Monday, September 22, 2008

Apple iPhone 3G vs. Original - Purchase and Activation

This is the first of many interaction design reviews that I will write as part of my curriculum. These reviews will be based on my personal experiences interacting with various brands, services and products. Though my motivation for writing these reviews is self-serving (focused on my learning), I hope that you get some value, and perhaps even enjoyment, out of reading them.

My first first review will focus on the evolution of the Apple iPhone - this will be the first of many reviews of Apple products. My focus in this review will be to highlight aspects of the interaction design that have changed, both from a product and service perspective.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am admitting that I am a huge fan of the Apple brand and their products. I've even gotten into arguments with friends when defending Apple products - no fist fights have broken out to date though.

Buying and Activating the iPhone

The purchase process for the original iPhone was extremely well design, I would go so far as to say that it was revolutionary within the cell phone industry. Here is a brief narrative that highlights the most salient aspects of my purchase experience:

My wife and I arrived at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue at around 12:30 one the night the iPhone was launched. Since there was no line at the store we assumed the phone must have been sold out. We approached a store associated who informed us that the phones were still in stock and that I could pick one up at the cash register. I waited for less than 5 minutes to check out - there were no lengthy forms to fill or credit checks to endure. When I got home I openned up the beautiful packaging and without reading any instructions I was able to activate my phone. For me the activation process was simple - I connected my phone to my computer, completed a few forms via iTunes and within 20 minutes my phone had been activated (this even included the switching over of my phone number from T-Mobile).

This purchase and activation process was simple and seamless. It was by far the best experience I've ever had purchasing a new phone and it clearly expressed one of the Apple brand's core attributes, ease of use. Now I know that there were numerous reports regarding people who experienced issues during the activation process. Considering that most people were attempting to activate their iPhones from home, they had no one to turn to for help. This is one of the negative consequences related to moving the activation process out of the store. Though this is definitely an important interaction design issue that begs a solution, I did not like the changes in the purchase and activation process that were implemented for the 3G launch.

For the 3G, Apple moved the activation process back into the store, forcing buyers to activate their phones on location at the time of purchase. The impact that this change had on the purchase experience can be illustrated by the a short story about my family's attempt to purchase an this phone.

Our first attempt to purchase the iPhone was on the date that it came out. We assumed that we would be able to go to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue late at night to get the phone. When we called to check on availability the store associate informed us that the phone was in stock but that they were not selling it at that time of day because they didn't have the staff to support the activation process. A few days later I decided to try again -
my plan was to get my wife a 3G iPhone as a surprise. So I went to the Soho Apple store and got in a long, long line. After waiting for about 30 minutes one of the store employees told me that I can't get a phone for my wife, even though I going to add her as an extra line on my existing account.

Our next attempt was the worst of all - as you can imagine it was also thwarted. About one month after the launch, my wife and I decided to give it one more try. Since I have already written a long description of this experience on Engadget (
link to the full review), here I will provide a quick overview of what happened:
  • We went to the store in the afternoon and were given a dated reservation ticket that would supposedly enable us to buy an iPhone on that same day at 8:00pm;
  • When we came back to the store at 8:00pm we were made to stand outside waiting for 50 minutes, at which point it started pouring rain.
  • My wife and I left immediately. The other 20 people in line got drenched (though there was plenty of space for everyone inside Apple's huge NYC flagship store).
So why did Apple change the activation process. I can't imagine that this change was caused by the activation issues encountered with the first iPhone - if that was the case I would have expected Apple to come up with an improvement rather than return to old cell phone industry standards. I assume that in large part this was a financial decision negotiated as part of their agreement with AT&T - this was probably a requirement to have AT&T subsidize the phones by $200. I would have preferred the option to pay full price for the phone at the store, and then to get a $200 instant rebate upon activation.

Ultimately, by going back to a more traditional activation model the purchase and activation process of the iPhone 3G do not reflect values and attributes of the Apple brand. Considering that no other phone company offers a simpler and better activation solution, most people did not even notice a problem with the 3G activation process - I guess I'm just being a spoiled brat.

More to come soon...

- Physical Attributes

- Connection Speed
- Cool Interaction Design Features

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