Does Apple care any more?

Marco Arment, in his recent post Apple has lost the functional high ground:

“But the software quality has fallen so much in the last few years that I’m deeply concerned for its future. I’m typing this on a computer whose existence I didn’t even think would be possible yet, but it runs an OS with embarrassing bugs and fundamental regressions.”

After hypothesizing that Apple’s priorities are out of whack, he writes:

“I fear that Apple’s leadership doesn’t realize quite how badly and deeply their software flaws have damaged their reputation, because if they realized it, they’d make serious changes that don’t appear to be happening.”

Marco’s post is remarkable, for several reasons. First, he says he regrets writing it. I know how he feels…I’ve written posts that had too much bluntness and not enough tactfulness and felt bad about it. But I think there is a deeper story here that is about more than software vs. hardware or even reputation. I think it’s really about trust.

Forget for a minute whether there are more bugs than usual in Apple software or if things just don’t work seamlessly. Those are merely symptoms of the real issue…people equate product quality with how much a company cares. Think about it…the vast majority of our experience with Apple is through our experience with their products. That’s the bulk of our relationship with the company and so when those experiences aren’t as great as we expect we can only conclude that people at the company don’t care as much as they used to.

Apple is a complete anomaly in this regard. They have built such good products for so long that people just assume that they care. You can’t build such beautiful things without caring. Good design is no accident. This is so, so different from almost any other company out there! If any respected writer were to write posts about how Comcast or Monsanto or Microsoft doesn’t care there would be zero controversy (even though I’m sure there are people who care at those companies). But their voices aren’t heard because our experiences with those company’s products speak instead. Those companies haven’t put customers first for years and we stopped caring a long time ago.

Marco gives Apple the benefit of the doubt and suggests they just don’t see how bad it has become (and if they knew they would change course) He’s assuming they care. I think they care, too. But the possibility that they don’t care is the real fear here. We want Apple to care. We know they can care. We want a company who actually cares because almost every other company doesn’t. But if our experience is deteriorating…does that mean they don’t care anymore?

Here is the takeaway: Your product communicates how much you care. The user experience people have with your product is translated in their minds into how much you care about them as a customer. And people want to do business with companies who care. We look for signs that they care, whether it be how we’re greeted at the coffee shop, how a company packages their products, how salespeople treat us, how their Genius Bar geniuses help us, or how easily our Apple TV works with our iPad. The entirety of the user experience matters because of this. The best feeling is knowing that even if a product doesn’t work 100% you’ll be taken care of because you know the company cares. That is what is at stake here: the erosion of trust.

I’m not just hypothesizing. I recently learned this lesson the hard way on the Daily Report. This past summer I added humidity-level to the report to communicate how humid it was going to feel on a given day. Humidity is an odd metric…it doesn’t translate directly to a percentage of water vapor in the air…and in the summer it actually makes sense to use dew point as measure of humidity. Here is what the UI looked like:


For several months the feature worked well and I regularly received feedback of “humidity reading is helpful”. Many people even liked the reminder to drink more water. But then fall came and temperatures dropped. Over a month or so I heard a couple complaints about the humidity level not being quite right. I checked into it but it was working well enough…it was accurately displaying the level of humidity based on dew point. I didn’t change anything because I had a mountain of other things to design and nothing was technically broken.

But then in October I received an unsubscribe notification in which someone wrote: “I don’t think I can trust the weather report anymore. It seems inaccurate…I mean the other day the humidity level said ‘Dry’ when it was actually pouring rain outside”.

Uh oh. The inaccuracy of the humidity level was the trigger for someone unsubscribing from the service! But notice that it was really about trust…the humidity level eroded their trust in the entire service! That was a hell of a lesson to learn. I mean…nothing was technically broken, right? There was no “bug”. Up until that point I had responded to folks who asked about the humidity level and I told them that I was using dew point and I would adjust at some point soon when I redesigned the entire weather view. They totally understood and everything seemed fine.

But…everything wasn’t fine…the user experience was broken. The inaccurate feature was communicating that I didn’t care about the weather report or the people who used it. The product was standing in for my relationship with subscribers…in the exact same way that we ascribe caring to Apple based on our experience with their products.

This is all hard because we’re usually not witness to the moments when people actually use our products. We can do usability testing, provide feedback mechanisms, interview people, etc, but we’ll always be subject to the experience people have with our products when we’re not there. So even if you don’t have feedback telling you something is wrong (or bloggers like Marco writing about it), get obsessive, even paranoid, about how those experiences are playing out. You never know what small trigger will plant the idea in someone’s head that you just don’t care anymore.

Since I learned that lesson and fixed the humidity reading I’ve been much more pro-active in fixing other things on the report. And feedback has reflected this, people notice the tiniest of things I’m fixing. The lesson for me has been…whether or not you’re getting feedback people do notice the small things, the details. They see some small detail done well and they know you care. They see some small thing out of place and start to wonder if you care. Take advantage of this: be maniacal about the details.

Published: January 7th, 2015