Manual Labor: Me and My iPhone

Shoppers feel empowered by knowing how to use items correctly, whether they are high-tech, such as an iPhone, or low-tech, such as ingredients at the local supermarket.

Ibought an iPhone. So far, it has proven to be one of the best technology decisions I’ve ever made, as I enjoy the highly intuitive interface that has linked seamlessly with my laptop and provided all sorts of services that my antiquated cell phone (which was all of two years old) simply didn’t offer. There’s only one word to describe my iPhone: “Cool.”

No, that’s wrong. I need three words: “Really, really cool.”

That’s not to say that it has been a completely smooth transition. It hasn’t, and that’s because of something that Apple didn’t provide—an instruction manual.

To be perfectly honest, even though I am an enormous fan of all things Apple, I was a little leery about being an early adopter, an attitude that proved to be wise when a couple of months after introducing the iPhone, Apple CEO Steve Jobs dropped the price by $200. I was also concerned about switching from Verizon to AT&T, which is what you have to do in order to use the iPhone.

But the stars seemed aligned correctly. The price had been lowered, and it was unlikely that it would be lowered again anytime soon. And, my Verizon contract was up, which meant that I could switch to AT&T without paying a penalty. So I took a deep breath, and I did it.

The biggest shock came when I opened the box and found the phone, some cords and an earphone. But no manual.

Now, in some ways, the iPhone doesn’t need one, because it is such an intuitive piece of equipment. Setting it up, synching it to my computer, transferring my cell-phone number from my old Verizon account, and setting up a new AT&T account—all that took about 20 minutes.

But there are things that do need to be explained, like where the on/off button is. (It isn’t as obvious as you would think.) Instead of providing a manual, Apple has videos and PDFs that can be downloaded off the Internet.

I suppose that makes sense in the new world order and also from an environmental point of view. I have to say though, if Apple wants to appeal to people outside its core-user market, I think an instruction manual would just make sense. It would be something I could throw into my bag to use as a reference when I need some help—it would be a kind of low-tech security blanket for a high-tech product.

There are, of course, manuals you can buy. I love the one written by David Pogue, the technology writer for The New York Times, which has as its subtitle, “The book that should have come in the box.” Talk about knowing your audience.

(Which leads me to a tangential point. Since many of Apple’s customers are going to be aging baby boomers, could they please put the serial numbers on the back of their various machines in a bigger font so we can actually read them? I’m getting tired of having to call my 13-year-old daughter to read numbers that I can’t even make out with a magnifying glass.)

My experience with the iPhone has gotten me thinking about the whole idea of instruction manuals and how much we sometimes take for granted about what consumers know. For example, I recently was on the West Coast and I was driving a car equipped with Sirius Satellite Radio. I don’t have satellite radio at home and I liked the idea of testing it out to see if it made sense to get it for our own cars. Did they have an instruction manual to explain how to use it and what all the various stations were? Nope. So I ended up listening to a couple of CDs I’d brought with me and the opportunity to convert me was lost.

(I blame this on Sirius, not Hertz, by the way, though I have another bone to pick with all the rental-car companies. I’ve always thought it would make sense to equip every car with a list of local radio stations, so that I’d know how to find news, classic rock or a sports station as I’m driving through town. It’d be a simple thing, but nobody does it. And that list of stations would be like an instruction manual for the radio, which isn’t much use if you don’t know what’s available. But again, I digress…)

Think about the food-retailing experience. How many customers come in the front door but really don’t know how to shop the whole store? I suspect there are many. They know the departments that they always patronize and they have their standard list of products from which they choose. But nobody really tells them about what the whole store has to offer, what products go with what other products and how to use them in an efficient and effective way. Some stores do a good job with this—I think immediately of Wegmans and Publix and I know there are others. But, in general, I think that the food industry assumes a lot about what its customers know, which doesn’t allow it to educate them in an aspirational way. Rather, many stores market to the lowest common denominator and then act surprised when the customer chooses a fast-food joint instead of the supermarket.

One company that seems to be doing a really good job of educating its customers is Amazon.com, which lately has been opening up theme “stores” online. The most recent was the “All Business Center,” which brings together business and office products in an environment that doesn’t just sell these items, but creates customer discussions about how they can be used. The same goes for Amazon’s “High Def Store,” which is a wonderful resource for anyone with a low-tech mentality looking to make a high-tech purchase—it answers virtually every question you could possibly ask.

Let’s bring it back to Apple, which has in every one of its retail stores a “Genius Bar” that is sort of the ultimate instruction manual. Couldn’t every store benefit from having a kind of genius bar to answer shoppers’ food-related questions? I’m guessing yes, mostly because I can’t imagine any store that wouldn’t be better for providing this service.

It is about being more than a source of product. It is about being a resource for the customer. And I think that’s the difference between success and mediocrity in 21st-century retailing.

Kevin Coupe is the founder and “Content Guy” of MorningNewsBeat.com, Darien, Conn., kc@morningnewsbeat.com.