Published: Jun 12, 2013
Thanks to Marco Dini for translating this article to Italian.
Thanks to 7 Seals for translating this article to Chinese.
A few years back, as it has done so many times before, Apple came up with a game changer - an innovation. For its Genius Bar, customers wouldn’t need to form a line to receive customer service. Instead, they could make an appointment for a specific time, show up, and get the help they wanted.
This was a first in consumer electronics retail. At stores like (the now defunct) Circuit City and Best Buy, the ritual was for customers to stand in lines - sometimes very long lines - waiting to meet a store representative.
Everyone assumed the old way of long lines was how you did it. They built their stores with dedicated space to accommodate the lines during busy periods, such as after the holidays. Apple’s new approach meant their architects didn’t need to build in that space, letting them put it to other uses, such as product displays.
Here’s the thing: Apple didn’t invent making an appointment. Yet their approach to using it for customer service seemed completely innovative.
Why was that? If we want to produce innovative products and services, there are lessons to learn from what Apple did.
Standing in line sucks. There are so many better things we could be doing with our time. But if we step out of the line, we lose our opportunity to get the service we want. We want the result without the wait.
Years ago, some store somewhere (probably a delicatessen) came up with an idea. Instead of making people wait in line, they handed out numbers. When the clerk finished with a customer, they’d call out the number of the next customer. Customers no longer needed to wait in line. They could mill about.
However, they couldn’t go far from the counter. If they missed when the clerk called out their number, it would present a socially awkward moment as they tried to get back into the queue. Numbers are just one step above standing in a line and just slightly less frustrating.
The first doctors’ offices worked the same way. Want to see a doctor? Go to the clinic and get in line. See the doctor when it was your turn. A popular doctor would require you wait a long time before it was your turn - maybe the entire day.
The advent of the telephone gave patients a chance to call ahead and schedule a time to see the doctor. Now the patient could show up at the designated time (and hope the doctor hasn’t fallen behind). This change let doctors use less space for their waiting room and more space for their clinical work.
Unlike doctors’ practices, retail customer service lines hadn’t evolved to the next level. Apple made the logical jump before others. It was only because other retailers hadn’t seen it as a problem to solve that they let Apple beat them too it. Those retailers didn’t see the need to evolve.
Apple didn’t invent the appointment and they weren’t the first retailer to use it in the context of retail customer service. The tailoring and fitting services of a few high-end clothing retailers have been using appointments for years.
About a decade ago, Disney installed a similar appointment mechanism in their theme parks to alleviate lines for their attractions. Park guests can get an appointment for a specific ride, like the Tower of Terror, thereby freeing them up from long lines and letting them enjoy other aspects of the park.
Southwest Airlines reduced the confusion surrounding the crazy lines when boarding an airplane by giving everyone a place in line. Similar to Disney’s machine-assigned appointments, Southwest makes it easy for people to know when it’s their turn.
A modified implementation of the appointment is also at the heart of Uber’s city-ride service. Instead of waiting in taxi queues, Uber’s passengers request an available car by clicking on a button on their phone, making an immediate appointment. The phone’s GPS tells the driver where the passenger is waiting and sends them to pick up the fare.
Apple, Disney, Southwest, and Uber borrowed the basics of the appointment to deal with a frustration all their customers faced: waiting in long lines. Waiting is a deep frustration for customers because it’s a complete waste of their time.
By focusing on a deep frustration, the change to appointments has the feel of making a huge improvement. Had Apple focused on improving something their customers didn’t find deeply frustrating, the outcome probably wouldn’t have seemed so innovative. The perception of innovation needs a deep solution.
Tool time is a great place to look for deep frustration. In an experience, tool time is the cumulative moments where the user is dealing with a system requirement that doesn’t advance their goal.
In the entire experience of getting customer service at a store or riding amusements at a theme park, standing in line doesn’t help the customer or park guest enjoy their time. They may see it as a necessary evil and tolerate it, but it doesn’t make them happier. Providing them with an alternative does.
Since customers think standing and waiting is a necessary evil without alternatives, they may not complain about it. Organizations that focus on the specific activities to resolve their perceived customer objective, may overlook the deep frustration from tool time that’s happening in the gaps between those activities.
Teams that study the entire experience look into those gaps to see from where the deep frustration emerges. Addressing that frustration, when no other product or service has done so, will look innovative to the customer.
Apple’s appointments only delight when the Apple Store staff keeps their promise. If an Apple customer makes an appointment, only to be made to wait at the store, the innovation loses its magic touch.
The organization has to take extra care to ensure their promise is kept. Apple had to build resource management systems into its appointment scheduler, to prevent the system from scheduling too many customers for any given slot. They had to give managers tools for dealing with cancellations, absent service representatives, and walk-in customers with an emergency that can’t wait for a later appointment.
The back-end systems to something as simple as making an appointment can get very complex. Hiding that complexity while delivering on the promise makes the appointment system seem innovative.
Ten years before Apple opened its first store, Best Buy’s stores were fast approaching $1 billion in revenues. The Best Buy folks could’ve tried to come up with a solution to making folks wait in line.
In 1991 the technology landscape was very different than 2001. There was no internet or web-based applications to build a calendar on. Mainframe database systems, necessary to run an application of this scale, were slow and hard to manage. The customer service center to handle all the appointment calls would’ve cost millions to operate each day.
The Apple Store opened at the right time in technology history. By the time the first stores were opening, it was easy to build the appointment system on the new range of technology. (If the stores were to open today, the technology is even cheaper and less expensive.)
The Apple Store had the advantage of being in the right place at the right time. Their design seems innovative because they could use new platforms and a new technology stack to build out their “simple idea.”
Who would’ve thought you could innovate around something as simple as waiting in line at a store, a taxi stand, or boarding an airplane? Yet when businesses look at what’s happening with their customers, it’s these opportunities that are most ripe for creating delightful experiences.
The recipe for making an experience seem innovative requires just the right combination of ingredients. Start with a deeply frustrating experience. Then look into the gaps between the activities. Finally, build out the systems to make sure you can deliver on the promise. When complete, you’ll have something that could change how your industry thinks about delighting customers and users.
Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems.
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