when I needed a new iPod, I went to Target.

  6. Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » Followup to Apple Rant Says:

    […] my scathingly nasty letter to the Apple Store about this, I got a call from the manager of the Woodfield store. I […]