Apple Campus vs. Microsoft Campus: One Visitor's UI Review

I had the fortune of being able to visit both Microsoft's Redmond Campus and Apple's Cupertino's offices within the same week. So, I thought I'd do a little comparison as to how a visitor perceives and experiences the respective headquarters. Both campuses have those generic looking tech worker buildings with large mirrored glass faces and grey/beige walls. But both have vastly different signage, transportation systems and designs. Take this for what you will, and if you want, draw comparisons between company philosophies and geography. But before we get started, I gotta say that I honestly got lost at Microsoft. For an hour.

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Before we start, know that this is not all Microsoft's fault. I gave the cabbie the wrong address at one point, and this was my first time on campus. Had I arrived on schedule, the night before, I could have gotten a lift by Microsoft shuttle to my final destination, too. Also, Microsoft's beautiful Redmond HQ is gorgeous and sprawling and a testament to the company's size and power, so it is also a lot more territory to cover. And the people? They were so nice and ultimately the key to me finding my path again. But there are a few things I know they could do a lot better. I got lost on my own accord, but finding my way back to the right place was a user experience nightmare.

The driver who took me from the airport dropped me off at building 32 instead of 99. That was my error. Getting back on course was really hard, though. When I got to building 32, I was confronted with a few very confusing things. First of all the road signs for each building are very, very small. And each building itself is only labelled by a building number and street address which are impossible to read from a car. Too small, and low contrast to the windows.

I got to the door and it was labelled push/pull. Confused? Actually, the signs were both in etched glass, and even though one was reversed and on the other side, my brain read both and farted before I tried both ways and got inside.

The receptionist called my contact person and had me sign in. I left out my contact person's name on the sheet and she made me fill it out again. Fine. Then I heard the guy next to me signing in with the second receptionist. (Yes, two at one station.) He registered yesterday, but the lady said the system wipes all visitor records after a day. He had to fill out his form a second time. Dumb.

Just then, an alarm went off. Instead of a normal hall, this particular building had pretty blue gates, as in a modern subway. One person went in right after another without swiping his own badge, and the whole place sounded like a bomb shelter.

Next thing I realise is that I'm at the wrong building. That's my fault. So I talk to the receptionist and she says a shuttle number 755 should be coming to drive me over. And makes me do a sign out. I get outside, and the bus comes. And drives right by me and one other Microsofty trying to get a ride.

Turns out the geeky developer who missed the bus happened to be going to the same place. She was late too. "Look, if I don't get some help, I am going to get lost again. Mind if I just follow you?"

Five minutes later, we caught the next shuttle, and made a path through campus. But honestly, every building looked the same and the roads were winding through these beautifully manicured gardens with tall pine trees. The signs to buildings on the side of the road are small and the signs on the buildings themselves are white font on mirrored/glass windows. And small so you can't read them from a car on the curb. If the developer didn't tell me where to get off, I'd have been lost.

But one hour from my initial drop off, I got to the right building. And when I got to the Conference Centre I went into the front door and asked to register at Techfest 2008 as a member of the press.

Then the receptionist here told me I had to go outside, take a right turn and go to the doors on the side of the building. The first two doors were locked, but the third opened.

I guess it was my lucky day.

Two days later, I found myself at Apple's Cupertino Campus. Now, I've been here, before, but I've also never been lost. Why? Four reasons: The signs are frigging huge for each of the buildings, and the parking lot is always right next to whatever building you are trying to get to, there's always a person to direct you around to the right place, and most obviously, Apple Campus is built on a ring (hence the name Infinite Loop). If you get lost on a ring, you are an idiot.

Now this might come as a bit of unfair bashing, but this was just one person's experience. It's not meant to be anything but that. If you're going to draw any conclusions, look at the photos and the maps from Redmond and Cupertino and come up with your own.

UPDATE: Apple's campus extends beyond the infinite loop campus, and is expanding, so its not going to be that easy to get around in the future. Again, this isn't supposed to be science. Read the headline.

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