By Ben Bowers
on 11.7.13

“You’ve got to start with customer experience and work back toward the technology — not the other way around.” Few quotes from Steve Jobs sum up Apple’s mantra better than that.

Even the best intentions haven’t helped my mom’s relationship with her iPad and iPhone, though. She’s in her mid 70s, possesses several graduate degrees from respected educational institutions, and has spent nearly her entire life working in academia. By any reasonable assessment, she’s equipped with the wits to write and read emails, browse “the Google” and even buy Christmas gifts online for her kids from the world’s most popular tablet.

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The cartoonish interfaces and gesture-based controls pioneered by iOS were designed to bring a more natural experience to computing, after all. They were conceived to make technology accessible to people like my mom — especially after a little coaching from a permanently pre-teen “genius” at the local Apple store. But things just haven’t gone according to Cupertino’s plan. And judging by recent movements in tech industry, my mom isn’t alone.

“I can’t see my latest emails.” “How do I text photos?” “The map won’t show me where I am.” These are the questions that light up my phone at odd hours of the week. She’s kind enough to call only in critical situations where things really need to work. Her exam grades must be sent to her TA tonight. She’s late for a doctor’s appointment and misplaced the address. Her granddaughter made a cute face while counting Cheerios that the world needs to see.

She was convinced to buy idevices because they promised an easier life, and she knows they were built to help her with everyday moments like these. The kid in the Apple t-shirt walked her through hypotheticals like this before. She just doesn’t remember how, and there’s no time for appointments now. I patiently talk her through each situation and for the most part, she learns. When lessons stick though, it’s usually the result of rote memorization rather than a deep understanding of the underlying mechanics and design conventions at play in the system. The calls continue, but the questions change.

“You’ve got to start with customer experience and work back toward the technology — not the other way around.”
– Steve Jobs

Apple can’t be blamed for my mom’s frustration or my role as her IT department. They’ve done more to make technology delightful than just about everyone else. The idea of the genius bar itself, described as “the heart and soul” of Apple’s store by former Senior Vice President of Retail Ron Johnson, was a breakthrough in retail strategy when it launched in 2001. Years before the iPhone and iPad ever existed, these gleaming and friendly spaces served as the physical manifestation of Apple’s customer-experience-first approach to technology and restored the roll of humans as liaisons for products in a world dominated by automated phone menus, support email addresses and user manuals. But in the process of creating revolutionary products and services that made everything from music, movies, games, photos and a vast world of internet-related services instantly on-demand to consumers with the touch of button, Apple has been out-innovated in the one area that supposedly guides everything that they do.

So how do you add genius to genius? With the launch of the new Kindle HDX, Amazon revealed a new free support service aptly named Mayday built into each new unit shipped. The service is accessed by tapping the lifesaver-shaped button on the options menu, which triggers a private video conference with a trained Amazon staffer in under 15 seconds who will troubleshoot tablet-related questions, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Users can see the support technician during a call, buy Mayday staffers can only hear customers and walk them through issues by talking, drawing on their tablet screen and even remotely taking over the device if permission is granted.

What came as a surprise upon its release now seems obvious. The promise of personal attention from employees has always been one of the trump card of retail stores. Why not even the playing field for digital goods by providing interactive technical expertise on demand?

Mayday will be evaluated for now on metrics of customer satisfaction — provided by the doted-on Mrs. Bowers’s of this world.

Google’s newly launched “Helpouts” service, currently only available online and via Android, is a more ambitious take on the same idea, though it’s slightly less baked at launch. Through Helpouts, which is largely based on the Hangouts technology integrated into Google+, users can receive one-on-one video chat sessions with “experts” on all manner of topics like cooking, IT support, guitar lessons, fashion advice, personal training nutrition, health and home & garden. Helpouts can even be saved for later review if both parties agree. Some are free, but most involve a per-hour fee of $20 (Google takes a 20% cut) that in some cases can be pro rated down to the minute if necessary. Google has actively vetted its first crop of experts at launch through time consuming background checks, going so as far to insure HIPPA compliance with any health-related Helpout, but the community can also rate experts based on their experience and there’s a full money back guarantee if things don’t go well — which we assume will stand as the real policing mechanism in the long run.

Pay for video chatting isn’t exactly a new idea. The digitally savvy segments of the pornography industry have been printing money from it for years by leveraging a different kind of expertise (we know how familiar you are with that). These attempts by Amazon and Google to mainstream video chatting beyond the realm of personal conversations or the productivity settings of office are still encouraging — largely because they’re both big bets on the value of technology supporting human interaction instead of replacing it, for once.

Whether these types of services will prove to be worth switching mobile platforms or paying for over free resources like Yahoo Answers, Quora, Youtube videos and knowledgable friends is unclear, but the rise of digital subscription services for major media publications (think The New York Times and, well, Netflix) does provide some hints. Making the jump from free to paid in Helpout’s case will largely depend on the quality of advice being offered at a premium and the time saved not having to hunt for answers on one’s own. In Amazon’s case, Mayday will be evaluated for now on metrics of customer satisfaction — provided by the doted-on Mrs. Bowers’s of this world and their happily retired tech support teams.

Apple is certainly watching the situation as it evolves — and perhaps wondering if its army of geniuses could also learn a trick from the other well-known California valley filled with silicon.

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