Design Lessons from the Apple Store

I recently visited the Apple store in Farmington, CT because I was having a problem with my iPhone 3GS.  I own many Apple products and happy with them all. The area we live is not located near any Apple store so I buy my Apple products from the Apple web store. Up until recently, have had no problems with any of them, this was the first trip to an Apple store.

I am not trying to come off as an Apple fanboy here, but I think my first impression of experiencing Apple retail can be translated to how everyone can better deal with customers and how to convey company culture.


First Impressions

There is an old cliché that says you have one chance to make a first impression.  Those of you who are long-time Apple customers who visit an Apple store on a regular basis then you probably take it for granted how the store works and have long since forgotten your first time to one of these stores.   I can only say it was an great experience and a completely positive one.  Had this first experience to the store been negative, I probably wouldn’t be writing this now.

I had contacted Apple Support via their web site and made an appointment to see an Apple Genius about my iPhone.  This reminds me of making a doctor’s appointment.

As I arrived at the Apple Store in the Westfarms Mall and several things came to my attention immediately.  I think we can apply Apple Store design to application design:

  • Large and spacious – the store itself, unlike many retail stores in the mall, had plenty of room.  I didn’t have to bump into customers or employees.  As with many web applications I see, clutter is the norm – full of ads and jamming as much content as possible in a small place.  Well designed web application have plenty of white space and don’t give me the impression I am at the carnival.  My favorite applications are cleanly designed, like
  • Very bright – the store was very well-lit with lightly colored walls.  Comparing other stores in the mall, some are dimly lit and painted with dark colors.  I guess it is better to hid a poor product until the customer has left the store.  I like to apply design to my applications the same way, keeping colors light which are easy on the eyes.  I don’t like my users to have the experience they are visiting a dungeon.
  • Lots of iPads, iPhones, MacBooks and iMacs with which to play – Apple wants you to experience and appreciate their products.  When visiting the store you aren’t faced with endless glass display cases like you are visiting a computer museum, you get to actually touch and try-out any product you want.  My first experience with the iPad was at the store and this experience determined whether or not I was going to buy.  If users can’t try out your application how can they decide if they want to use it?  It is my policy to give users a full 30-days to try out my software before deciding if they want to continue.  Many sites give limited access to features until you cough up money.
  • Genius bar looks like a bar, including bar stools – upon entering the store and briefly looking around, I immediately knew where I needed to go to see my Apple Genius.  The store, as I mentioned, is laid out very cleanly with the Genius Bar (an actual bar as you recognize in any lounge) in the far back of the store, separated visually and physically from the rest of the store.  This makes it very clear where someone needs to go to get help.  This is exactly how web applications should be designed, make it very clear where users need to click to sign-up, cancel, get help, contact and any other function they may need.  How many times have you been to a web site and had to struggle to find an email address so you can contact someone at a site?  It is annoying and does not make me want to do business; keep the links and information readily available so [potential] users can find it.
  • Lots of people to help you out – who also carry iPads to check-in people with appointments.  Nice way to demo the new iPad platform.  I think “eating your own dog food” is essential.  If you don’t use the tool you create, how can you really know how people use it?  Apple uses their iPads to let the Geniuses know when an appointment has arrived or add folks who are just walk-ins to the queue.  This is free advertising for one; customers get to see people actually using an iPad for something other than a “big iPod Touch”.  This also gives Apple feedback from the field for both the software, operating system and hardware perspective. Brilliant!  Use the applications you create.
  • Don’t make me wait – Wait time was small even with a lot of people and dealing with the Genius was simple, no hassles and out in minutes.

These were my initial impressions when visiting the Apple Store, all positive.  I can take away so much from the experience which I can then apply to my own business, my own products.  Apple has spent countless hours and piles of money to offer the experience they offer.  Why not take some lessons from them?

Customer Service

Beyond my first impressions about the look and layout of the store, I think the real win in my mind was the great customer service experience.  I had in my mind, since my issue was not exactly reproducible on-demand, that Apple may tell me there was nothing wrong with my phone and send me on my way.  They could have just as easily pointed blame at one of the applications on the phone.  I was well-prepared to visit the Verizon Store in the mall and walk out with a new Motorola Droid running Android and say good-bye to the iPhone and AT&T forever.

My overall wait time was only about 10 minutes after checking in upon arrival to the store.  The process was really very simple:

  • Called up to Genius Bar
  • Genius takes phone, asks a few basic questions.
  • Runs diagnostics on the phone, finds nothing.
  • Offers to give me a new phone.

There was no griping from the Genius, he instructions were clear, just make the customer happy.  I came expecting a fight and left with a new iPhone and a smile on my face.

Isn’t this how we should treat all of our customers?  Customers have choices, they can buy our product or service from suppliers other than us.  It takes much effort to attract and keep people willing to give us their hard-earned money, so why not just agree to do whatever it takes to keep them.  This is a rule meant to be broken, we all have those customers that no matter what you do you cannot make them happy, these will always exist.  We do have plenty that are happy and just want good service, so think about it next time when you are just thinking of saving a buck and refuse service to your existing customer.  They will eventually go somewhere else.


There are plenty of lessons to be learned here and not just from Apple.  Number one, first impressions are important, so please make your web application, store front or company presentable.  Make it reflect on you and how you want to be viewed, put your heart into it.  Number two, treat people and customers the way you want to be treated.  It is easy to think of the bottom line at a very superficial level and I think this will hurt your bottom line in the long run.