1. No place for money in the brave new world of the Apple Store

    Posted January 13, 2011 in strategy  |  No Comments so far

    The Apple Store on Regent Street has been open for a while, but my first visit was just before Christmas. I went to get some things for my work laptop, and had a slightly confusing time.

    The Apple Store on Regent Street

    Once I’d found the stuff I needed, I spent an awkward few minutes hopelessly looking for somewhere to pay. Mild panic gripped me when I realised that it wasn’t going to happen – because there were no tills. No tills! And not only were there no tills, there were no signs saying “Pay Here”, no queues of patient shoppers, no beeping scanners. I simply could not figure out how to purchase the stuff I was carrying – a strange feeling to have in a retail environment.

    Luckily a passing staff member noticed my confusion and asked if I was OK. I asked about paying for my things and he said, “that’s fine, we can do that right here”. Using an iPod Touch to scan my things, he then processed my card using equipment tucked away discreetly behind a bench. I was finally free to leave the store.

    At first I thought Apple just wanted to use technology to look clever while streamlining the buying process. But maybe there was a deeper motive. After all, Apple doesn’t mess around when it comes to design – they execute well, but they also plan well (let’s leave Ping aside for the moment). So what’s the thinking behind the oddly invisible Apple Store purchase process? Here’s my take on it.

    Show money the door

    The central principle, stated simply, is this: get rid of money. Remove money from the space. Go as far as possible to extract money, the signs of money, the sights and sounds of money, from the Apple Store environment.

    Putting this into practise means that there should be no tills, no barriers, no staff members sitting behind desks holding barcode scanners. No “Pay Here” signs dangling from the roof. No obvious places for shoppers to form queues. By taking these steps, the space can be wiped clean of the idea of money.

    But why do this? Why take these steps when they’ll cost money while confusing customers, who are extremely accustomed to how normal shops work?

    There has to be a good reason for doing it, and there is: to remove money as a mediating presence between the shopper and the product.

    Money gets in the way (click for full size)

    Money muddies our thinking. When we’re reminded that it exists, we can’t forget about it. When it’s on our minds, every decision we make is influenced by it. It becomes a kind of lens through which we process the world.

    For most retailers this isn’t a big problem because it can be exploited. Think of the discount trick – you see a pair of OK-but-nothing-special shoes, then notice a sticker saying “20% off” and suddenly you want the shoes. So-so products can be enhanced by a money message; introducing money into the dynamic can make people more likely to buy. But while this is all very well for the likes of Tesco, Apple is playing a different game.

    iThing, you complete me

    Apple really doesn’t want us thinking about money when we encounter Apple products. It wants us to engage directly with them, without money intervening. The connection should be emotional, not functional or financial. Thoughts like “that’s cheap” or “is this discounted?” undermine this connection.

    Instead, Apple want us to imagine our lives having been enriched and transformed by the snazzy new iThing that looks so glorious in this pristine store. Without money getting in the way, with no visible reminder of its influence, it’s easier to conceive of the iThing as being in our grasp. Without things like checkout queues subconsciously reminding us of money, our desire for the iThing can take more easily root in our minds.

    Apple is creating a kind of post-money environment where decisions are based on emotion, not utility value, and that this is why they’ve erased manifestations of money from their store. It fits in with Apple’s broader strategy of being more like a luxury brand than a technology company. And it works – at least if my experience is anything to go by.

    When I got back to the office I realised I hadn’t even checked how much my stuff cost, and was amazed to find that I’d paid £25 for a USB network dongle without batting an eyelid. If I ever visit the Apple Store again, I’ll have to be on my guard.

  2. Bookmarks versus Favorites

    Posted June 25, 2010 in software, web  |  No Comments so far

    Back when Microsoft was winning the browser wars and all but a committed few were using Internet Explorer, the word “Bookmarks” was at risk of becoming a forgotten Netscape-ism. IE’s equivalent, “Favorites”, seemed set to become the generic label for saved URLs.

    Netscape and IE

    IE versus Netscape

    Today, Microsoft is losing the browser wars again with Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera eroding its market share. And interestingly enough, they all use “bookmarks” rather than “favorites”. Why is that?

    On the face of it there’s nothing wrong with “favorites”. Of course, it was slightly annoying that Microsoft didn’t use the then current “bookmark” convention, possibly in the interests of creating a proprietary user experience. But so what? “Favorites” did the job.

    Internet Explorer eventually annihilated Netscape, picking up over 90% of the browser market. With that level of penetration it’s surprising that “favorites” didn’t become the generic term for stored links.

    It’s not because Microsoft claimed legal ownership of the word. And it’s not because people find it confusing either. Maybe the revival of “bookmark” is actually more to do with linguistics.

    Languages allow us to assign different states to objects as our relationships with them change. And in real life, objects change state all the time. A person becomes your friend, or a piece of music becomes one of your favourites. Usually these states are reached gradually: you do nothing specific to the person or the music, your affection just grows over time.

    But when these states are replicated in computer systems, that gradation is no longer possible. Changes in state must be made by single, deliberate actions on the part of the user. This means that the changes in state become binary – and language has to accommodate this.

    These binary state changes introduce a particular challenge for the language used in computer interfaces. In real life you might stop liking a piece of music, but you wouldn’t have to do anything about it. But in a system where you had “liked” that music by clicking a button, another button is needed for you to reverse that action, and that button needs a meaningful label. This is why we end up with words like “unlike” or the OUP’s word of the year for 2009, “unfriend”.

    So for “favorite” to have supplanted “bookmark” as a genericism, it would have had to go through this process, becoming not only a noun but a verb for a binary change in state. We should have felt as comfortable saying “favorite my site” as “here are my favorites”. And in fact this doesn’t work too badly:

    Bookmark or favorite my site!

    But what doesn’t work is when you try to use the verb “favorite” in its past tense – try saying “I favorited your site” and you’ll see what I mean. And the same goes for the continuous aspect. “Favoriting” is a dogs dinner of a word.

    “Bookmark” doesn’t have that problem – just compare saying “I bookmarked it” to “I favourited it”. Phonologically, “bookmark” is better equipped to work as both noun and verb than “favorite”.

    So maybe the failure of “favorite” over time has less to do with design strategy or the browser wars, and more to do with its basic phonological awkwardness. Who knows? At least it’s something to think about while lazily favoriting websites on a sunny Friday afternoon.

  3. Microsoft’s design strategy: open formats, proprietary interface?

    Posted June 1, 2010 in software, strategy  |  1 Comment so far

    This might not be a very advisable disclosure to make, but I’ll make it anyway: I actually like Microsoft Office 2007.

    Liking Office 2007 is not really the done thing – lots of people in my line of work turn their noses up at Microsoft in general and Office in particular. And I’m no different. Last year I spent about six months attempting to move away from Windows to use Linux instead, but ended up returning to Windows. Why? Because, for me, OpenOffice was simply no match for Office 2007.

    The thing with OpenOffice is that it looks and feels a lot like Office 2003. If I was a heavy Office 2003 user, OpenOffice might have worked out because its user interface (UI) is fundamentally similar. But Office 2007 has a radically different UI, with none of the old “File / Edit / View” menu groupings.

    Office UI screenshots

    Office 2007 replaced the conventional menu structure with the "Office Ribbon"

    Lots of people were confused by the Office 2007 UI when it launched, myself included. Today, however, I see it as a big improvement. The new interface makes features more discoverable and more immediately accessible, and I get far more out of the software today than I ever did before.

    But why did Microsoft carry out this redesign, which must have been costly? After all, they had a monopoly in the office software market so could get away with being a bit conservative. And people don’t like it when familiar things change – just look at the protests that erupt whenever Facebook changes its layout – so the redesign must have looked pretty risky too. How did the Office 2007 team convince Microsoft to fund a design project that was risky, expensive and potentially pointless?

    Microsoft, like all companies, would like us to think that it does these things out of altruism, to make our jobs easier and lives happier. But that’s not how things work in the corporate world. Instead, I think there might be a slightly more crafty and devious strategy at work here.

    Imagine you’re Microsoft. Your monopolistic behaviour during the browser wars of the 1990s cost you over $2 billion and led to you being forced to promote your competitors. The last thing you need is for something similar to happen to your Office package, your most lucrative product line after Windows.

    Being proactive, you wonder what line of attack the courts would take if they came for Office, and it hits you – proprietary file formats. Documents created in Microsoft Office can’t be opened by other packages because the files aren’t compatible, which inhibits competition and annoys the hell out of the open source community. So you decide to phase them out. You’ll set your file formats free, and will even start supporting open source file formats. This way you’re far less likely to be accused of monopolistic behaviour.

    But there’s a problem here. What if, by trying to look less like a monopoly, people move to OpenOffice and you actually become less like a monopoly? After all, proprietary file formats do encourage lots of people to stick with Office. What you need is a way to become less vulnerable to government lawsuits while retaining your product’s “stickiness”. And then it hits you – make the file formats open but, at the same time, make the user experience proprietary.

    When an Office 2007 user switches to OpenOffice, they’ll be able to open their existing documents easily. But using the interface will feel like stepping back in time, to the period of Office 2003. Ultimately, the user will go back to Office 2007 not because they’re locked in by proprietary file types, but because they’ve learnt and absorbed a proprietary interface. And no-one’s going to launch an antitrust lawsuit simply because Microsoft made some design changes.

    This line of thinking about why Microsoft changed the Office UI so radically may seem slightly paranoid, but there is such a thing as design strategy and companies like Microsoft certainly take it seriously (most of the time). It wouldn’t surprise me, and I wouldn’t see it as controversial, if this “proprietary UX” strategy helped convince Microsoft to invest so much in a risky design overhaul. Given that Office 2007 caused me to abandon Linux and move back to Windows, the strategy – whether it’s real or not – would seem to be working.

    EDIT: unlike me, lots of people really hate the Office 2007 interface. If you’re one of them, you might be interested in this freeware add-in that introduces an old school Office 2003-style menu system into Office 2007