Concierge UX : Part 3 of 3

This Black Friday I decided to do some research online in an effort to find a digital equivalent to the brick and mortar Apple Store Genius Bar experience. In Concierge UX : Part 1 I described my experiences in navigating through Apple’s website and the challenges I faced on that Black Friday. Concierge UX : Part 2 of this blog series focused on personas and who might use a Genius Bar Experience online and what their needs would be.  To conclude this series I wanted to compare a few other online support experiences I looked at, a summary of the overall experience I ended up with on Apple’s website and what I was hoping it would become.

The Answer Desk

Microsoft now has an experience in their retail stores known as the ‘Answer Desk’. Immediately after finding the landing page for the Answer Desk online, I was able to quickly contact a live person in just a few steps but the experience was still not even closely comparable to the experience of visiting a physical Apple or Microsoft retail store.

The Microsoft Store Answer Desk

Figure A) Microsofts attempt at a online Genius Bar experience

A Bucketed Services Approach

It was promising to see an option to chat with a live person but scrolling down I noticed a vague short list of broad service offerings and pricing. How did the Answer Desk already know what my needs were? I may have not even known what my problems really were. How could I, or anyone for that matter, place a price tag on a technical solution without even understanding the problem? This brings me back to the IT online support techniques of old, where you would get asked questions like “Is the computer on?” or “Have you rebooted yet?” to further define the problem. In 2000, this seemed like a logical approach to go through a series of questions based on previous issues IT support encountered.  Those questions are no less important, but it is almost 2014. The approach, the questions, and how we understand technical problems has changed so much since then. Today, with the vast amount of new devices, varied operating systems, and extremely diverse user needs it is no longer viable to just drop every problem into a limited set of technical solutions.

Answer Desk Offerings

Figure B) Answer Desk Services were very generic and defied the actual purpose that the Answer Desk aims to serve

That was a red flag to me that this experience was not going to be as face-to-face and humanistic as I would like. A concierge experience is not about a rigid limiting set of services but is about fixing what you need when you need it so you don’t have to worry or stress about the little things. Whether that means helping synchronize your personal calendar on your iPhone with your work calendar in Outlook or removing viruses on your PC, a Concierge is ‘in your corner’ and is invested in you, the person, and not necessarily invested in you, the client.

The Contradiction

A Good Definition of Concierge UX

Figure C) Microsoft Answer Desk seems to well define the general goals of Concierge UX

What was interesting about Microsoft’s case was the set of defined qualities of ‘Greatness’ for the Answer Desk, which were located directly below their technical solutions offerings. These qualities were well aligned with what would be considered good Concierge UX. Clearly, the bucketed technical support solutions directly contradicted the technical solution idea. (See Figure C). This could be seen in the text for the last section in the “What makes the Answer Desk Great”, which states “We know not all tech issues are the same”. If this is what makes The Answer Desk truly great then why had Microsoft ‘bucketed’ their services in such limiting topics? Every problem would need to fall in one of those buckets and be given the same value because of its predefined cost estimation.

Covering Their Bottoms

By saying that the Answer Desk would “customize our training and support services to meet your unique needs”  felt like legal speak to me. The Answer Desk would definitely solve your problem, provided it fell into one of their ‘buckets’.

Generalizing the Bucket Approach

I knew, from a hands on experience at other companies, that with this type ‘bucket service’ model a ‘customized’ solution most likely meant the IT Support team would use internal canned virus and spam elimination tools. Those tools ran generic tests and fixed the problems as they were detected – Automatically. Very rarely would you have a personalized approach in a scenario like this. In many cases the real problems were never solved to level they needed to be and the customers ended up returning for repeat business.

Establishing Trust

Regardless on my opinions on ‘bucketed services’, I was much more concerned with how the live chat would be. I was rather happy for a few reasons in starting this part of the Answer Desk experience. First, I was able to chat in a fraction of the steps it took me on Apple’s site. Second, a live feed of Answer Desk support people was in front of me on the page with complete ratings, a profile photo, and  skills they held (see Figure D). The skills were limited by the main service bucket but still it was a human that I could now have some visual recognition with as well as some establishment of trust (whether this is illusionary or not the the psychology of this still holds value).

The People at the Answer Desk

Figure E) Here is a more human view of online support and the people at the Answer Desk

Chatting with The Answer Desk

Now I could choose who I wanted to wait for or I could just chat with the next available person. I chatted with one of the Answer Desk People very quickly (maybe a 2 minute wait) and immediately asked about video conferencing or more personalized methods of collaborative help. Once a chat was started I did have a link where the Answer Desk person would call me instead of chatting. This was a nice option to have but I opted to stay on the chat anyway. Compared to the online chat with Apple (read about that interaction in part 1), I felt even more disconnected here in this chat. I had to wait for responses with no indication that the technician was still there.

My Answer Desk Chat

Figure F) The beginnings of my Answer Desk Chat

The Same IT Support Service With A Different Dress

I explained to my Answer Desk Technician that I was a developer looking for online support solutions at a Concierge UX level for a client. My questions were answered in an even more canned manner than that of my experience with the Apple Support Person (View Part for details on this). For instance, when I asked ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions there was no conversational text as Apple had provided when answering these questions. When I asked an open ended question such as “Can you talk to me about your video conferencing support options at the Answer Desk?”, the delayed answer was “Yes we have video conferencing but it is a paid service”.  I had to ask several questions before I could stitch his answers together before I was able to get a clear understanding of my options.  Additionally I pressed for more public material or marketing that I could later review with my client. That was when the inevitable IT “This-is-not-my-department” answer came (See Figure G).

my conversation

That really showed me this was a true call center with a detailed script and no personalization on the level I required. When thinking of Concierge UX, this is a feeling of betrayal of trust to me. My technician had his own or The Answer Desk’s agenda in mind here. More importantly, he was not in ‘my corner’ and not on MY agenda.

History Repeats Itself

Remember the big box company CompUSA? I used to work at one in their tech support store offering. They took a similar but less refined approach that BestBuy and Microsoft are doing now. Customers would bring in their machines, fill out the paperwork, take valuable time out of their day while waiting for a tech to fix their problems. Sometimes problems took days or weeks to fix. You, the client, would be charged a good amount of money for a limited set of services. This service hardly ever got good feedback or reviews from the clients. Where is the giant CompUSA now? Well…they had fallen into bankruptcy at one point and a few retail stores still exist I believe but not a fraction of what they once had. Eventually they were consumed by TigerDirect , a major online retailer. My point is that this approach in the short term may have worked for them but look how successful it was in the long run.

The Beginnings of Concierge Innovation: Enter Mayday!

Mayday was the latest Amazon support service I had looked into. I didn’t get to personally experience this but I did find this video from the Android Authority (as seen above) where they ran through the service and its features. This video was not as glamorous as Amazon’s marketing video but you got a much better idea of what the first hand experience might look like. Keep in mind that this is just the beginning for Mayday, and as of writing this, the service is only available on one Kindle device. Additionally, a few things stuck out to me.

Very Fast Turnaround

Amazon boasts a 15 second turnout to get assistance

One Way Video

Something I had not clearly understood from the marketing video I watched from Amazon was that the person assisting you at Amazon cannot see you or your surroundings. This is so key to establishing trust and personal security boundaries. Imagine a Mayday attendant sees you have valuables on your fireplace mantle, notices the lock types on the windows, what the layout of your home is. Call me paranoid but that could end badly.

Personalized Guidance

Having done a good amount of remote pair programming I saw great value in having both parties able to manipulate and view the screen I am looking at. The fact that I, the user, can still control my device but so can my attendant on the other end at Amazon makes learning fast and easy. If I am in a hurry and I don’t want to learn (some people are silly like that) I can ask my Mayday assistant to take over.

High Level of Established Trust

Although Mayday attendants have a set of rules and a script, they need to look at the screen & maintain their attention on you or your screen. Now that you have a face to their name they know you will remember this conversation. I am sure these are recorded for Amazons internal use as well.

Holistic View of the Experience

I would imagine, and hope, that because of these intertwined dependencies that the Amazon Mayday technical assistance will evolve into a full fledged Concierge User Experience. This would be an experience that not only helps with your Kindle but now leads to much more outside of the Mayday video conference. It may start with questions like “How do I connect my iPhone to my Kindle to transfer files?”. Maybe now we are thinking bigger and are having broader conversations like “I need tickets to a baseball game in New York next month. Amazon friend, can you find whats available with me and help me order them?”. At that point we are talking about collaborative task management and device integration but it can be much more than that. This line of questioning shows clear examples of how Mayday could grow but what if we had this as an open platform and we took it a step further?

Back to Apple’s Genius Bar

The more I navigated through the maze of Apple’s online support experience, the more I realized I was not going to find the same experience. I didn’t even come close. The technology is here and available today so why on earth would Apple not want to scale this experience? Now that I have tested many of my previous assumptions of what I thought I might experience online I am left with more assumptions and less answers. Sure, I know what I enjoyed from the in store experience and I know a few ways how I might translate and scale that digitally but why haven’t smarter minds than me at Apple figured this out?

Has Apple Secretly Tried this Already?

My revelation is that Apple had already figured this out a long time ago. Whether it is for internal political reasons, poor ROI estimations of such a product, or some other reason, it has purposefully been buried under the the global support system in Apple. Not only that but it is an experience that only points you to a visit to your local Apple store or customer service via phone or chat.

Why Not FaceTime integration?

Interestingly enough, from my conversation with the Apple customer service rep, I forged a hypothesis that the online Genius Bar experience I desired was non-existent. In fact the only video support available is obtained when you call customer support on the phone and specifically request video support with them. Then you would have to use Safari and login to some web application and supply they would provide a URL. To have a FaceTime video or any video conference to the degree I would have expected from a concierge service was not possible.

Technology & Video Conferencing

With live video conferencing you get the auditory inflections & nuances along with the visual facial cues of being right next to someone. Of course you don’t have the smells with video but I could be persuaded to do without that. Video and audio can also be choppy, dependent on connection speeds, sounds get muffled, and direct eye contact sometimes get lost depending on where the camera is.

First Generation Innovation Leaders

A Mayday-like experience would be the closest experience one would have online right now that would be the closest to an in-person visit to the Apple Store Genius Bar. Amazon seemed to get this concept and they were way ahead of Apple on the digital front. I kept wondering if Apple was purposeful avoided a digital translation of their Genius Services? Perhaps internal politics? Maybe it was because of the technical problems video conferences tend to suffer from? Perhaps it was a staff issue related to scaling or quality assurance consistency. It was clear that Amazon had broken ground with the Mayday online experience and Apple was dragging its feet.

High Expectations?

Perhaps I had expected too much from Apple, or a Concierge UX online service in general, as I envisioned it. I did have very high expectations compared to the solutions I encountered. A concierge experience like the Genius Bar would inevitably evolve online. The online customer support space had been in need of something like this for a long time.

Amazon & Apple

Apple had mastered its rigorous recruitment criteria for Geniuses. They had solidified the marketing, training, and branding needed to attract & retain quality people at the retail store level but nothing exceptional was being done online. Amazon had no need for what Apple had done in their retail stores because of the obvious amount of their revenue that comes from their online presence. Amazon had stolen the show in the digital service space. What if Apple and Amazon combined forces to create a consolidated online experience integrated with a brick & mortar retail? Imagine what these two powerhouses could accomplish together.

The Endless Possibilities

Innovation Today

Now that we have established the online experiences of Amazon & Apple, let’s think about how to take those experiences one step further. Recently I read about the Microsoft Surface Blades. These are the Surface accessories that physically snap into and extend the interaction of a Surface tablet (Read the article here). Blades are no longer just keyboard input devices. They are now custom physical extensions for workflow and daily routines.

It is now apparent that product development professionals are not only thinking “outside the box” but now “outside the app” as well. These types of innovations are opportunities not just in technology but also for normalizing user experience. Thinking ‘outside the app’  extends the concepts of Concierge UX to a whole new level.

One Possible Future

Imagine visiting your doctor through a Mayday like experience. Rather than travel, you could visit a private space nearby,  turn on your tablet and touch your ‘Doctor Contact’ button. Now you would be immersed in a one-on-one human experience without having to take time to go into the doctor’s office. Some questions come to mind like ‘How would the doctor check my general health, my reflexes, my blood levels, or even perform a procedure?” What’s to say the medical tech community couldn’t build out physical objects that integrate with the medical systems through your personal device. Objects like that could become typical household items like first aid kits are today.

If you needed a simple blood analysis – not problem. You just put this ‘arm-analyzer-device-thing’ to your arm and it will transfer the data to the doctors systems through your tablet. After analyzing the blood, they review the results and send a prescription to your local pharmacy of choice.

Maybe your other ‘muscle-analyzer-thing’ the doctor asked you to put on your back could be used for muscle and bone analysis.  It could determine you needed a custom back brace to a certain specification. No problem, your physician just sends your 3d-printer what it needs to know based on the data they received and you don’t even have to leave your home to get it. Sounds like science fiction but its not as far away as we think.

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Concierge UX : Part 2 of 3

Apple Genius Bar Personas

An Approach to User Research Requirements Gathering

This is the second of three posts that are about user experience for concierge services like the Apple Genius Bar. In this post I look at a few different personas of the Apple experience that have specific goals in mind. I have identified a few possible personas that might navigate through Apple’s website trying to get personalized help:

  • A Parent setting up their 12 year old daughter’s new iPad Mini
  • A  visually impaired developer looking to get Siri training and help with ‘blind mode’ on their iPhone 5
  • An on-the-go young tech savvy visual designer needing help with internet connectivity on their Macbook Pro

Persona 1 : The Father Who Spoiled his Little Princess

Spoiled girls with iPads (linked from cnn.com)

* See disclaimer

Mr. Jones is a middle aged father that has a wonderfully spoiled 12 year old daughter that badly wants and iPad mini. In a effort to buy his daughters love at his local mall and after hours of his daughter begging him to take her to the Apple Store, he ultimately had forked up the cash for her brand new iPad mini. Although Mr. Jones is fairly knowledgable in computer technology, he knows very little about tablets or smart phones.

After his daughter opened up her new tablet, she invited all her “cool” friends over to show off her new toy. Just minutes after that, she instructs her father that he will get the mini working for her right away and it has to be before her friends get to their house in an hours time. Daddy happily agrees and gets on his personal laptop, navigating in his browser to the Apple store online for assistance.

Persona 2 : The Blind Engineer getting acquainted with Siri

Photo of a blind women using an iPhone (Linked from Apple.com)

* See disclaimer

Kathy, a legally blind web developer, has a good amount of upcoming contract work so she will need to use a smart phone to keep in constant collaboration with her clients. Her  macular degeneration has caused her vision to degrade to the point where she has difficulty seeing details. Despite this, Kathy is a master at typing and is still able to use her computer although in some cases she requires the use of a screen magnifier or her screen reader, Jaws. She recently purchased an iPhone for her contract work and has been interested in getting some face-to-face training on Siri and the accessibility features on her new phone. Kathy has already read the Apple manuals online but is still not getting the workflow she desires from the iPhone experience yet. Since she works remotely and living a great distance from a physical brick & mortar Apple Store she requires either a IM chat session, phone assistance, or audio conferencing to get this help.

Persona 3 : The Visual Designer working from Starbucks

designer working from starbucks (linked from starbucks.com)

* See disclaimer

Kenneth is right out of school. His impressive design work has caught the attention of large companies and he is currently working on redesigning the Washington, D.C. Metro Train System’s visual design and branding for the train ticketing machines. This is a huge undertaking and it requires him to do a lot of travel on the train as well as heavy user research for his designs. Kenneth is working with an agile development team in Fairfax, VA and needs collaborate with them on a daily basis so connectivity is very important. One day, the usual wifi connection at his local Starbucks is no longer working for him. The coffee steward at the front desk explains to him that someone updated something over the weekend but nothing should change for the cafe customers. Connectivity seems to be working for other customers in the shop. Kenneth needs to contact Apple on his iPhone but because he is around a crowded area he has no desire to talk on his phone with a customer support representative.

Thoughts on Personas

Who are These People?

These personas are just a few I imagined. Perhaps the majority of Apple’s users falls into other personas. Additional research with Apple’s customer support and Genius Bar teams might clarify this to a better degree but the three listed above can really give us a lot to think about. Defining what a user may experience requires a balance between the right amount of research, great user interviews, people skills, and a little luck.

What do they want?

Each of these personas needs specific information from Apple’s support and they have specific criteria for how they want to get that information. The goals they desire are very concrete and descriptive but the context is very different. Imagine how each of these people might experience the Genius Bar on the phone, their Laptop, or some other device. Where do they start their journey? What is their motivation? What constraints might they encounter?

Mapping the Journey

My journey on the Apple site finished in 13 steps.  I was using my Macbook Pro in Chrome so my page load times were better than some other browsers on some other devices but if I were in a rush (keep in mind this was black friday) I might have left the site as early as step 3 (as seen in Figure A).

Genius Bar Search Results

Figure A : My Genius Bar Search Results – Make A Reservation implies that I will need to go into the brick and mortar Apple Store

As I stated, I may have been be in a rush but, to compound my problems, the choices I was presented were too many and too detailed in some cases. Although the visual elements tended to be large click/touch areas with icons paired with short & simple text, I still had to stop and think about these choices more and more as I went on. I initially desired a face-to-face personal encounter much like I had in my local brick and mortar Apple store. A video conference on FaceTime with a Genius might just have been the thing I needed! I couldn’t help but wonder why I had to make all these choices when I could simply get down to the point quickly with a  interactive Genius Representative in front of me. I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of steps on the Apple site that I was taking to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and was not even sure where these technical support choices will lead me? I found myself thinking things like ‘what else is on this page?’ and ‘Was I choosing the right option here?’…I didn’t want to have to start over and if I chose wrong, would it be easy to get back to my last step?

Gaining Insight

Being an application developer and UX professional, I had a bit of insight into my own experience and had some clear assumptions to go on. I had to keep in mind that these were only my biased opinions and I needed to quickly validate or invalidate them before I could make any decisions on what the real challenges of providing a scalable concierge online services would be or what might be a better experience. I imagined how each of the personas I had defined might have felt while trying to get the information they needed. Research & testing on as many different users and personas as possible could determine better ways to experience the Genius Bar in a digital universe but more importantly give insight into what the experience provides and doesn’t provide to its user base.

Collaborative Ideation

Collaborating with other UX professionals in understanding this data can reveal possibilities that by myself I may not see right away which is why I love working in groups. Every professional in a product team comes from different experiences and ways of thinking. Exposing my research data to as many viewpoints and interpretations as possible can only give me a broader understanding of of the user experience. A given persona may need a real-time communication application, a holistic knowledge management solution, or a Teleportation device. It is near impossible to say until you get the facts out of the data and determine what is real and what is tangential.

Defining the Problem

Rather than suggesting a product that would define what our solution would be, it would make more sense to define the problem in a clear high level and then apply several solution ideations. How might approach this? For me, I usually create a outlined rough script that has open ended questions helps manage my assumptions.  Based on the answers to my questions I try to understand what these people are thinking and feeling.  It’s important to see not just what a persons says they would do or what they do, but to also understand why they do these things. Emotion and thought process can sometimes be inferred with the right questioning and collaborative data analysis.

Connecting the Dots

Looking closely at repeating patterns and key points there will most likely be a much more accurate idea of the high level issues these users have. It would be my hope that I would have enough information to create a definitive problem statement that would either lead to the possibility that a Genius Bar experience online is not something I want to build as a product/service or reveal many possible product/service solutions. What were the core problems that overlay across our personas? For UX professionals, understanding these core problems keeps us on track and help to maintain focus on what is necessary to create something that has real meaning, value, and purpose.

* Disclaimer
Photos are just links from cnn.com, starbucks.com, and apple.com to get a high level visual representation of what the persona may look like. Names and details of the personas are not actually correlated in any way, shape, or form to the people in these photos. Any coincidental information is just that….coincidental.

Concierge UX : Part 1 of 3

Holiday User Experience

During the holidays a good service experience goes a long way. People tend to get visibly agitated and stressed out for the smallest things during these few months. Retail and Service establishments put so much pressure on employees in regards to sales and expected work hours. It can be overwhelming for many employees and for the guests that shop at their brick & mortar establishments. It is inevitable considering the amount of revenue companies typically need to acquire within that short time. Application developers in sales-focused industries feel this pressure in a different way. They don’t have that face-to-face engagement but they get the pressures of last minute features, production server issues, traffic surges, minimizing downtime, and getting quicker checkout experience with less drop off in the early cart entry to name a few.

Most notably good user experience tends to suffer. Research & Development (R&D) rarely hears about the good experiences. Typically it is the uncensored ravenous rantings of dissatisfaction that rolls down to R&D. The face-to-face experience is lost with a mobile or web application. For online reviewing, sales, and support people are not afraid to speak their minds and in some cases be cruel & abrasive. The people who built the application are out of mind and out of sight to the shopper. Reviews and dissatisfied comments are what usually rolls down to the product engineering team. Many are in the realm of  ‘I-will-never-come back-here-again’ threats accompanied with ‘I-will-spread-the-word-of-my-hatred-to-all-I-come-across-forever’.  This vengeful holiday spirit is exponentially true in the large and mid-size companies and their public facing service and e-commerce applications. It is the responsibility of everyone on a product team to make the experience of these applications the best in class. This is especially true for both the User Experience group &  the engineering group since they are usually responsible for defining and implementing the design and vision of the product.

Concierge Service

I think of this holiday pressure often and find myself very critical of my shopping and support experiences. When I think about the best support experiences I’ve had recently I think of the brick & mortar Apple Store Genius Bar.  The reason this sticks out to me is not because I am a Apple fanatic but because it is a personal and concierge experience. I always feel like I have been personally taken care of when I leave the Genius Bar no matter how long I’ve had to wait. The main reason for that is the engaging personal interaction and the rapport. Geniuses, Apple store concierges, establish trust and personal loyalty early on in their engagements. The Geniuses at Apple are trained masters of customer service practices but they also have a very high level of social engineering skills in a ‘White Hat’ sort of way. Other companies seem to be adopting this ‘concierge model’ and making it their own such as the Microsoft brick & mortar stores. It’s a very effective means of gaining customer satisfaction. Wouldn’t it be great to have this experience without ever leaving the comfort of your own home? Let’s take a look at the current Genius experience online. How does the Genius Bar experience scale and translate to a digital format?

A Digital Translation

The IPhone Apple Store App was the first place I viewed the Genius Bar experience in a digital format. One observation I made was that the app does not have a high level navigation element pointing to a Genius contact or even a information page for that matter. In fact, by means of browsing, one needs to first use the store locator, then touch the Genius section to make an appointment and a series of sub pages follow to make an appointment locally at a store. A search in the app yields no indication of where the a Genius type section exists or how you would have that concierge experience online. This IPhone Apple Store App experience left me wondering what the online desktop web application experience would be. My first instinct was to go to Apple’s website and look for Genius information there. I would think that the home page would showcase the Genius bar Experience at some level. The home page had nothing mentioned about the Genius services at all. At the top level navigation, I clicked the link to the main support page for Apple hoping for some better information. Still nothing on the Genius bar. At this point I decided perform a global search using the search box in the top navigation using the key words  ‘Genius Bar’.  The first result is a Genius bar logo accompanied with descriptive text and a link to make an appointment with a retail store. After I click on the link and run through a series of screens I ultimately get online help  in the form of a chat with an online support person about customer service options for Apple. This digital experience is a very different and disconnecting experience in contrast to the physical brick & mortar one I am used to. A few things struck me as odd with this experience.

My 13 Step Journey

User Flow for Genius Bar

Figure A : My 13 Step User Flow to get to a Live Chat with Support on the Apple Website Apple

Exploring this diagram we can see that it took me quite a few steps to get to a real person. Even when I did get a customer support technician, it was a chat (only a two minute wait on Black Friday though). My point is that the experience is not one of warmth and personal touch as you get in the Apple Store. Don’t get me wrong, the technician I chatted with was very attentive, professional, and polite. I know from experience that these are usually well trained customer service people working in a data center somewhere with a script of things to write, and how to word them. This is not a bad thing per se but not the experience I would have expected based on my concierge service at the Reston, Virginia store Genius Bar.

The next part my journey led me to think about the personas that visit the Genius Bar and how they might utilize a digital experience of similar value. I will post my observations in the next few days.