How will Today at Apple adapt to an era of social distancing?

Imagine this: you’re sitting among a few dozen friends and strangers to learn illustration techniques from your favorite artists. Everyone is sharing ideas and passing around iPads to start their own drawings. Crazy, right? In the span of just a few weeks, such a simple function of community has gone from commonplace to sounding absolutely utopian, like a story from a grandparent about the “good old days” that you just know is too good to be true.

What I’ve just described to you is Today at Apple, Apple’s series of creative sessions that were held every day at every Apple Store. So what’s a program designed to bring everyone together to do in an era where everyone is intentionally staying apart?

Late last week, Apple quietly added two new Today at Apple sessions to its lineup. Music Skills: Getting Started with Podcasting will teach you how to record and edit your first podcast with GarageBand. Photo Lab: Directing the Portrait shares techniques for taking striking black-and-white portraits. While both sessions were certainly in development long before the coronavirus pandemic was a thought in anyone’s mind, their appearance in the session catalog is one small positive sign that Apple intends to bring its creative sessions back someday.

An Evolving Plan

Even before Apple closed all of its stores outside Greater China in March, Today at Apple had been scaled back and temporarily suspended to help slow the spread of coronavirus. When stores reopen, it will probably be the last aspect of the experience to return. Apple’s first priority will be restoring critical functions like Genius Bar appointments and processing orders. Anything that crowds stores or creates an environment unsafe for public health will have to wait.

In Mainland China and Hong Kong, sessions have yet to return despite Apple Stores reopening nearly one month ago. If stores in the United States actually end up reopening by early May, it’s easy to imagine Today at Apple remaining absent until June or July.

At Apple’s four stores scattered across Taiwan and Macau, sessions have soldiered on almost uninterrupted. The new portrait and podcasting sessions are scheduled to begin on April 10. At the same time, Apple has trimmed well over a dozen events from its collection. Absent are the popular Capturing Light and Shadow Photo Walk and the App Lab that taught the fundamentals of prototyping and UX design.

The Today at Apple calendar is constantly evolving and these sessions may have been cut regardless of the global situation, but it’s worth considering that there may be types of events no longer appropriate in a transformed world. Much like crowded stadiums and packed dining rooms, exclusive performances that fill flagship stores to capacity would not only feel tone-deaf at the moment, but downright dangerous.

A New Normal

“Our stores are the best place for a celebration,” Apple’s SVP of Retail + People Deirdre O’Brien has said. But when it’s safe to go out again, will people want to celebrate? Social norms won’t return overnight. Today at Apple will have to evolve to make customers feel comfortable congregating in an environment that may initially seem clinical.

The most obvious way to promote safety in sessions is to reduce capacity. Apple began removing Forum seating in stores prior to closing as a form of social distancing, and the practice will have to continue for the foreseeable future. Store teams can also artificially limit attendance by capping the maximum number of participants in a session. When customers attempt to sign up online, the session will look “full.”

Sessions are also the best way to get hands-on time with the latest iPads and iPhones before you buy. These demo devices will need comprehensive sterilization between sessions. It’s no longer enough to just wipe off fingerprints.

Most importantly, these measures need to be clearly expressed to customers both online and in-store. It’s not glamorous or fun to talk about, but it’s necessary. Coronavirus emails penned by everyone from your local diner to the web service you used once five years ago “closely monitoring the situation” have become an overnight trope on Twitter, but for face-to-face events, the peace of mind is truly appreciated.

Virtual Challenge

Until some sense of normalcy returns, Today at Apple could just move online, right? While there are certainly interesting opportunities for online learning, the situation is deeply nuanced.

A major part of what makes Today at Apple a success is how it enables spontaneous collaboration. “We think the reason why they’re so popular is you can’t do them on the internet,” Apple Senior Director Karl Heiselman once noted about Walks sessions.

Watching a YouTube video on iPhone photography techniques or checking out the iOS Tips app to learn more about your device isn’t an analog. Today at Apple online would need to be truly collaborative to inspire the same creativity. Ideas need to flow in both directions, discussions must happen in real-time, and content needs to be tailored to a virtual format. That’s part of what makes it so challenging to just flip a switch overnight and take in-store sessions online.

There’s no doubt that coronavirus will change how Apple Stores operate forever. But with every change comes an opportunity to make something greater, and now Apple has the opportunity to take stock of its strengths and reimagine them to serve a changing world.

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Avatar for Michael Steeber Michael Steeber

I’m a Creative Editor passionate about Apple Retail and design. My stories highlight the work of talented artists, designers, and customers through a unique lens of architecture, creativity, and community.

Twitter: @MichaelSteeber