One of the newest buzzwords of the RIA (yeah, I know, that’s a buzzword too) world as of late is User Experience. Sure, it’s not a new concept, but it all of a sudden became a very important one. Companies all over the place are hiring User Experience Designers, UX Managers, and positions that pretty much try to make the usability and friendliness of their applications top notch. One of the companies that has made this a priority for at least a decade now is Apple.
As all of the companies try to embrace making their applications ‘pretty’, and trying to bring in their customers into this holistic view, some are only putting lipstick on a pig. User experience is not simply about how your application looks and behaves to your end users, but also how your customers interact with it and your company. The first interaction that a user/customer has with your application is how it is sold. While the interactions they have directly with your application on a day-to-day is an important pinnacle, other areas have huge impacts on the users as well. Support is one of those areas.
I’ve been working in the computer industry for about 13 years. I’ve been active in the computer industry for close to 20 years. Over the years I’ve become more and more jaded to the way that many of the companies sell me things have acted towards me. I guess to say, I’ve become accustom to crappy experiences all around. I distinctly remember when I was a kid, I plopped down $120 of my own money to purchase Windows 95. It was pretty new at the time (maybe been on the market for a whole 6 months), and I purchase the version that came on 3.5" floppy disks. There were 12 disks total to make up the set. I remember how excited I was going through the installer, wait 10 minutes per disk, until I got to disk 10. Disk 10 came blank. The installer crapped out, crashed, and decided to leave me with an un-useable computer.
No big deal, I thought. But of course, the store I purchased Windows from had a ‘we do not accept opened boxes back’ policy. I had to go and make a long distance phone call to Microsoft to beg for a new set of disks. $30 later, and 4-6 weeks, came another set of disks (which also happened to have three bad disks). More phone calls and pleading led me to copy the set of disks from a friend rather than wait on hold for another two hours for a working set of software that I already purchased. I found out months later when browsing some Fidonet conferences that Microsoft had a known bad duplication plant for those Windows Disks, and people could have them replaced for free, if they knew the right phone number to call. Microsoft has always treated me this well.
A few years later I remember calling Gateway 2000 (you know, the computer company), for some troubleshooting of my PC. I was convinced that the motherboard had gone bad one way or another. I remember calling into the tech support line in North Dakota, and being asked what type of music I liked listening to. When I got the prompt on the phone, I didn’t know what to do. They were asking me for something other than my serial number and mailing address? I told all my friends of this experience of having customized wait music while I waited for a person to pick up the phone. It sure beat listening to the 30 second loop that I had to listen to in the past. The other thing I remember about that phone call was that they were able to fix my problem on the first call, and by only talking to one person. I didn’t have to travel to three levels of support, explaining my problem to all three people.
Since working in the tech industry, I’ve had the "pleasure" of dealing with just about every type of company. Those that were good, those that were bad, Comcast, Dell, Avaya, Cicso, and the list goes on. Every company has their own priority on how they handle customers. Some treat you as sheep, while others embrace you as customers. I’ve had experiences ranging from complete satisfaction, to sitting on hold for over 6 hours because a customer was critically out of service.
With all of these companies, it didn’t matter how good their products were. It didn’t matter if their product ever broke, or caused the office to burn down. I had already had my first impression with that company and product based on that user experience. One thing to note with all of these experiences.. I will always give you a break if your product is incompatible or is an out-of-box failure. Things happen, and you can’t account for everything. But if you give me a hard time, and then I find that out, you’ve lost a customer.
So why am I writing this post? Well, I needed something to post, sure, but I recently had an experience with the ‘inventors’ of modern UX design — Apple.. As you might know if you stalk me or read my blog with any regularity, I purchased my first apple since the 80′s this year. I’m not a die-hard Apple fan with an iPod, and iPhone and a Newton hanging off my bat-belt, but I do appreciate a company that cares.
My Macbook Pro has had exactly two issues since I purchased it this spring. I’m pretty hard on my notebooks, churning through an average of 1 every 2 years, and in some pretty nasty environments. I use them for programming and also tech support on the VoIP gear I deploy. The first issue was definitely self-caused — the cord on my power supply frayed. It was probably from traveling and the lot of conferences I go to.
I was in San Jose, CA for a 360|Flex conference where the power supply finally broke. I asked one of my roommates to give me a ride over to the apple store to buy a new one. When I got into the store the ‘specialists’ let me know that sure, I could buy one, but why don’t I just exchange it under my warrantee? My jaw dropped to the floor. They offered to just give me a new one? For real-izies? I filled out a single sheet and handed the gent my old supply and he handed me a box with a new one. I was on my way.
This week, however, my keyboard started acting flaky. I figured that it was some software thing, so I went to the Apple website to look up the symptoms. I didn’t find anything, but on the bottom of the page, they had an option to call tech support. I said, sure, what the hell. I looked up the phone number, and it let me schedule an appointment when they would call me. Again, I was floored by the offer. You mean, I didn’t have to wait on hold for two hours for a level one tech to tell me I’m toast?? I picked 7PM that evening, and went on my business. 7PM, the phone rang and there was a tech support person on the other end. I was happy and they didn’t even fix my problem yet!
The tech support guy went through lots of diag stuff, and finally decided he couldn’t fix it over the phone. He offered to have me either ship the laptop in (he would ship a box for me), which would take a week, or he could arrange for an appointment at one of the Apple stores. He had all the parts that he thought they would need shipped there over night, and arranged an appointment for the next day. I went out to the Apple store (in Grand Rapids, about 45 minutes away), and walked right up to the "genius bar". They went through their diag, and decided to replace the keyboard and trackpad. Unfortunately the parts didn’t arrive in time for my appointment, so they offered to ship the laptop back to me when they were done. Again, they were all over the customer service. The rep in the store gave me a tracking number for the Apple website, and I headed home.
Now the coolest thing is when I checked the website the next morning, it showed that my laptop was out for delivery. 24-hour turn-around, with a smile on their face, not screams, pleads and bargaining. It showed me that real customer service can exist — like the ones that the local grocery stores and banks used to have (back when they were local, and not National City and Wallmart).
So, User-Experience. Think about it holistically. Everything your company does, from twittering about your new product, to answering the phone, to the way that your product works and acts to your customer all adds up to the experience that the customer has.