In the past year, I've become an advocate for encouraging companies to think about the experience of their customer. It's been a concern of ours at Peppercom to think through the gap between what companies often say about themselves and what their customers, their employees, or other key stakeholders are saying and experiencing. We've also been concerned about how various touchpoints within a company might be giving their audiences substantially inconsistent experiences. Through my interaction with Emily Yellin , author of Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us , I have thought more substantially about how customer service has fit into this as well.
Two practices that have long excelled at particular elements of these questions are mystery shoppers/diners (aimed at testing the retail experience of particular stores for a retailer/restaurant/etc.) and user experience testing, which is usually aimed at either interfacing with a technology or navigating through web design from the user's perspective rather than the developer's. As we work on a variety of exciting new projects which look at the communication experience various stakeholders have with a company, I keep thinking back to the lessons we might learn from mystery shopping and user experience and how they might particularly apply to how companies connect what they believe they are saying with what the customer is hearing and seeing.
In particular, my mind has been on Apple and particularly how they seem to consistently develop technology developed for their audience in ways that resonates in their lives. Apple understands underlying needs audiences might have and how to develop technologies that are intuitive to those audiences. They do the research to understand the wants we don't yet know to ask for by listening to what functions are missing from our lives. The iPod not only gives us portable music but is designed to show us quickly and efficiently how to use it. The video iPod took it one step further and made portable video extensively easier to imagine. The iPhone gave us multimedia functionality and web browsing married to our phone with touchscreen technology that sounded quite complicated a few years before in a way that takes little time to get used to. And the iPad made a mobile computer and eReader seem quite natural in users' hands by making it a big iPhone and thus resembling a technology a good portion of Apple users had already gotten used to. (I couldn't help but think that the iPad looked as if someone had accidently picked up Andre the Giant's iPhone the first time I saw someone carry one onto the plane.
That doesn't mean Apple's been perfect. The design of the Macbook Pro's first metal casing led to many around me ending up with dented or punctured laptops. And almost everyone I know with Apple MagSafe power adapters have ended up having to replace them at least once, if not several times, the cord bends and frays over time, leading to shorts or exposed wires.
But I've been most impressed by Apple's design work with the iPad. Portable technology sounds like a great idea, but we realize that media people port around tend to get banged up pretty easily. After all, life on the go means a lot of moving and slinging around. For that, Apple seems to have embraced an industry around them to give people a variety of options to protect their technology, and they seem to have striven to have developed a product as resistant to user abuse as possible.
I decided to do a little user testing of my own with the iPad I had purchased (along with a black Apple case). One day not long ago, I decided to take my iPad out with me while running some errands with my daughter. I ended up running all over town and of course never even getting a chance to use the iPad along the way. That night, when I went to look something up on it, I realized it wasn't in the house. I told my wife I'd left it in the car, but I decided not to go out and get it because I was already settled in for the evening, and a big rain storm was coming. I ended up not going out until the next evening (to get something to eat), at which time I discovered the iPad was not in the car.
Perplexed, I parked the car before going in and searched thoroughly one last time. No luck. As I went to get my daughter out of the car, I leaned against the vehicle in frustration. And, there, on the roof of my car, I felt the iPad. It had traveled with me the day before on the roof to the local dairy farm, to Target, to Kroger, and back home (with that case helping it hang on). It sat up there (on street parking on a decently traveled street) all night and most of the next day. It had been rained on for a full night. It had traveled to a local restaurant.
I nervously picked the iPad up and hit the button to wake it up, holding my breath. While I expected a garbled screen and water damage once I brushed all the standing water off its case, I instead simply got my latest email. Turns out, the full extent of the damage was that the battery had gone down by 2% over the 24 hours it had been on top of my car.
To be certain, I waited until I was absolutely sure the iPad had survived with no lasting repercussions before I shared the story with my wife. And I waited several more months before I shared it in print. Probably means my chances for making good on the warranty is shot if I experience any problems in the future, but I was so impressed by Apple's design I had to share it.
Companies can't make user-proof technology. They can't always protect their customers from themselves. However, I appreciate what I'm guessing is a deep amount of research that has gone into the iPhone and the iPad to do all they can to make touch-screen, connected technology available in the user's hands in a way that is as durable as it can possibly be. Apple may still have some issues with other aspects of their customer's experience (See this post  from Peppercom co-founder Ed Moed, for instance) and certainly have longstanding issues with aspects of the communication experience many have with their brand (see here ). But their dedication to thinking about product design from the user's perspective is unparalleled.
And, as an aside, for more on how technology fits into the lives of those who use it, see the work of frog design's Jan Chipchase .
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communciations , a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium , and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program . Ford was previously the MIT Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera  with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media  with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford .