Delight and Dismay at the Apple Store

The other day I got to witness the most amazing experience of watching a lady in her 70s touch an iPad for the first time, and right before my eyes the delight and sparkle on her face transformed her into a young girl again. It was magical.

Yet this experience at an Apple Store in Ohio was marred by some shockingly un-Apple bumps in the road.

I'm in America visiting my folks, and took the opportunity of being here to help Ann, a family friend in her 70s, buy her first computer. Until now her most technically-advanced electronics were a flip-phone and a television, but she was ready to take the plunge into email and Facebook. She was familiar with the unrelenting grief and despair Windows caused her husband, so she wanted something different. We headed to the Apple Store.

It was packed, which as an AAPL shareholder I always like to see.

We were soon attended to by staff, and I let Ann interact with them, describing what she wanted a computer for, and listening to their ideas and recommendations.

First she was shown the lowest-end MacBook Air, a tiny laptop. My mom has one of these and earlier at lunch had shown it to Ann, and had raved all about it, so prior to arriving at the store, Ann and I thought that she'd probably buy a MacBook Air. Under direction of the Apple sales staff, Ann used a MacBook Air for some basic web surfing and email, and seemed pleased. She took to it easily.

Then she was shown the same basic browsing and email on an iPad Air. Over the course of a few minutes Ann's demeanor changed from mild interest (she'd heard of these iPad things before) to pure, unfettered delight.

I've never seen anything like it, and I cannot begin to adequately describe the situation.

Ann has a youth and vibrance that belies her age, with an easy laugh and smile that I've seen many times, but nothing prepared me for the reaction written across her face... giddy, unadulterated, sparkling delight. There's no other word for it.

As she exclaimed This is it, this is for me!, I told her that the sparkle in her eyes made her look 30 years younger, but in reality the only time I've ever seen something even close is when a young child gets the toy they've been wanting. But this was less materialistic, more pure. I imagined a duck living in the desert for decades not knowing that water even existed, finally entering a lake for the first time. I feel I'm a better person just for having witnessed it.

In comparison, the exuberant amaaaazing reaction of my 23-month-old niece to her first iPad experience seems pale (but if you've not heard the short audio on that post, it'll certainly bring a smile to your heart).

Anyway, Ann bought an iPad Air, a wireless keyboard, and a case/cover, and Apple staff helped her set it up. Both before and after the sale, staff spent considerable time with her, never rushing, never pressuring, always patient. Ann felt truly the center of their attention, with their concern not for the sale but for her happiness and satisfaction. It was a wonderful experience.

That was the good. The rest of this long story is not always so good.

Setup of the iPad involved creating Ann's first email account, and this is where I got my first surprise of the day.

I figured that they would create an iCloud account for her, but no, to create an Apple ID they needed an email account from outside the Apple ecosystem, so they created a GMail account for her. This struck me as very odd, but hey, they're the experts.

They then used her GMail address to create an Apple ID for her, and set up her iPad. They helped her install the Apple Store app, then used that to schedule a free training class at the store next week.

Pleased as punch and floating on air, we went to her house to show her husband, and we sat for some basic lessons. I showed Ann how to surf the web, make bookmarks, do email and create contacts, Facetime video conference, use the camera, check the calendar, talk to Siri, etc. She took to it very easily.

But we ran into some problems that I didn't know how to solve.

Disappointment #1 for the day was that the iPad Air Smart Case didn't seem to fit her iPad Air very well, and the hole for the camera didn't line up properly. When deciding on what model of iPad to buy, Apple staff had explained the differences between the iPad Air and the iPad Air 2 included subtle physical differences like the location of the camera, so it seemed to me that Ann must have been sold the wrong case. Yet the labeling on the box for the case (iPad Air Smart Case) clearly matched the labeling on the box for the iPad (iPad Air) — neither referenced the Air 2 we'd seen on packaging for the newer models — so I was confused.

Disappointment #2 for the day was in my call to Apple Care to ask about the issue. The lady who answered my call seemed utterly uninterested in life, doing her job on autopilot just to get to the end of the shift. I've had more enthusiastic calls with the DMV.

So we went back to the Apple Store and showed the clearly-misaligned camera hole along with the clearly-matching packaging. I figured we be told yikes, sorry about that, here's the proper case, but instead we got an inexplicable Yeah, sorry, it's hard to explain.

The guy tried to explain something that he clearly didn't understand well himself, causing me to finally interrupt him and say look, she just wants a case that fits her iPad. She doesn't care what it's called... can you show her something that actually fits what she just bought?.

Again the response was unexpected. I thought he'd say Sure, just a moment, but instead we got a I don't know, but we can go take a look.. Wow, this was not the Apple Experience I was expecting. How hard can it be?

It was a fiasco. They had a huge wall of cases, with half clearly marked iPad Air 2 and the other half clearly marked iPad Air. You'd think that it couldn't be simpler, but in reality all the cases were for the iPad Air 2, including those marked iPad Air. Why were they explicitly labeled differently when they were explicitly for the same device, and explicitly incompatible with the device for which it was labeled??? It was beyond surreal.

The guy explained that if you looked on the back of the iPad Air package, the little sticker with the barcode included microscopic text that said (second generation), meaning it was for the iPad Air 2. The logical person inside of me wanted to explode at the stupidity of it... not only of the misleading labeling, but mostly at the unmitigated stupidity of how the Apple Store handled the display and sales. The guy who sold Ann the iPad Air explicitly mentioned the differences between the models and explicitly told her that the iPad Air 2 cases wouldn't fit her purchase, yet somehow didn't realize that the iPad Air cases wouldn't either. This was his job. How could Apple Staff not know this? The Air 2 has been on sale for almost a year... were we the first to discover this crazy labeling. Beyond surreal.

In marveling at the absurdity of the situation, I happened to noticed that one of the iPad Air cases did not have the second generation microtext on the back. Oh, we're told, this one does fit Ann's purchase. Apple Staff hadn't realized they had these mixed in there. Of perhaps the 70 iPad Air cases on display, I noticed three that would fit Ann's iPad Air. She didn't like the color, but it was that or nothing, so she exchanged the case. The guy offered to order her the color of her choice and swap it out when it arrived, but by this time we just wanted to move on.

(The only plausible explanation for the labeling that I can come up with is that when Apple started selling cases for the new iPad Air 2, they still had a huge stockpile of packaging for the original model that they didn't want to waste, so they shoved the new cases into the old packaging and slapped the microtext sticker on the back. When that ran out, new packaging included the proper iPAd Air 2 on the front, and this mix of labels we saw at the store reflected the mix of old and new stock. On the other hand, I have not been able to come up with a plausible explanation for how the Apple Store handles this mix as they do, utter than pure apathy and incompetence.)

Overall, what a disappointing, un-Apple-like experience. Things were about to get worse.

I had two questions about the email app, both leading down holes I never would have imagined.

The first seemed pretty simple: why is there no trash icon when viewing an email message? How do you delete a message? The identical app on my iPhone has a trash icon that's obvious and intuitive, but on Ann's iPad the same spot instead has what looks like a filing-cabinet icon whose purpose didn't seem apparent, and upon testing we couldn't figure out what it actually did.

The guy spent a considerable time in the labyrinth of iPad settings and couldn't figure it out, so we put that on the back burner and moved on.

My second question was about push notifications for new messages. It didn't surprise me that push notifications wouldn't work when connected only via Wifi, so I just asked to confirm this. But no, I was told that they should work. Ann wasn't getting notifications when I sent test emails, so the guy dives again into the labyrinth of settings for what seemed an eternity, only to end up suggesting to switch from GMail to iCloud for her email.

Just a few hours prior we'd been told that a non-iCloud account was required, but now we were being told to switch to iCloud. I didn't want Ann to have to juggle two email addresses, but no worries, Apple Staff told us, we'll switch your Apple ID registration to your iCloud address so that you can completely abandon the GMail address. Geez, okay, why didn't we do this from the start, but okay, let's do it.

So he create the new account and we explained everything to Ann, who for the first time in the long day was starting to show signs of being overwhelmed. Once things were finally set up, test emails from me showed up on her iPad with immediate notifications as we wanted, so it was worth it. Then he went to switch her Apple ID registration over to her iCloud address so that she could completely abandon the GMail address they'd made for her earlier, and he hit a snag... it wouldn't let him switch.

Clearly this staff member was outside his area of expertise, but instead of asking one of his more-experienced colleagues, he starts Googling for a solution. This did not inspire confidence, and I strongly encouraged him to ask someone for help. He did, and the end result was that we backpedaled on the whole iCloud thing, reverted back to GMail, and simply gave up on push notifications. By this point the store was closing and we just wanted to get out of there.

But somewhere along the way he had figured out how to get the trash icon for Ann, so at least we had that going for us.

Overall Ann was thrilled with her first foray into high tech, but wow, the experiences at the Apple Store sure put a damper on things. As a tech geek I was mortified, and as an APPL shareholder I worry how this bodes for Apple's future.

All 7 comments so far, oldest first...

A couple of bits of clarifying information about the Mail app…

1) The reason you see a filing cabinet instead of a trash can is (from my understanding) because of Gmail – with Gmail, you don’t tend to delete mail, instead you archive it (as the space they give you is pretty big), so I guess Gmail accounts show a filing cabinet instead of a trashcan to indicate that your email is not being deleted, but archived.

2) Google effectively removed push notification support (again, as I understand it) for on iOS when they removed Exchange support from Gmail (see this news story for details). What does let you do is schedule new mail fetches at intervals (the smallest is 15 minutes), to give ‘pull notifications’.

Doesn’t make any of your experiences any the less irritating, I know, and also, you’d hope that the Apple store employees would KNOW some of that!!!

— comment by Stuart Dootson on August 17th, 2015 at 7:47pm JST (1 year, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I’d suggest an email app that plays better with gmail – I use Inbox. Notifications work instantly.

— comment by Scott on August 18th, 2015 at 6:30am JST (1 year, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I enjoyed the article although sadly, nothing you wrote surprised me. Unfortunately, many bright, articulate people in this current under 30 generation lack the basic curiosity that caused you and I to to have an insatiable desire to understand how things work. That curiosity was present for most of history. But in the current age, this has diminished and many leading educators in higher education institutions are very concerned by the trend. Nice enough kids, seemingly bright and sophisticated, but lacking in basic knowledge and worse, they seem uninterested or not curious to delve below the surface of anything outside the user interface. So, as you surmised, it’s probably not possible that they didn’t ‘know’ about the problem But it’s entirely possible it just never aroused their feeble curiosity to look into it further and arrive at some sort of solution or workaround to handle a situation like your friend’s.

On a funnier note, my three year old niece was visiting us for the first time since she was a year old and upon seeing me taking photos of her with my Olympus E-M1, she realized I was taking pictures and suddenly she came up very close to study the camera and then looked up and exclaimed, “Uncle Jeff, you sure have a funny looking camera!” Upon closer examination of the camera she asked, “Why does it have so many buttons?” So, there’s the new generation of ‘smart-device’ kids who figure that if it’s taking pictures, it’s a phone. or maybe an iPad. Either way, they have a unique idea of what a user interface requires and of its capabilities.

— comment by Jeffrey McPheeters on August 18th, 2015 at 10:35am JST (1 year, 9 months ago) comment permalink

As mentioned in the first post above, the trash can vs. filing cabinet thing is a delete vs. “archive” function. I don’t remember if it’s only with GMail or with other mail accounts, as well; I think it was introduced in iOS 6 or 7, because prior to that I never had to fiddle with the settings.

By default, it’s in “archive” mode. To change it, you go to Settings > Mail > (tap your account) > Account > Advanced > then find “Move discarded messages into” and switch it from Archive Mailbox to Deleted Mailbox. Not only is it a fair number of taps, but you’ll need to do that for each mail account on each device (if you have multiple iOS devices).

Otherwise, your experience at the Apple store isn’t particualrly new. I like to go to the Apple stores and occasionally chat with the Geniuses, but most of them don’t know the technical details like I (we) do. Sometimes they give information that is flat-out wrong.

And for enthusiasm, I guess it’s like any other job. I’ve been through three Apple Watch fittings (one for myself, two for family), and two out of the three Geniuses were truly enthusiastic and helpful. One of them, though, seemed totally disinterested and unenthusiastic. Maybe they weren’t a Watch fan, or maybe they were just having a bad day, but I was surprised… the Watch is one of Apple’s less “technical” products (the technology is neat, but a watch is a more accessible product to most people than a daunting computer), and it was brand new. The other Geniuses seemed thrilled to show it off and go through all of the bands, yet this other one had no passion. But it’s retail; go figure that not everyone is a die-hard fan of what they’re selling.

I hope the experience didn’t mar Ann’s enjoyment of her new iPad too much. I loved your descriptions of how it made her so happy.

— comment by David K. on August 18th, 2015 at 3:20pm JST (1 year, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Jeff was absolutely wonderful with me. The whole experience was great! I love my iPad! Never thought I would be in a position to say such a comment.


I bet you never thought you’d be in a position to submit any comment… but you apparently have figured it out! —Jeffrey

— comment by Ann on August 19th, 2015 at 3:40am JST (1 year, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Jeffrey (and Ann):

While I’m glad to hear things eventually worked out for you, unfortunately your experience is neither unique nor limited to Apple.

I remember, back in the 90s, the company for which I worked received new computer towers connected to a network run by the same company that supplied the hardware. We were told that at login we could either a) connect to the network, or b) use the (newfangled) CD-ROM drive, but not both. Every time someone logged in they had to choose between the two. Since both hardware and software were provided by the same company, this seemed a trifle odd to me. After finding the right person at technical support he explained that in the computer’s initialization files line x had to be BEFORE line y. That was it. If the position of these two lines was reversed, people would experience the challenges we were told we had to live with. I appreciated his response, but wondered why those who did the installation didn’t know this.

I also remember an issue with Paradox (database program) – around version 4 or so. I installed it and it didn’t work. I had to call California from Ontario (Canada) to talk to technical support and waited on hold for about 45 minutes. I was glad someone else was paying the phone bill. The tech support person suggested I reinstall it. The second tech support person (after another 45 minutes) suggested I uninstall and then reinstall it. The third tech support person said, “You have too many fonts installed. Delete some fonts and it will be fine.” I did, and it was, but why didn’t the first two tech support people know that? Presumably they worked in the same office.

At the same time… people have called tech support because their computers didn’t work during a power outage, they were using the CD tray as a coffee cup holder (with predictable results), and because they tried to purchase something online by feeding their credit cards into the disk drive… Oh well.


— comment by Mike Nelson Pedde on August 20th, 2015 at 3:13pm JST (1 year, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I have been completely amazed that I cannot delete emails in batch from my iPhone. I can set all emails to “read”. I can select all emails, by checking one and then pressing Move. The phone then lets me place the 100s of messages into the trash folder and they disappear. Then, the next time I open the app, there are all the messages again. Totally irritating when one receives 100s of emails a day.

The best I’ve been able to figure out is that I can set the phone’s email app to delete messages from the phone after a couple of weeks. But, I’ve never been able to figure out how to batch delete messages.

— comment by Ken on August 21st, 2015 at 3:58am JST (1 year, 9 months ago) comment permalink
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