Apple’s “Planned Obsolescence” Fiasco: When Good UX Goes Bad & How to Fix It

By now many of you have heard about Apple’s recently disclosed practice of slowing down or shutting off iPhone devices through software updates. And like many of you, I’ve been burned by this practice to the cost of several hundred dollars (more on that later).

I thought I’d briefly examine this issue from a user-experience design perspective to shed some light on a few critical factors:

  1. Determine how a potentially beneficial idea was horribly mis-handled leading to confusion, frustration, and a loss of confidence in the brand.
  2. Outline some possible consequences for Apple in the marketplace, both in the short and long terms.
  3. Include a simple, yet comprehensive, fix that can restore the user-experience that Apple wants to protect.

Killing the User-Experience: Secrecy and Restricted Choice

First, a quick bit of context. The discovered “obsolescence” software feature isn’t really as nefarious as it first seems. In short, what Apple has done is include some code in iOS updates that slows down or abruptly turns off an iPhone (models 6 and later) if the battery is not performing well due to age or adverse conditions (i.e. the phone gets too cold/hot/etc.). This feature, according to Apple, is in place to protect the device’s hardware from damage and the overall user-experience from degraded performance. It’s not a matter of your phone just dying when a new one comes out, instead it’s designed to be a safeguard against your aging battery damaging your device’s hardware. While this safeguard isn’t the sexiest feature on a phone, it should very easily be viewed as a beneficial feature that protects your technology investment … but something went very wrong.

“Our goal is to deliver the best experience for customers, which includes overall performance and prolonging the life of their devices,” Tara Hendela, Apple spokesperson.

If you want to find the root of this issue, it all boils down to a single factor: secrecy. I’ve been an enthusiastic Apple-user for the past 15 years, and up until now I’ve been very happy. However, last summer my iPhone 6 started to switch off for no apparent reason. After several rounds of callibration and phoning Apple customer service, I found myself in an Apple Store being told that battery failures of this type were fairly common and that the phone would have to be replaced. I asked if I could replace the battery instead, and while that was possible, I was told point-blank that 9 times out of 10 the less costly battery replacement wouldn’t solve the problem. So, instead of being out $100 for a replacement battery, I paid nearly $500 for a replacement device. I figured this was just a run of bad luck and that these things happen.

A year has gone by, and the revelation of this “hardware saving” software feature has a lot of people (including me) wondering if we’ve been taken advantage of. By keeping this feature secret until now, Apple has opened up the possibility of consumers having their options artificially narrowed for whatever ends the company sees fit, with little-to-no recourse for the end user. This fact alone is enough to make people uneasy, but pair the contrast of this secrecy with Apple’s brand image of open creativity and you have a contrast that is very difficult to reconcile. In the absence of an open and honest user-experience, Apple has left the door open to speculation, doubt, and confusion that damages the very experience they sought to protect. Before visiting the Apple Store to solve my iPhone-related problem, I scoured online resources and called Apple Support to find an answer; not only did it seem that a lot of people were having the same type of problem I was, nobody seemed to know what was actually going on or how to fix it. Pair this public confusion with a lack of co-ordination between Apple’s online resources, phone support, and retail stores regarding this issue and you get a lot of angry, frustrated people; you’ve essentially left paying customers in the dark with a Hobson’s choice of either paying steep costs to replace the phone, or be left with an unreliable device. All of these issues could have been simplified (if not outright solved) by simply telling the public what had been done to the software on their iPhones, how it protected their devices, and how the feature could be used to their benefit.

While Apple provided a solution to battery-related issues on its iPhones, unnecessary secrecy turned a potentially good solution into a conspiracy to sell more devices in the eyes of many angry users.

A surefire way to get people to resent you is to force them to do something, or even worse, give the impression of having tricked them into doing something. The frustration experienced by many iPhone owners, and late disclosure of what potentially caused it, begs several questions: Why did Apple keep this software feature a secret? If it was to protect the overall user-experience for iPhone users, why weren’t users told about it in a timely manner or given a way to interact with it? In the absence of satisfying answers, consumers have been left to use their imaginations, and they’re getting very angry. Additionally, Apple is a victim of their own past successes and market leadership position; when you have a consistently high user-experience, users feel any deviation from that standard far more acutely than they would otherwise. In short, Apple needs to move quickly and decisively to address these issues before the damage gets any worse.

The Market Consequences of Terrible UX: Lawsuits, A Damaged Brand, and Emboldened Competitors

The fallout from the discovery of this feature has both short and long term consequences. While Apple is currently facing an array of class-action lawsuits and hefty potential fines regarding this issue, the main concern is the substantial consumer backlash. Many cynics will point out that most of this will be forgotten by the public with Apple’s next product release (and maybe they’re right in the short-term), there is a significant chance that this can have additional knock-on effects in the marketplace.

If you’ve ever been in a marketing class, you’ll have seen some version of “The Law of Diffusion of Innovations”; quite simply, it’s how products and ideas spread throughout the marketplace by appealing to different types of consumers.

By winning passionate “early adopters” with a great user-experience, an organization can move into the mainstream market propelled by the advocacy of those forward-thinkers.

While current versions of the iPhone line are safely adopted by the “Early Majority” and “Late Majority” segments (so you probably won’t see much of a drop in short-term sales), the real issue Apple needs to watch for is a loss of faith amongst the “early adopters” that take the plunge on future products. These are the people that take the initial risk of spending hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to be the first to use a product, and they also act as brand advocates for later market segments that need reassurance before they take the plunge. Early adopters are typically “emotional thinkers” that are very concerned about why a company or organization does something (i.e. its mission or purpose), and take everything an organization does (good or bad) to heart; when this group is disappointed in a product or brand, it typically fails to reach/maintain mainstream adoption. For the first time in decades, many “early-adopter” customers like me all around the world have a reason to doubt Apple’s mission, their intentions, and willingness to do the right thing for the people that support them. Many of us feel we were railroaded into buying replacement iPhones, and this will potentially devastate Apple’s fortunes in the long-run unless something significant is done to correct their mistake.

An additional concern is that competitors hungry for Apple’s market share aren’t going to let this go easily. For example, with Samsung still bruised by the battery issues that plagued their Galaxy 7 series of mobile devices, they’re going to be looking out for any opportunity they can to undermine Apple’s position in the marketplace. By giving customers a reason to doubt their intentions, Apple has also given their competitors an opening to exploit by winning over potentially disillusioned “early-adopters” (check out an example of this below). While this is another long-term problem, and short-term sales probably won’t be drastically affected, it can easily contribute to a snow-balling of issues in Apple’s future that could amount to something very serious.

Samsung has taken to attacking Apple’s “early adopter” market segment in order to win away future brand advocates, potentially shifting market sentiment in a big way for years to come.

Reclaiming a Great User-Experience: Transparency & Agency

By keeping the battery-related software feature a secret (mistakenly or otherwise), Apple has given that impression to customers that feel they’ve been tricked into replacing/upgrading their phones. Luckily, fixing this issue and restoring consumer confidence isn’t impossible, but it will test Apple’s commitment to providing an excellent user-experience.

Since battery performance problems are a fairly common issue according to my own research, the first step is going to be in the iPhone software itself. Namely, if an iPhone detects a fault in its battery and then decides to slow/shut down, it should generate a simple warning that tells a user what is happening (either before shutdown, or after restart). Since an iPhone is essentially a miniaturized computer, being able to generate some kind of interactive element from system logs should be very feasible. By alerting a user about potential battery issues, it gives the power of agency back to that user to seek their own solution; this awareness and choice of action are critical to great user-experiences, and those great experiences create a powerfully positive brand that “early adopters” (and later “majority” markets) can get behind.

A simple alert, delivered when the iPhone detects a problem with the battery, is all it would take to keep customers informed and give them options for moving forward. It certainly beats being sued.

The second step is going to be providing the knowledge base and logistical support necessary to make sure that consumers can act on what their devices have told them. With something as critical as battery life or performance, users are going to want consistent answers to their questions quickly and easily. This is going to be where the bulk of the challenge is going to lie as Apple will need to co-ordinate its knowledge base between online resources, phone support, and retail store associates to provide a seamlessly consistent experience. This was were my experience with iPhone battery problems fell apart; I got different answers depending on which customer support touch point I was dealing with, which led to confusion and an ill-informed decision to replace my phone. It’s all too easy to see this lack of co-ordination as an underhanded attempt to up-sell more iPhones. While, as a UX designer, I can calmly approach the process and recognize how and why it failed in this case, busy consumers are not going to have the same patience or understanding.

Many consumers of the latest iPhones are feeling cheated as a result of a lack of clear communication about the battery issues, and a lack of co-ordinated options for solving them.

The critical realization here is that users must never feel like they’ve been duped or left to fend for themselves at any point along the experience. If this chain of user-experience touch points breaks down at any point, the user’s experience is going to be left open to interpretation and doubt, and this volatile combination can lead to the type of consumer anger that Apple is currently struggling with.

The Bottom Line

Whether they admit it or not, Apple’s brand has been seriously damaged by the mis-handling of this “experience saving” software feature, but it’s not too late for them to turn this fiasco into a positive learning experience. Discounted replacement batteries aren’t going to be enough for customers that feel that they’ve been tricked into buying replacement phones; the solution lies in showing the public that they’ve learned from their mistake, and taking decisive action to re-build the user-experience that so many feel has been violated in a very profound way.

By creating a way for consumers to be knowledgable enough to take action from their own devices, providing a knowledge base for both consumers and its own staff to provide the right solutions, and providing some recompense to those that have been burned by this series of events, Apple can restore confidence in its iPhone products to keep delighting the market with a great user-experiences for years to come.