Shortly after my post about TrialPad (which spawned the most comments on a single post for this blog) the developer of competing app, Exhibit A (iTunes link), forwarded me a promo code to give it a try. While I originally intended to write a “review” type post, this became more of a critique about app interface design. I’m no UX expert, but I know what I like and I know when an app has me confused. Though Exhibit A succeeds in it’s core function of allowing presentation and annotation of multiple file types, I found the app’s interface frustratingly difficult to use.
Exhibit A organizes groups of exhibits into “Projects” denoted by briefcases that can hold PDF, jpg and video. Files can be imported via email, Dropbox, through iTunes, by mounting the app as a wireless USB drive or by FTP (this last option seems quite odd to me as I can’t think of any lawyer I’ve met in my 14 years of practice that manages files with FTP, but perhaps I’m behind the times).
While all these import options are nice, I couldn’t find a way to import directly into the project of my choice. Rather, imports all land in the “Imports” project. From there, the user can copy them into specific project folders. Moving files into projects is far from intuitive, however. When visiting an empty project, the user is prompted “to add an exhibit or folder, tap either button in the toolbar below.”
But instead of the typical icons for such actions one might expect, the user is met with six somewhat confusingly labeled buttons (spoiler: the button you want is Imports, not Files). I always thought “either” meant two but in any case, why wouldn’t the instructions simply say “To add an exhibit or folder, tap the Imports button.” Or perhaps highlight the button I’m supposed to tap? More to the point, why can’t I import directly to a Project?
Case navigation also has quirks. When looking at a project on screen, there is no indication that the app contains multiple projects other than dots toward the bottom of the screen. While these dots match how multiple screens full of apps are navigated in iOS, I don’t think they translate as well to the page or project metaphor.
Compare switching between documents in an app like Penultimate (shown below) or any of the Apple apps like Pages, Numbers or Keynote. When focused on one document, the edges of other nearby documents (with contextually appropriate thumbnails) are visible giving the user a clue as to where other projects are and how to get to them. Exhibit A offers the user no such contextual clues which often left me hunting for my other projects and swiping about aimlessly. I frequently felt lost navigating the app until I had an “oh yeah” moment.
Similarly, I found disorienting the Project icon of an open briefcase that appears to be full of photos, videos and PDF. This icon is static regardless of what is inside the actual project. Empty Projects represented by a full briefcase? Completely different projects represented by the same full briefcase? (Note: I had the same criticism of Penultimate during its early iterations when the face of each notebook was identical. This went away when Penultimate was updated to allow the user to customize the cover of a notebook with a title.)
Gestures in the app led to similar frustrations. If you swipe to move to a new Project but accidentally start your swipe touching the project briefcase, the swipe is read as a tap to enter the project. This is made more confusing because the resulting animation looks like you have successfully moved over to the next project (a sliding pane) but instead you have entered a project (also a sliding pane). Again compare how Penultimate or Pages zooms in to a selected project rather than sliding into it. In sum, trying to navigate multiple projects left me disoriented and frustrated.
Once you enter annotation mode, things improve. Tap a file to display full screen. A choice of annotation tools including yellow highlight, freehand pen (with five ink color choices), eraser and laser pointer are at left. The pen and highlighted thickness are adjustable by a slider at the bottom of the screen. Rotate, undo, redo, clear, save and show buttons at the top have their expected functions and can be hidden by a tap. I like how undo/redo and the clear/redraw can be toggled on and off to highlight a particular annotation. I also like how the highlighter is a pen rather than a selection block, though the color seems to obscure rather than emphasize the text being marked. I appreciate than an annotation tool stays selected until I deselect. This saves me a number of trips to the annotation toolbar.
Again, the interface could stand to be improved. The buttons for Rotate, Undo, Redo, etc. are white text on transparent menubar. When overlayed on a white document (as many are), these buttons become difficult to see. Another miscue: page navigation is offered in two conflicting ways on the same interface – forward and back page turn buttons and an up and down slider. While the slider is nice for jumping to the back of a long document quickly, the up and down slider is inconsistent with the left / right gesture used to turn pages.
I think with some effort, a person could learn to work around the idiosyncrasies of Exhibit A’s interface. Indeed, I have heard from a couple folks who either aren’t bothered by these interface issues or have become accustomed to them and use the app successfully. I, however, am not that person and I think most other users would be similarly frustrated.