Kevin McMahon

Chicago based mobile developer.

6 Thoughts about Evernote's App Design

Evernote is one of my favorite and most frequently used applications. The ubiquity of the service via all the devices in my life (laptop, desktop, iPhone, Nexus One, web, and iPad) and the ease in which I can capture and recall notes made adopting it into my daily workflow extremely easy. By taking a closer look at the clients, it became clear that the user experience, and the design decisions behind them, wasn't a happy accident.

Lately I have been thinking about user design and experience as I prep my app for the App Store. Here are six things that stood out most about the Evernote iPhone app and the take-away ideas I got from looking closer at the app.

1. The mobile apps immediately present 4 distinct actions for note acquisition.

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Evernote breaks down into two key activities: note acquisition and note retrieval. Given the detached nature of the mobile device and the sluggishness still experienced with cellular networks, the note browsing and searching experience is not ideal. The constraints of the device and the unpredictable nature of the network, I believe, led to a focus on what a mobile device is good for (note capturing) and make that the key action in the mobile versions of its application.

Having the app launch into the note acquisition screen implicitly signals to the user that this is the type of activity that you should be doing on the device. It seems counterintuitive to restrict features to simply not port them directly from the desktop or web offering. But by limiting the scope of the application, it actually maximizes the experience for the user. In Evernote's case they cannot completely focus on note capture at the expense of cutting out the other actions. These additional activities are included, but they are relegated to the tab bar on the iPhone and the sub menus on Android devices.

2. Smart layout and design can make sub-optimal experience tolerable

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Given the limited real estate available on mobile devices, it is unsurprising that note browsing is a sub-optimal experience. That being said, I think that Evernote does an excellent job making due with what little space it has. Visually we are given two options, depending on the orientation of the phone, in which we can browse our catalog of notes. While holding the phone in portrait mode, each note's metadata is visible and allows the user to see titles and tags in addition to a thumbnail image of the note. While holding the phone in landscape mode, the note browser is transformed into a tiled-thumbnail view which shows more notes in the visible frame. If you can recognize the note by the rough appearance or layout of the text, you can pretty rapidly find what you are looking for.

Most people hold the phone in portrait mode so it follows that the default view is the easier of the two to quickly grasp. The two views provide the user with choices and trade offs: lower information density with a greater amount of detail or higher information density with less detail. By giving the user options, Evernote overcomes the inherent limitations of the mobile device and improves the user experience.

3. Search function is a key but clunky feature in the mobile app.

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Evernote has outstanding OCR software that makes everything searchable. Given that search is the killer feature of Evernote, it is surprising that search on mobile devices seems like a second-class citizen. The typical standard search box is visible on most of the non-note capturing screens, and the text search works as expected. Search does have some enhanced features like map view and search near here offered as options to help refine your search, but I am not a fan of either. The actual search queries appear to be executed on the server side and, as a result, the processing time can vary depending on your network connection. In order to do a location based search the app has to make network requests for the search results and get the map coordinates, and this typically translates to a noticeable wait when these types of searches are performed. I feel like search could cut out the location-based search filter entirely and be no worse off.

4. Sync Button is a "kitchen drawer" tab on the iPhone App

The sync tab is mislabeled, and the label masks all the other functions that are exposed on that tab. Contextually, account information and device-specific settings aren't readily associated to sync even though the sync process in Evernote synchronizes everything associated to your account. The action of synchronizing your notes could be integrated into the note screen, and the settings, account information, and about information could all be separate tabs managed by the tab controller already being utilized in the iPhone application. In fairness the move to limit the tabs is consistent with the less-is-more type of attitude, and the combination of the multiple actions into the single tab is most likely a compromise to simplify the interface.

5. The tips UX on the iPhone is well executed and non-obtrusive

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The tips screen, integrated into the main view of the Evernote iPhone app, is an excellent way of sharing information about features and activities without being pushy and obtrusive. With a smooth animation that peels back the main view to show the tips view, the user can get a quick suggestion on a feature and then be back capturing or browsing notes. This is a small but well executed design element that adds to the experience.

6. Sharp branding

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As far as the aesthetics go, I like the Evernote logo. A combination of an elephant and piece of paper plays off the "memory like an elephant" saying and the note-based nature of the application. The logo, paired nicely with a soft green color and a nice font, is the focal point of the splash screen welcoming you into the application. The other platforms do not utilize a splash screen since the application load times aren't as great as the iPhone, but the same basic logo/font/color scheme is consistent in the icons used on all platforms.

Lessons learned from the Evernote app:

  • Instead of frustrating users with clunky interfaces and hacks to enable certain features of your service or app, only port features or activities that enhance the service and take advantage of the features of mobile devices rather than expose the limitations of them.
  • Focus on the activities that can capitalize on the advantages of a mobile device instead of fighting the platform.
  • Optimize for those specific use cases that make sense that you want to capitalize on.
  • Be ruthless in what you cut out or be stingy in what you put into the mobile version
  • Be consistent in your branding, color scheme, and feel of your applications.
  • Good design can always speak louder than any type of instruction.  Help users fall into the pit of success.

You can get the iPhone app in the iTunes App Store

Tagged: iphone / android / ipad / app design / mobile / apps / evernote / design / ux

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