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.
After publishing this post and being linked to by Daring Fireball, I got a lot of feedback from all sorts of people, including people that have worked as Genii. Here’s some of that feedback and my thoughts to it, as of October 29th.
Some people have assumed I said that third-party service centers don’t collect detailed data on what they repair. I didn’t mean to say or imply that at all. What I am saying is that I think that it’s more likely for a company to pay attention to what problems their customers are having when they are providing front-line support every day. The converse is that I think that it would really easy for a company to ignore data coming from third party cost centers that they can ignore. In Apple’s case, the problems—as well as the data—come right in through the front door in a way that would be hard to ignore. That’s what I find interesting.
Apple’s positive use of this data in product development has been supported by several of the emails I’ve received. Apparently, there’s an internal group of people that works to standardize how to repeat issues and better communicate those issues to engineering. This group also focuses on the service processes that are time consuming and more difficult than they should be. This goes beyond just ticking off boxes on a form. This is about people who are knee deep in the data talking within the same company to the people who can do something with the insights that data produces. That’s powerful stuff.
I apparently touched a nerve of a few people that work in third-party Apple service centers. They’ve been quick to point out that they have excellent access to service histories and who work closely with Apple, including sending back malfunctioning equipment back to Cupertino for diagnosis. This makes sense. After all, if a company is putting an emphasis on collecting data, why limit it to just internal sources?
Here’s the question that can’t be answered without rolling back time: Would Apple’s products look the same way and have the same design features today if Apple didn’t have the Genius Bar in their own stores handling support for the last decade?
Finally, I’ve heard from people who have had great and horrible experiences at the hands of Apple Genii. Apparently central Florida is a bad place to go to a Genius Bar. In my experience, the best Genii around are in downtown Portland. The ones in the downtown San Francisco store have also done well by me.