Why WSJ Mobile App Gets ** Customer Reviews

by Jakob Nielsen on July 5, 2011

Summary: A confusing startup screen that offends existing subscribers dooms The Wall Street Journal's iPhone app to low ratings.

The Wall Street Journal 's iPhone app had just 2 stars in Apple's App Store at the time of this writing. Averaged across 68,418 consumer reviews, the rating is not just a reflection of a few irate users.

As a rough estimate, a 2-star average across 68,418 reviews means that 40,000 users gave the application a 1-star rating. Given the 90-9-1 rule for social design, most users never bother reviewing products, so 40,000 low scores represent at least half a million dissatisfied customers.

The WSJ is one of the world's most respected newspapers and has long been a digital pioneer. How can it produce a 2-star mobile app?

The answer is clear from reading the reviews. The 3 highest-rated reviews all gave 1-star ratings, and their headings were:

  • "Slap." (The first sentence? "These guys have the nerve to charge additional fees to current online subscriber.")
  • "Useless app, have to pay twice for same content."
  • "Charging for content — twice!?!"

It's clear that people are deeply offended by being asked to pay again for mobile access to the newspaper when they're already paying for a wsj.com subscription.

I would agree with these users if in fact they were being charged twice for the same articles. But they're not. Mobile app access is free to paying website subscribers: they simply have to log in with their existing userid and password.

Confusing Startup Screen

Why do so many people think they have to pay when they don't? Because of a highly confusing user interface design. The first time you launch the app, the following startup screen appears:

Screenshot of first screen shown when launching Wall St. Journal iPhone app for the first time.
The WSJ iPhone app: Startup screen.

The strongest call to action — both in terms of placement and size — is the offer to subscribe and get 2 weeks for free. (Implying, of course, that there'll be a fee after this period.) Pressing this button gives you this screen:

Screenshot of the screen you get by selecting 'Subscribe Now' from the WSJ app's startup screen
The WSJ iPhone app:
Screen shown after tapping
Subscribe Now.

It's obvious that it will cost $1.99 per week to use the mobile app after the first 2 weeks. Although this is the only logical conclusion, it's false . Click the Subscribe button on the 2nd screen and you'll get a screen saying that access is free for current website subscribers.

However, most users will never see this 3rd screen. The Subscribe button has zero information scent for current subscribers. Past experience from all websites and apps uniformly leads people to the same conclusion: Subscribe is the call to action for establishing a new subscription. Thus, as soon as users see the 2nd screen, they'll back out if they don't want to pay twice for the same articles.

Most people will probably give up right here, because using the app so clearly seems to cost an extra $1.99/week. If some users are particularly persistent, however, they might return to the startup screen and try the second button.

The second button leads to a registration screen, where you can create a new account that gives you free access to a small number of articles. You aren't told that you can use your existing website account if you have one. Again, the only sensible conclusion is that you can access the full set of articles only by ponying up again and paying the extra $1.99/week.

Wildly persistent users might notice the much smaller Log In area at the bottom of the startup screen. However, they're unlikely to press this button because their experience with the app so far has taught them that they must register (and pay extra) before being allowed to log in.

Those few users who do press Log In will finally see that they can use their existing www.wsj.com credentials to access the app. However, as the many negative App Store reviews attest, few users ever make it this far.

(Also, our tests of hundreds of mobile apps have clearly shown a strong user preference for engaging with the top option; this is similar to what we see when testing mobile sites. Even though phone screens are small, users might still overlook the last option as they focus their attention on the top of the screen.)

Degrading the Brand

Does it matter that existing website subscribers give up on the mobile app? After all, the company already has their money from the website subscription.

Also, the design works reasonably well for new subscribers — who are the only ones generating incremental revenue. So why not just focus on new subscribers and ignore old customers and their horrible user experience?

Two reasons:

  • Existing subscribers feel so insulted by having to pay twice that their negative ratings dominate the App Store feedback. Thus, many potential new subscribers will see the 2-star rating and immediately abandon the application download. With 500,000 alternatives, people don't have time for junk apps.
  • People who've paid for website access are the newspaper's most loyal fans. Paying for Web content is fairly rare; customers willing to do so should be treasured, not treated like garbage.

Newspapers have two strategic imperatives for surviving in the Internet age:

  • Retain credibility: they must be more highly respected than the random sites users dredge up on Google.
  • Deepen relationships with loyal users, so that they turn to the paper first instead of using one of the many aggregators that commoditize content.

Credibility and relationships both take a dive when customers are mistreated, particularly when they feel unfairly wronged.

The long-term impact of this confusing application UI is a severe erosion of the WSJ brand among the people who matter most: loyal, paying readers. As this case perfectly exemplifies, usability is not just a matter of whether users can press the correct button. User experience is branding in the interactive world.

Another difficulty stems from the newspaper's convoluted subscription model: print subscribers must pay extra to access the online version. This requires an extra layer of explanation to distinguish different kinds of subscribers. For the sake of the redesign below, I'm not touching the pricing model, but it does complicate the UI and thus reduces the conversion rate.

A second reason to give print subscribers free access? They're the most valuable customers: print advertising is more effective than online advertising because broadsheet layouts have a stronger impact. Thus, a newspaper should encourage readers to maintain their print subscriptions by treating them well. However, it's beyond the scope of this article to resolve the tradeoff between making short-term money by overcharging print subscribers vs. the long-term loss of pushing people away from print.

One Bad Screen = Millions Lost

Although overall user experience is paramount, as this example shows, you must also pay attention to the details. A single bad screen can cost millions of dollars in lost revenue and brand value.

As the saying goes, you get only one chance to make a first impression. That's why startup screens are crucial. This is particularly true for mobile users, who often have fairly low motivation to mess with apps they've downloaded for free. But even in "regular" software, the installation, setup, and initial screens can make or break an application.

Similarly, for e-commerce, a relatively minor element such as the confirmation email can have a huge branding impact. Write a poor subject line or from field, and customers will think you don't care about their order because they never open your messages. Consider how much money you spend on brand advertising to get a minute uplift in how people feel about your company. Compare this to the tiny cost of writing better transactional messages, which will cause a much bigger decline in customer feelings if done wrong. Actual experience beats promotional image advertising many times over in influencing brand reputation.

A Better Design

If a bad screen can costs millions, a better screen is worth a lot. Here's our idea for an alternative startup screen for the WSJ app:

Our proposal to redesign the WSJ mobile app for improved usability
Proposed redesign of the WSJ startup screen.

This screen eliminates the horrible usability problem discussed above by making it clear that existing subscribers can use their existing account to access the app. Also:

  • It's clear that there are 3 possible scenarios, because the use cases are spelled out rather than implied.
  • Placing buttons side-by-side reduces the possibility that users will overlook one and simply go for the first option.
  • Simplified workflow eliminates the ambiguity between subscribing and registering and presents fewer options on the first page.

We also changed how the price for new subscribers was presented — $103.48/year, instead of $1.99/week — because the customer's credit card is charged the full annual fee at sign up. Being dinged for $103 when you expect a $2 charge is a highly negative experience, and probably the source of many customer service calls.

The 2nd screen can put greater emphasis on enticing new users to pay for full rather than limited access. For example, the screen could state that the subscription fee equates to only $1.99 per week or 33 cents per day (they publish only 6 editions per week). Here, it would be prudent to run an A/B test comparing annual vs. weekly cost information on the first screen.

That said, you should only change to a weekly price if it offers dramatically better conversion. If weekly prices are only slightly better, it's best to show the annual price rather than suffer the long-term penalties of reducing brand reputation by subjecting customers to a bait-and-switch.

One of A/B testing's main weaknesses is that it encourages an overly short-term focus on users' initial behavior. It's easy to overlook the long-term effect of design changes if you look only at clicks, which is one reason I like supplementing A/B tests with qualitative tests that give more insight into users' thinking.

Initially, I was tempted to remove the Call to Subscribe link from the startup screen. (Phone contact info should definitely be on the "detailed info" screen.) My guess is that the WSJ gets numerous customer service calls because of the current confusing design. Once we make access for existing subscribers obvious and remove the misleading pricing for new subscribers, calls should drop to a fraction of the existing volume. (The near elimination of customer support costs is one of the key ROI metrics for usability.)

However, I kept the call-in number in this redesign for two reasons:

  • Our testing shows that being willing to disclose your phone number is a strong credibility marker that enhances a design's persuasive value.
  • There could be other issues — such as expired passwords or declined credit cards — that drive call volume. The company's own call center stats will show this, but I don't have the data. Also, our studies of the mobile user experience show that many people are reluctant to enter credit card numbers on their smartphones, which aren't seen as being as safe as a wired connection. This might change, but currently it's best for m-commerce to offer an alternate payment channel.

Workflow Design

The initial WSJ app experience involves two distinct choices:

  • New vs. existing subscribers
  • Paid full access vs. free limited access

It's possible to bundle all of this into a single screen (as shown below), but the resulting UI would be too complex and error-prone for mobile use.

Instead, we decided on a 2-step workflow: first, you branch between new and old users; next, two different screens handle each case with an appropriate design for the specific circumstances.

The 2-step workflow's obvious penalty is that users must pass through the 2nd screen each time they log in. However, because this is a low-security app, it should be possible to store the login credentials on the phone and log in users automatically upon subsequent uses. (A high-security app such as online banking couldn't do this, but it's no big loss if someone can read your newspaper for free after stealing your phone.)

The following shows an alternate workflow design that would allow existing subscribers to bypass the 2nd screen by logging in directly from the 1st screen. We discarded this approach because it would cause too many usability problems for new users. In countless test sessions we've seen users being seduced by the magnetism of open type-in fields. Users' action bias is so strong that many go straight where they can "do stuff" instead of reading the text or considering the totality of the options on the screen.

Alternate login workflow that's NOT recommended because of usability problems for new users
Alternative launch screen with fast-track option for registered users.
(Not recommended, because the design is error-prone for new users.)

Workflow design is a big issue in application usability. In many cases, a tighter workflow best expedites the paths users take to their goals. But in many other cases, it's better to add a few steps to ensure that each step is focused and self-explanatory. What matters to usability is not the number of clicks, but the amount of user frustration and time spent. For an app, there's no delay in moving from one screen to the next, so it's often better to resolve the trade-off in favor of additional screens. In contrast, mobile sites must be more conservative in adding steps because of the higher interaction cost imposed by the (currently slow) download delay for each added screen.

Ideally, the next step is to user test the redesign. You can do this with paper prototyping, so you don't have to fully implement a new app to see whether the new design solves the current design's usability problems.

Testing typically uncovers additional opportunities for improvement and thus produces an even better design. In this case, fielding a redesign of these few initial screens should allow the Journal to improve its App Store rating from 2 to 4 stars in short order. It would thus quickly pay for itself through increased downloads and account activations. The main payback, however, would come from the long-term benefit of no longer infuriating the company's most loyal customers.


Since this article, the Journal has redesigned its signup process to be much better. I analyze these changes in my book Mobile Usability.

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