Apple & Google: How Creepy is THAT?

"It's not illegal. It's creepy, but it's not illegal." -- Lori Klockau

What makes a product creepy? How do customers feel about Internet services versus things they can touch and hold?  I want to explore the creepy factor.


When you walk into an Apple retail store, you're confronted by several intentional effects. First, there's the decor. The hardwood tables speak to class, but also a bit of home. This is a nice place to be.

Next, there are people, often crammed in there, shoulder to shoulder. Apple likes to keep its stores just big enough to carry stock, but not so big that they look empty, abandoned. And it keeps the rent down. The families and kids in an Apple retail store on any day, but especially on a Saturday morning, speak volumes about not just the makeup of the audience, but how each person feels amidst that crowd.

Finally, there's the hardware. The iPads, iPhones, iPods and Macs are Jonathan Ive works of art. They're fun to hold and handle. The tactile feel is both comforting and exciting.

This kind of environment is very low on the creepy scale. Holding a piece of hardware in your hand that plays music, takes photos, and connects you to your family with FaceTime has a very low creepiness factor. You feel, see and hear see what you get, and it pleases you.

As I wrote previously, the Apple dream ships when the product ships.

The Creepy Factor

What's creepy is when we don't know what's going on. As we know, it's the basis for any horror movie. The delightful husband and wife, with their two charming daughters, get a bargain, buy an old house in the country, not knowing that it's haunted by a killer spirit. We know what they're in for, but they are blissfully ignorant of the horrors in store for them. Creepy in spades.

That's what it's like with software services. There's the public face of any software service, but the delightful thing for the developer is that all manner of sneaky stuff can go on behind the scenes. Your activities can be monitored, silently, and reported. Of course, the sly, implicit bargain we make with the developer is this: you give it to us for free and we won't worry too much about what goes on behind the scenes. Except, mostly, we feel creeped out.

Wanna buy a house? What a deal. Cheap. Maybe free?

Another problem with services is that they exist only on the Internet, ephemeral ghosts of light and image. We all know that the Internet is a dangerous place, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. We keep our guard up whenever we engage in services, not knowing if we've been infiltrated or hacked. You can be offering the gift of eternal life for a small fee, but if you're doing it in a slimy spaceport cantina, you may not do much business.

If the laws and culture agreed on certain standards, then the creepy factor would go away. It would be like gossip. You know that when you gossip to certain friends in the office, they'll pass the word around. You just know. It's not creepy because you absolutely know what to expect.

Lack of knowledge of what's really going on is essentially the creepy factor. Also, when a product, like Google Glass, challenges our values instead of reinforces our values, we tend to label it creepy. We use our personal values, which often vary widely, to interpret how creepy something new really is when it challenges our values. But that's another discussion.

I think one of the things Apple works very hard at is developing that sense of communication between the physicality of the device and the customer. By that I mean the hardware design and its integrated software are designed to telegraph to the customer a comforting message: I'm hardware, with disciplined software, and I'm here to serve you. I celebrate your values. Other companies also do that well. Cross pens, Bang and Olufsen, Norelco, BMW, Sony, just to name a few.

Just What Gets Replicated?

Android smartphones look and feel just like the iPhone, but that's the whole point of imitation. The idea is to make the customer believe that the imitator's device is a faithful (but superficial) replica. Apple's goal, however, is to use its vision and Apple legacy and industrial design and even the technical aspects of the display optics to communicate something subtle, inspiring, subconscious. In other words, deliver a non-existent creepy factor.

You may not agree with it, but that's why Apple places such severe control on iOS apps during the approval process. Without that policing of the behavior of the apps, all the effort to communicate a low creepy factor message in the hardware design is lost. Down the drain.

You may also not agree with the simplicity of iOS settings compared to Android. Extensive settings suggest confusion and yet more hidden complexity. Did I do that right? Do I understand the interactions? A simpler set of settings, while not so geeky, allows the user to avoid confusion, worry -- and in a sense -- a certain feeling about the creepiness of the device. Instead, in iOS, everything is relatively simple and upfront.


It's a fine art that we often overlook, and Apple is very, very good at it. Hundreds of millions of Apple customers appreciate all this, and there's absolutely no reason for Apple to change. That's the dream Apple shares with us.