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  • Alexa Sigman

Pandemic Challenges Call for Restyling Apple AirPods

Emotional experiences strongly influence the decisions consumers make in everyday life. The emotions that users feel toward a product are subjective, shaped by our environment, and can enhance or hinder a product experience (Felbermayr & Nanopoulos, 2016; How You Can Overcome These 3 Types of User Friction, n.d.). When a user has difficulties with a product, they experience friction, and using a product in a situation that is not ideal may result in what is called emotional friction. Emotional friction involves any obstacles that make it difficult to use or choose a product (Ash et al., 2018). As the consumer environment changes, products must also evolve to avoid any potential emotional friction. In order to make appropriate adjustments, brands must learn and match the needs of the users.

Apple is famously known for having a consumer-centric approach ingrained into their product experiences. Apple AirPods (and wireless earbuds) experienced a major growth in popularity since their launch–in four years increasing sales to more than 100 million units (Apple Statistics (2021), 2021). Success may be attributed to how the AirPods resolved friction that users experienced when old earbuds were no longer compatible with new phone models–for example, needing to have an adapter if you wanted to listen to music–and addressed the struggle of tangled wires (Amorim, 2017). These updates show Apple’s commitment to continuously improving their structure and quality to meet the needs in the consumer’s current climate.

It is evident that within the past couple of years our environment has changed significantly with the Covid-19 pandemic. Every single person had some component of their life disrupted, resulting in attempts at contactless tasks, numerous video calls, and mask mandates. With these changes, Apple’s development team had to be creative to eliminate user friction while designing their next generation of the AirPods by addressing three major issues: mask interference, picking up external noise, and the difficulties with hands free.

The Mask vs. Music Battle

When mask wearing started becoming a regular part of people’s routines, it caused new annoyances that didn’t exist when the AirPods were originally designed. AirPods constantly were clattering to the ground with any adjustment to the mask ear strap. The stem of the AirPod could easily get caught and pull the AirPod out of one’s ear, increasing user frustration while using the product, and obviously hindering the ability to listen to music or calls as intended. Aware of this struggle with the product design, Apple took action. The design of the product changed by shortening the stem to avoid the dreaded battle between mask and music (Introducing the next generation of AirPods, n.d.; Notopoulos, 2021). Making the AirPods more accommodating for masks created a simpler, uninterrupted path of using AirPods without the emotional friction of the AirPods falling out.

Crystal Clear Connections

Being distanced from family, friends, and coworkers enhanced the need to communicate and connect with others in virtual ways. Many people began taking calls through their AirPods while masked or taking breaks from the indoors by walking outside. Just sitting outside under a tree on a nice day, the AirPods would pick up noise from the surrounding environment. Factors like the wind made it challenging to understand anything being shared through the headphones. Communicating is a fundamental purpose in Apple products; therefore, situations where it is hard to listen or speak irritates both parties on the call. Understanding the emotional friction–the stress and frustration caused by background noise–Apple made adjustments to their microphones and speakers to increase the quality of the phone calls and ease the concerns about misunderstandings (Introducing the next generation of AirPods, n.d.).

Don’t Touch This!

The concerns about spreading germs moved to the forefront of consumers’ minds during the pandemic. People are increasingly trying to avoid cross-contamination or unnecessarily touching anything that goes close to our faces. However, using phones to make calls, text, or listen to music requires contact. Therefore, using a phone which touches a lot of surfaces became a source of conflict and fear among Apple users. Acknowledging the shift in priorities included consumers wanting to avoid getting sick however possible; thus, Apple again made adjustments to their AirPod designs to be more hands-off. The contactless “Hey Siri” feature–which allows people to perform actions on their phones through verbal commands–was improved to work more effectively through the AirPods (Introducing the next generation of AirPods, n.d.). By eliminating extra noise the microphone picks up, users can more clearly communicate commands through Siri rather than picking up their device to manually address what they want to do. Both current and potential AirPod users can appreciate the benefits of eliminating unnecessary contact, making a more seamless experience for the user. Potential users can see the benefit from the new feature that is designed to make their everyday life easier and recognize the value in touchless applications.

Next Generations

With the current climate of the world, companies are looking to better connect with the consumer so the company can make products that better fit into consumer lifestyles. An important way to address current needs is to understand how and why current products in the market frustrate users. The emotions that a customer experiences and shares influence their buying behavior while also encouraging innovations and advancements companies can make to their products. If a product does not live up to a user's expectations, it has a higher likelihood of failure in the market, even if it works fine from a functional standpoint. What really is important for product and company success is to account for the changing atmosphere and the consumer perception, allowing appropriate insights to be used and incorporated into future models, or as Apple would say, for “generations” to come.


Ash, J., Anderson, B., Gordon, R., & Langley, P. (2018). Digital interface design and power:

Friction, threshold, transition. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 36(6),1136-1153.

Amorim, M. M. R. P. D. (2017). Hedonic and utilitarian attitudes towards technology and

innovation: purchase Intentions of Audio Devices: the AirPods Case (Doctoral dissertation).

Apple Statistics (2021). (2021, October 29). Business of Apps. Retrieved January 7, 2022, from , Introducing the next generation of AirPods. (n.d.). Apple Newsroom. Retrieved January 5, 2022, from airpods/

Felbermayr, A., & Nanopoulos, A. (2016). The role of emotions for the perceived usefulness in

online customer reviews. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 36, 60-76.

How you can overcome these 3 types of user friction. (n.d.). Retrieved January 5, 2022, from

Notopoulos, K. (2021, October 25). Apple AirPods 3 Review: Great For Wearing With A Face

Mask. BuzzFeed News. Retrieved January 5, 2022, from



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