I’ve been called an Apple fanboy in the past, and its true, I am. In particular, I respect and enjoy Apple’s fantastic design and the way their products tend to provide a great user experience for their customers. However, myself and many others have been very disappointed with Apple Ping. Complaints have included limited artist coverage, lack of social features, poor integration into existing social networks, and the lack of a web front-end.

As well as these product-level complaints, I was surprised to see that Apple Ping fails on a number of fundamental areas of usability. Is this really the same Apple that brought us MacOS and the iPhone?

In this post, I’m going to go step by step through an important part of Ping’s Social UI, the user flow of responding to a “I want to follow you” request. I will highlight some usability issues, and suggest quick fixes. I’ve emboldened the most severe issues.

The fact that they weren’t caught in advance suggests to me that there was a lack of user testing and QA. Apple will be okay of course, I bet they are working on this right now. However a startup making similar mistakes would simply fail. Hence, this write-up so that others can learn from the UX mess that is Ping.

Onto the “I want to follow you” flow, let’s start with the initial email notification.

Step 1: Email Message

Although Apple Ping doesn’t provide a web front-end, it does forward follow requests to your email account (see screenshot below).

Critique and suggestions:

  • The visual design here is Apple’s signature grey. This combined with the minimal content means that the email comes across as bland and uninviting. I’d like to see at least a splash of colour, possibly a logo, along with some minimal background on what “following” entails. What is the key social feature which accepting this request enables? Sharing playlists or recommendations? Spell it out to help educate new users.
  • I’d encourage Apple to include a picture of the requester to add some of the  context which is typical in facebook and twitter invites. Its almost as if Apple is trying to suppress the “social” aspect of Ping (more on this later).
  • The main call to action is an uber-technical WebObjects link. A human-readable call to action link (e.g. “confirm”) is much easier to scan. The full URL can be included as an alternative down below in the small print.

Step 2: Launch Application Popup

Since the Apple Ping UI is in iTunes, the user must launch this separate application to view the request. The following screenshot shows the dialog box which appears on MacOS when you click the WebObjects link.


Critique and suggestions:

  • An important aspect of user experience is satisfaction and delight. Like the email, this web interstitial page is yawn-inducing. How about an Apple Ping logo? or some supportive text highlighting exactly what is happening? Why are we going to the iTunes store? Are we buying something? At a minimum this web page should mention Ping.
  • Generally such inter-app navigation (and dealing with corresponding security issues via dialog boxes like this) entails an awful, clunky user experience. It takes me back to Windows circa 1993. Fortunately, if the user clicks “Remember my choice for itms links”, they do not see this dialog again. To make this more likely to happen, Apple could draw more attention to the checkbox area by rewording it in terms of the use case at hand, “For future Apple Ping links …”. I also wonder if they could use a more meaningful “.itunes” extension instead of the abstract “.itms” (iTunes Music Store).
  • The dialog box default choice (iTunes) is highlighted in grey which is easy to miss. I’d like to see a clearer highlight.

Step 3: Sign in to access Ping

Each time I respond to one of these follower requests I need to sign in again to iTunes. Albeit annoying, this is a sensible precaution since your Account may include credit card information. There’s one great design element here, our first iTunes/Ping branding!

Critique and suggestions:

  • Repeat (albeit secure) logins are annoying to the user. I wonder if Apple could cache “Ping” logins (a la a website cookie) and only force a complete sign-in if the user is trying to spend some money in iTunes?
  • Apple Ping doesn’t seem to have its own logo, the blue icon is generic to iTunes. A specific Ping logo could be used to provide consistent branding from the email through the rest of the flow.

Step 4: Welcome to ping

Signing in to your Apple Account, takes you to the familiar environs of Apple iTunes.

Critique and suggestions:

  • I’m going to ignore for now the quality of the recommendations of “artists to follow”. Lets just say that 5 of the 6 don’t appear anywhere in my iTunes library and I would rate 3 as being “offensive to my taste”. Where is Apple getting these recommendations from?
  • Back onto the “Follower request” flow: where is the follow request? The user is forced to “hunt and peck” to locate it in the “PING” panel top right. Strong recommendation: the user should be taken directly to the functionality to accept or deny the follower request!

Step 5: Follow Requests

Clicking on the “Follow requests” label takes the user to a “Follow Requests” sub-tab of a Ping People page.

Critique and suggestions:

  • Focusing on the main task at hand, Apple seem to have done a good job, in that we can confirm or ignore the request.
  • My key UX critique on this page concerns how it fits into the overall iTunes IA. This page is effectively 4 levels down iTunes -> Ping -> People -> Follow requests. Standard IA practice is to include some navigational breadcrumbs. Here they are scattered around the UI (e.g. ping is in the top and left-hand navigation, and the panel itself is not branded Ping).
  • Its also not clear how to navigate from here to the rest of Ping’s functionality. Note the right-hand PING panel from Step 4 has disappeared. I’d like to keep this up for continuity and context.
  • Furthermore, look at where “Follow requests” and “People” appear in Step 4’s “PING” panel – as peer items. Apple Ping’s IA family tree needs some tightening up.

Step 6: Follow request confirmed

I’ll stop moaning about IA for a second, and approve the request (-:

Critique and suggestions:

  • Oh, Apple! Couldn’t you come up with something a bit more exciting than grey italics to reflect the completion of this action? Surely completing these 6 steps warrant something a bit more rewarding.
  • More seriously, what about follow-up calls to action? What have I earned from approving this follower request? Can I browse her Apple Ping page?
  • Apple is missing a key element of “Social” functionality here. How can I “follow” Maria back? I was expecting an easy way of doing this but there is none. Apple here are taking a Twitter approach, leaving it to the “newly followed”, to decide whether to return the favour and follow back. In contrast, Facebook friend invites are bidirectional relationships – if I friend someone, they by accepting my request implicitly friend me back. Its not clear to me that Apple has chosen the right model here, especially for invites between individuals.

Lets move on, assuming I want to follow her back.

Step 7: I want to follow back

I click on her name and am taken to her profile page.

Critique and suggestions:

  • There are several issues here. Primarily, there was more information about Maria on the “follow confirmation” page than on her actual profile, e.g. email address.
  • Also, all her profile activity is marked private since I’m not following her. This feels broken to me. I’d encourage Apple to experiment with a bidirectional follow model, especially between friends.

Step 8: Confirm request to follow

I click the “Follow” button, a popup appears.


Critique and suggestions:

  • The dialog is noting that Maria will be able to view my name, photo and email address. Minor nitpick: Maria can already see a bunch of this info since she’s already following me.
  • More significant suggestion: throughout all of this following interaction, I’m still not sure what following gives you. What functionality does it give me? I’d like Apple to spell it out. This is crucial for all new users of a social network, and not just those picking out usability do’s and don’ts.

Step 9: Confirm

I click the “Request” button on the dialog box.


Critique and suggestions:

  • Although its good there is some feedback – “Request sent” – this is another bland grey italic bit of feedback. I’d like some clear calls to action as to next steps … What about adding some more friends? What about adding some bands? Can I send Maria a message? (she’s following me after all). What do I do next? This page feels like a dead-end.

I decide I want to grow my network.

Step 10: Click on the People link in the “PING” panel

In the interests of getting some more followers, I click on People. Uh-oh … can you spot the issue?

Critique and suggestions:

  • The friend I’ve just sent a follow request to has a Follow button next to her! Instead, I would have expected a “Follow request sent” status. Did my request really get sent? It turned out that it had been, I clicked the “Follow” button to confirm, which refreshed as the “Request sent “ message I had originally expected. So its not a deep bug, but it is a UI bug the presence of which indicates to me that Apple have not done all the QA they perhaps could have. Google would have stuck a Beta label on Ping. But Apple doesn’t do that …

Summary

Many of these issues are not in themselves too serious, but added together they result in a clunky, amateur-ish interaction flow. I wonder how many users drop out along the way? I’d encourage Apple to fix some of these issues and track the associated conversion metrics. I suspect they’d see some dramatic improvements.

Most serious are the design issues which directly inhibit the growth of the Ping social network. For Ping to compete with the rich features and mature communities of last.fm, iLike, MOG and (dare I say) MySpace, Apple needs to take a careful look at the ease of interaction around social features. It needs to be as easy as possible to grow your social network. In terms of the following request flow, the most serious issues are:

  • Step 4: the lack of a targeted destination for responding to the follow request in the iTunes/Ping UI in Step 4
  • Step 6: lack of calls to action to explore Ping and grow social network after approving the follow request

After several years of doing systematic page-by-page UX audits at Google and more recently independently with startups, I continue to be surprised at the number of significant UI issues which can be caught with this time- and cost-efficient technique. If you’d like a UX audit for your own product please get in touch at r@richardboardman.com. If a design-obsessed company like Apple has this many issues with this small part of the Ping UI, how many issues does yours product have?