iOS eBay: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Mike Rundle, author of Design Then Code, is a firm believer in an iOS application being a pixel perfect representation of a company’s branding and unquestionable design. He can be a real stickler, calling out poor design or UX conventions on Twitter and just generally being a loveable prick about it all. But every so often he does stop and remind us that there are real people behind these decisions - and that things are often beyond their control.
The people responsible for the eBay iOS applications care enough about their product to trawl Twitter looking for whingers like myself. And they’re not just looking to mitigate complaints, they’re keen to hear feedback and where people think they have room for improvement. They were sure to pre-empt criticism by stressing that the original application was rushed out in only 5 weeks.
Okay, you caught me out. I was more keen on using the “Good/Bad/Ugly” metaphor than actually thinking up reasons why both the iPhone and iPad eBay apps are “Good”. They both do some pretty cool things (barcode scanning, being more picture/gallery oriented than the website), but that’s not really what this post is about. This post is more about where the apps fall flat on their face.
Branding and Consistency
The only thing marketing experts love more than cocaine is “synergy”. But what the iPad app delivers is an icon and UI different to that of the iPhone app, and eBay’s branding in general. I’m not entirely sure what page in the styleguide the blacks and deep greys come from, and for some reason it really irks me. I think eBay’s marketing department may have overlooked the inconsistant approach for the sheer joy of being able to say they have an iPad app. It was, as mentioned, rushed out in only 5 weeks.
Considering the difference at the simplest level, picking up an iOS device and trying to flick through screens full of apps to quickly locate the eBay app can be difficult. It’s hard to remember that, for example: “oh, I’m on an iPad now, I should be looking for a grey icon, not the yellow one, silly!”
In fact the icon differences just draw attention to the fact that the two apps are presented separately in the app store, and not part of a universal application. Dropbox, Twitterific, Instapaper. These popular apps, free or paid, all have universal installs. I can’t imagine the eBay code-base being very different. Merging the two would even avoid inconsistant language and interaction between the two, like refining how far an item can be from your location:
eBay Mobile - “Local Search”
eBay for iPad - “Max Distance”
Frankly, I haven’t seen diagonal scanlines used in web or app design since the early-00’s when I was abusing them too. I really can’t understand why eBay pushed an update that replaced the original simple graphics with dated scanlines. Subtle Patterns is a brilliant website for discovering and previewing modern designs of tiling patterns. All of which are free. They’re rich and tactile. They’ll date just as quickly, but scanlines already have a head-start.
Odds and Ends
There are also a few less critical odds and ends that need cleaning up. Prioritisation in lists could do with some work. As a category, “Won” probably is third-most important in the following view. But when the proceeding categories are empty, is it still relevant to show them at the top of the page?
In terms of showing when refinements have been applied to a search, the iPad app takes the better approach. Normally black buttons turn blue when criteria are applied. The iPhone app uses text instead, with a lazy check/square root symbol.
iPad App - Normally black buttons become blue
iPhone App - Text only indication
Also strange is the way in which setting a price range is not enough to trigger the refinement indicator in the iPad, while the search radius is.
There are also plenty of other little bugs and enhancements, but no app is perfect. The inability to enter a landscape keyboard mode in the message centre could probably be fixed and pushed out quickly. The caching of gallery images when flicking between items is probably just as straightforward. These are less UX issues and more programming bugs.
It’s far too easy to get to a point in your search where you can no longer get back to your results, or preserve your refinements.
For me, one of the most interesting functions I can perform on eBay is to view a sellers other items. I’ve done this countless times on eBay and Gumtree (an Australian Craigslist), and it can result in beautiful things and some absolute bargains.
If you were to click “View Sellers Other Items” on the iPad app, you can kiss your search results goodbye. This is incredibly frustrating when you’ve spent time narrowing your search with refinements. I want a road bike. Only from the cycling category. Within 100km of where I live. Only the recent listings because I’ve seen the rest. You might find a cool bike, but the size isn’t right or it’s already well outside your price range. The seller mentions they restore bikes, and suggests you check out their other items. Maybe you’l have some luck there? Boom. Search results, refinements and position gone. No back button. Start again.
Oddly enough I just noticed this only happens on the iPad app, the iPhone app remembers exactly where you came from. Another reason to merge code bases.
Can’t Refine Location Unless Logged In
All iOS devices at this point should be able to geolocate themselves, regardless of 3G connection. Apple and Google are both conducting some wizardry where they can pinpoint your location based on Wi-Fi signal alone. But unless you have an eBay account and you’re signed in, the eBay application gives you no way to filter search results by location.
The user is offline, or Safari can’t determine the location of this particular Wi-Fi router? Store with window.localStorage and it will persist between sessions. Simple.
What appears to be a fairly straightforward issue to resolve can be immediately attributed to reviews in the app store:
Can’t Update Location When Travelling
Travelling overseas or even interstate will not search where you are now located. This can be directly attributed to the apps reliance on the user’s location listed in their account profile, and not the device’s geolocation. While definitely an edge case, it would also be resolved while addressing the above issue.
I think that my personal frustration stems from usability issues that could be handled better as a mobile web application. That’s not to say I would ever suggest that eBay goes down the path of only offering web apps. Native will ALWAYS trump web facsimile. But with that being said, if you know that performing a particular action will always break your workflow - you get used to opening that link in a new tab. There is no quick native fix for that. A desktop-sized web app can become a mobile-sized app with a few lines of responsive CSS. There is no quick native fix for that. Merging code bases will be fiddly and time consuming.
Bugs take time to identify. Bugs take time to fix. Submitting to the App Store for a review and update takes time (and isn’t guaranteed to pass). As we speak there are probably similar items as I’ve described, logged internally for eBay’s development teams. But as I’ve discussed, there is no end user work-around for some of these issues - while there would in a mobile app. eBay still offers both, but it highlights a flaw in the native vs. web app argument.
I hope that the product owners and dev teams can take some of what I’ve said on board. This isn’t unwarranted criticism. Staff at eBay have expressed a desire to learn more about what UX people like myself think they can improve on. Here’s to a better UX for everyone.