iPhone activation: It’s all in the UI

iPhoneYou waited in line, possibly overnight. You spent over $500 (not including accessories). You canceled all of your Friday night social obligations and went directly home to play with your new (and possibly only) friend, the iPhone. You plug it in and wait for the magic to happen, and for any number of reasons, your phone is not activated after 20 minutes, and you’re in AT&T limbo. You spend all weekend pulling your hair out and calling every AT&T number you can find.

This was the experience of thousands of new iPhone users this past weekend, and it has resulted in a similar number of complaints, legal threats, and overall user disappointment in both AT&T and Apple. How could this snafu arise? How could AT&T not have dealt with it? After being one of these estranged users myself, I believe the entire debacle could have been avoided by changing two user interfaces in the iTunes activation process. If you had a problem activating, you’re in one of two camps:

  • Ported number: You’re on a different carrier but you have long since ported your phone number. You get any number of messages about your number being “ineligible.” In order to port your number to AT&T, you’ll need to pretend you still live in the same zip code that you first registered your phone in.
  • Old AT&T customer: Even though you’re a current AT&T customer, you’ve recently been using an old AT&T SIM card (blue, pre-Cingular), and your account must be updated before the activation can take place. In other words, even though you think you’re a current AT&T subscriber, you’re not.

If you were in either of these two situations, you probably ended up seeing this screen during your activation:


Michael Sharon's final activation

Which of course did not result in an email for at least 24 hours. Also in both cases, simply changing the activation dialog could have avoided all of these problems. Here’s how a majority of these cases could have been alleviated:

  1. For people porting their numbers, a warning dialog could have alerted them to use the zip code where their phone was originally registered. The same dialog should appear on the billing information page.
  2. On the initial plan selection page, a warning dialog could have alerted old AT&T users (blue accounts) that they need to call customer support before activating their iPhone

I’m sure these two bugs were exacerbated by the utter secrecy of the project, but some simple QA or contingency planning could have averted thousands of people’s frustration. In any event, if you have either of these problems, rest assured, the actual registration process works very smoothly if you correct these UI flaws. Something tells me from this interface that Apple was not responsible for designing the activation process:

This person record requires harvesting
“This person record requires harvesting”

But that doesn’t mean their QA teams couldn’t have made it Apple friendly. And please, do that today so future users don’t have to suffer the same problems we did. Take that from someone who activated their phone 3 times and 48 hours later before finally second-guessing the interface correctly.

Update: As Anil aptly points out, “person records” are a common dialog element in the iPod installation process.