If you’ve designed or built products at any medium to large sized company, you already know that creating a seamless user experience can be challenging. Various departments and product teams may be responsible for different aspect of the experience and often an organization’s internal structure will show through in the finished product, generally to the detriment of the user.

As I pointed out in a recent post about the BlackBerry Torch, the initial user experience has a significant impact on satisfaction and can often make or break your product. In the BlackBerry example, it was clear that a variety of stakeholders had negatively impacted that product’s out-of-the-box experience. But the Torch is a physical product. The purchase has already been made, so there’s the barrier of inconvenience that will keep some of your users from returning it. Mobile apps, on the other hand, have a much lower barrier. Your product is competing for the attention of a user with access to hundreds of thousands of applications. Mobile users are distracted and impatient. They need to see immediate value from your application or they will move on to the next one (and possibly leave you a bad review).

Case in point: Microsoft OneNote for iPhone

This week I downloaded Microsoft OneNote for iPhone. Back when I was a PC user, OneNote was one of my favorite applications, so I was excited to see it available for my device. While I haven’t had a lot of time to play with the app just yet, I can say that, like the BlackBerry Torch, the initial experience left a lot to be desired. Below is the step-by-step experience for a new user:

  1. Uh-oh. I need to create a Windows Live ID before I can start? I don’t have one of those.
  2. The app is “Syncing” for several seconds, but I haven’t got anything to sync since I have no account and no data. This should probably say “Loading” instead and should definitely be faster.
  3. Okay, I’m at the registration screen. It’s pretty hefty, but at least they are following some mobile forms best practices such as placing labels above inputs.

  4. And here’s the captcha. These are always a pain, but most especially on mobile devices. Both auto-correct and auto-capitalization should be suppressed here. The auto-correct on my phone is preventing me from entering the right characters, so it takes several tries and lots of auto-correct overrides and I also have to fix the capitalization.
  5. After finally getting the captcha right, I’m taken to a page that clearly hasn’t been optimized for mobile. This looks to be a standard Windows Live ID page. Because it was so small, I wasn’t able to read all the instruction text, so I assumed I needed to click the “Send Email” button to continue.
  6. Confirmation number 2. This time confirming that I confirmed that I wanted them to send me an email confirmation.
  7. I switch over to the Mail application to click on the link in the email Microsoft just sent. The link takes me to the page below. Happily, it’s formatted for my phone. Unhappily, it doesn’t do anything. I need to view the “PC Version” to confirm my address.

What went wrong?

Based on my own experiences designing software, I am going to theorize what I think happened here:

  • The OneNote for iPhone team wants to make a great application, but has a dependency on the Windows Live team for authentication.
  • Further, the team was probably told that they had to use Windows Live ID and not the simpler and more widely adopted Facebook Connect (even though Microsoft is an investor in Facebook).
  • The Windows Live team never optimized their registration flow for mobile phones. It’s not a high priority for them and neither is the OneNote for iPhone project.
  • In addition to being a low priority, the Windows Live team’s release cycle is different than OneNote for iPhone, therefore the problem will likely remain for some time to come.

The Result

Not many iPhone users have a Windows Live ID and, if they do, they probably don’t remember it which means they’ll need to sign up. Most will never make it through the sign up labyrinth, so they’ll never get a chance to use the app that the OneNote for iPhone team worked so hard to produce. The result is a poor user experience and bad reviews as you can see in this screen grab from the iTunes Store:

Creating a seamless user experience in a large organization is tough and I’m sure that the team at Microsoft is not happy about the initial experience of OneNote. That being said, if a mobile application is to succeed in today’s market product teams must overcome the organizational barriers to good user experience design or they risk investing in products that their intended customers will never use.