A Guerilla Usability Test on Apple's Shared Photo Stream Feature

Oh, it’s that Cloud thing!

A hidden gem on your iPhone

Many apps have what I call "buried treasures" - features that could be really powerful but they're just obscured by layers of usability issues and extraneous complications. The Shared Photo Stream feature in iOS is definitely one of those features. 

I personally really enjoy using the shared Photo Stream feature to share my photos with friends and family without having to post them publicly. I also like the social and collaborative element of contributing my photos to shared photo streams with friends after a trip or a party. 

To see how I could improve the shared Photo Stream experience so more iPhone photographers could discover and find the benefits of using the shared Photo Stream feature I did a usability test and then did a re-design based on my findings. 



Identify the pain points of Apple’s current iPhoto Shared Photo Stream interface by performing user interviews and observe user interaction with the product.


Test Parameters

What: Apple’s iPhone Shared Photo Stream.
Who: Existing Apple iPhone users who are daily using their phones to take photos.
Where: A coffee shop in foggy San Francisco was the site where user recruitment and UX testing was done.
How: Interviewing users about current behaviors around photo sharing, thoughts on privacy and their emotions when interacting with the product. I filmed 7 out of 8 users while they were interacting with the product and trying to accomplish the tasks I asked them to do.


Test Tasks

1. Create a new photo stream
2. Share photos using photo stream with selected friends or family members

3. Edit who has access to your photo stream (remove/add people)

Tasks were determined based on Apple’s own product description, but I asked open ended questions around these tasks so I wouldn't lead the user.

With iCloud Photo Sharing, it’s easy to share photos and videos with exactly the people you want to see them. Create a shared stream and invite friends and family to add their photos and video clips as often as they want.
— Apple.com


After the user interviews and usability tests I watched the videos and went through all my notes. I started by noting on sticky notes the chronological steps the users took when trying to accomplish the tasks. This was helpful to discover the most common navigation patterns and compare at what point the users reached their goals. 

I then wrote down the issues the users were facing and some of their quotes of frustration on sticky notes and sorted similar issues into buckets. This was helpful to discover patterns for the most common pain points and to help me make a decision for where to place my efforts into solving the product's usability issues. 

Findings - Two Key Issues

From bucketing the issues I found two main areas of usability issues. The third bucket was the reason for the first, so I have merged these two buckets in this summary. 

1. Product Awareness & Creating A New Photo Stream

What is Photo Stream?

When I was first starting out interviewing iPhone users about Photo Stream and observing how they were interacting with the feature, I was surprised to find that 5 out of 8 had never used it before and the other 3 had never even heard of it. I had screened my interview recruits for avid iPhone photographers that were using their iPhones daily to snap photos and interact with the Photos app their phones. Yet, so few understood what Photo Stream was or how it could be of benefit to them.

No familiarity with the feature and its connection to iCloud was the number one reason for why the users had difficulties accomplishing the first task. When asked to share photos via Photo Stream with selected people, all 8 clicked photos, then sharing icon, but half got immediately lost and hit cancel when Photo Stream was not a sharing option. Very few users even considered iCloud to be an option and several got completely stuck and we could not continue until after I had to interfere and tell the user that Photo Stream was connected to iCloud.

It can seem that iCloud is associated with personal storage and not a social interaction. None of the users understood that My Photo Stream and Shared Photo Stream are two different features. My Photo Stream is just a rotating collection of your last 1000 photos from your camera roll and is not permanent storage while Shared Photo Stream is something curated and shared with another person or yourself and is stored permanently in iCloud.

Main Recommendation: Let users discover Photo Stream as an option for sharing photos. I recommend Shared Photo Stream to be visually separated from iCloud as they are two very different features to the user (although they are both backing your photos to iCloud), one is a social sharing feature, the other is for your private backup or storage. I recommend highlighting the social and instant features of the Shared Photo Stream. 


2. Sharing & Privacy

It doesn’t say who I’m sharing it to, it just says iCloud
— Erika

None of the users I asked had been using Photo Stream to share photos, although everyone enjoyed sharing photos with their friends and family on a daily basis. How did they do that? Every single one had email or text as their preferred method of sharing. Most had a slight preference for texting a photo because it is social and texting by its nature has more instant feedback than email.

During the usability tests the users were often stating concerns in regards to who now had access to their photos and which photos were being shared. It came to the surface that iCloud is often associated with storage and something private, while sharing a Photo Stream is a social interaction and this is why the users felt uncertain of exactly what was being shared and with whom. Also, when commenting on a photo it felt uncomfortable not knowing who else was on the stream. 

It happened several times that users were just about to, or posted, a photo in the wrong stream because the last used stream is set to the default. This mistake added to the anxious feeling of maybe sharing something with the wrong person. 

Main Recommendation: Let users clearly see who they are sharing photos with when posting to a stream and who else are included in the streams they are shared on. When posting to a stream, I believe the default set to the last used stream is a good approach, but I would highlight better which current stream you’d be posting to. Next I would add a section for the most recent activity to the following screen to act as a confirmation for what you just did. 

One of 5 current ways to create a photo stream. When asked to share photos via Photo Stream, all 8 users started by selecting photos, then tapping the sharing icon. Half of the test participants dropped off and hit cancel at the third step when Photo Stream was not a sharing option.


My Design Suggestion

Users need to know that iCloud, Photo Stream and Shared Photo Stream are different features. My design suggestions are based on the idea that the user should not associate Photo Stream with iCloud, hence, I had to come up with a new icon for Photo Stream to replace the cloud. 
I based my placeholder icon design on the new Photo Library Icon in iOS8. 

Photo Library

Photo Stream


Screen By Screen

1. Where Can I Find Photo Stream?

2. iCoud VS Photo Stream

3. Adding To Existing Shared Photo Stream

4. At First Glance

5. What Will Happen To My Photo Stream?

6. Knowing Who You're Sharing With

7. What Did I Just Do?

8. Who's At This Party?



It was very interesting to see how similar the usability issue patterns were among the eight people I chose to test the feature with. Everyone was drawn immediately to the sharing icon when asked to share a photo, so I feel confident that this is the right place to let users share photos using Photo Stream.  
The biggest surprise was how few were aware of Photo Stream to begin with. I think the separation from iCloud will bring more awareness to Photo Stream as a stand-alone feature and invoke more appropriate associations as a collaborative and social feature.
The good news is that once the users had figured out where to find Photo Stream and how to crate their first shared stream, the rest of the tasks went without any severe problems and by the end, most of the users I talked with expressed enthusiasm for the feature and a wish to continuing using it now that they understood how it worked.
I'm excited to see where Apple will be taking this feature moving forward and I hope that Photo Stream gets the glory it deserves. 

*I don’t work for or represent Apple. I am currently shipping UX projects under the guidance of Kate Rutter and Laura Klein @Tradecraft in San Francisco and will be sourcing new opportunities in September. I’d love to hear from you! Contact me.