Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Hidden Genius at the Apple Store

Every time I take an Apple product into an Apple Store to get it looked at by a Genius, two thoughts run through my mind. The first is how freaking packed they are these days. I haven’t been in an Apple store that wasn’t full of humanity of all stripes in years. People checking stuff out, buying stuff, or just surfing the net on one of the demo machines. Even people trying to get inside information out of the helpful employees who don’t know anything more about the next magical product in the pipeline than do you or I.

The second thought is that surely one of the secrets of Apple’s product design in the last decade has been the use of the data that these stores generate. There’s the obvious real-time point-of-sale and visitor data. But that’s not what catches my attention. Instead, it’s the data that’s generated at the Genius bar that fascinates me.

This data, in aggregate, can tell Apple a lot about what machines break, how they break, and after how long in a much more direct way than what would come out of a third party service center. And, when Apple is interested in more information about certain failures, they can start asking customers for more information with very little delay.

Remember when Apple introduced the Intel-based MacBook Pros and they changed the power connector from a plug to the new MagSafe adapter? I’m pretty sure I recall Steve saying on stage they made the change in response to seeing lots of broken laptops caused by people tripping over the cord.

Sure, tripping over power cords was a well known problem, but I’d imagine that data collected at the Genius Bars helped underline the magnitude of the problem with solid data. Data that would have been less apparent and recognizable if it had filtered through from third party service centers.

Imagine, for a moment, you’re in charge of the development of a product. What’s more compelling? A) Somebody on your staff telling you that third party services centers seem to be buying lots of widgets and their reports indicate that there could be a problem with a particular feature of your product. Or, B) The head of your own service organization coming over with graphs and charts about exactly which parts break, why customers say they break, and that the cost for fixing the damage caused by a simple bumbling accident averages $593.

I wonder how many other issues in Apple products get addressed, in part, because of the data gathered in Apple stores by Apple employees. There are several trends in Apple’s product design, but a very clear one is the simplification of parts that can break.

The newer laptop designs, culminating with the unibody, not only have introduced stronger cases, but simpler ones as well. For example, through the various iterations of laptops Apple has produced, they’ve eliminated the little latch in the top lid. The magnetically retractable latch in the lid of PowerBooks and MacBook Pros was cool. Designing the hinge so that it wasn’t needed at all is much cooler.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part. Only Apple really knows what they do with the data. Maybe Jony Ive solves all of his design problems in the shower without any input from the outside world except for Steve’s persistent phone calls every morning at 4:45AM telling him the last prototype sucked and to make the next one better.

In this age where companies want to outsource everything, however, I can’t help but think there’s a very powerful long-term advantage in not outsourcing the opportunity to see how your products react to the real world first hand.

So why was I seeing a Genius today? My iPad’s dock connector wasn’t working any more. No USB connection to a computer. No charging. Total bummer. The Genius I talked to replaced it straight away and the failure is now recorded in some database somewhere. Another bit of data.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Hidden Genius,

    My name is Barbara O’Brien and I am a political blogger. Just had a question about your blog and couldn’t find an email—please get back to me as soon as you can (barbaraobrien(at)