15 December 2010

Today, Taptivate released a new iPhone app called Friends. From the description summary, it looks like the app promises to solve the problem of keeping up with your friends’ status updates, photos, blogs, etc. But in just few minutes I’ve had to play around with it, I’ve discovered it falls well short of delivering on that promise.

I don’t make a habit of being vocal about my negative opinions, and I don’t often criticize other people’s (hard) work. I play a lead role in a hobbyist software company, and I understand the difficulties in designing and developing an iOS app. So please just consider this a tempered tangent. I hope my thoughts are as much constructive as they are critical.

Really, this Friends app is a mess. It’s a good case study in how a great idea requires great execution in order for it to be realized – ideas don’t stand on their own. It’s also an example of how great graphic design cannot compensate for poor interface design.

Where do I begin? Let’s start with the default screen – which is called “home”, I believe:

Friends home screen

Putting aside the fact that the aesthetic of this screen suggests the app is designed more for utility than relationship and/or entertainment, there’s so much wrong here.

First, there are no indicators to let me know if or what is new or updated. In fact, the only indicator on this screen at all is just a count indicator in the Contacts row, the purpose of which is … so I know how many contacts I have? Okay, thanks. I guess.

If Friends is supposed to help keep me in touch with my friends, it’s off to a bad start by requiring me to take action by tapping a – well, what are these rows? Categories? Beside the icons (which are another matter entirely), there are no visual cues to tell me what to do or where to go. The labels themselves offer little help in deciphering the organization of the app, particularly because the relationship between labels isn’t entirely clear. The only sense of organization or hierarchy is found in the separation of the top table – of groupings? – and the bottom one.

Core problem #1: The app requires a question (“where do I go?/what do I do?”), answer (“I think I want to see what’s new”), and solution (after searching, “I guess I tap Posts”) from the user on its home screen.

So, most people will spend the bulk of their time on the “Posts” screen, which you get to by tapping the Posts row.

Friends posts screen

There are some technical issues with this screen – in relationship to the app refreshing and organizing new status updates or tweets when you’re trying to scroll, making it so you lose your place. I won’t go beyond mentioning them, as they’ll likely be something addressed in updates. Besides, the Posts screen is annoying all by itself, even without the technical issues.

Friends is about friends, so I get that there are no indicators of which service (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) the “post” came from. The goal, I believe, is to downplay the service and focus on the relationship. Okay, fine. But why then is the design a traditional timeline that doesn’t give priority to the user icons and names? And why, on subsequent screens – such as the “Conversation”/”Comments” screen – am I allowed to comment or reply to Facebook status updates but not tweets? And why are the labels and icons different based on which service? Functions might be different between services, but there must be a way to reconcile them in a way that doesn’t restrict user interaction.

Core problem #2: The app can’t make up its mind. Is it about relationships and friends? Great, then do as much as possible to make service-related functions invisible. Is it about aggregating all the services in one place? Fine, then do so in a clear way so the user knows exactly what is what, where it came from, and how to interact with it.

But maybe instead of a status app, Friends was more designed to be a contacts manager. Let’s take a look at the Contacts screen:

Friends contacts screen

The Contacts screen is pretty standard, with a photo of the contact next to their name, and a balloon icon next to contacts with a birthday coming up (yellow for within 30 days, red for within two weeks), a nice touch. Unfortunately, contacts are ordered by last name (with no setting to change that), and the photos are really slow to load, even after they’ve previously been loaded. (There’s also some bugs on this screen that cause contacts to appear and disappear randomly.)

Tapping on a contact reveals a unified information screen for that contact. Tabs on the right-hand side of the screen reveal the contact’s posts (from any/all services), their contact info (on your iOS device), Twitter profile, Facebook profile, LinkedIn profile, or MySpace profile.

Friends contact screen

I found this unified information screen to share the same problems as the Posts screen in terms lacking a defined goal. It’s neither a great interaction tool nor a utility for managing contact information. Going a step further, simple interactions are either hidden or confusing – or worse yet, unavailable. For example, there’s no way to text (SMS) a contact from within the app, though if you tap on their number it will immediately call them (on an iPhone). I accidentally dialed three contacts before learning my lesson.

Core problem #3: It’s actually more confusing (and potentially frustrating) to use Friends to contact a friend or manage their information than it is using dedicated apps such as Contacts, Messages, Twitter, and Facebook.

There are also an unusual amount of UI inconsistencies and technical issues throughout the app. Some random, miscellaneous examples I found:

That’s not to mention the crashes – three so far.

Like I said, this app is a mess. It’s really a shame, too, because the idea is such a great one. A platform-independent way to connect with and interact with your friends is a wonderful concept, and something that’s not built-in to the iPhone or iOS, as it is with the Windows Phone 7.

Taptivate did some things right, and they should get credit for that. There are some nice graphic touches and polishes that would be great to see in other apps like Twitter or Facebook.

Every issue I have with Friends boils down to this: Friends doesn’t solve any problems for me. If anything, it creates them.