iAnnotate PDF iPad App (Bad Design)

iAnnotate PDF is an app for taking notes on PDFs. It allows for easy connection to Google Drive and Dropbox and has a myriad of options for adding annotations. Though I use it frequently for taking notes on articles, and it is wonderful to be able to search across all of my notes in a document, there are several features that I wish functioned differently.

Highlighter tool

Highlighter tool.
Highlighter tool.

One of these tools is the highlighter. This tool could benefit from being more sensitive toward errors. For example, sometimes when I highlight a series of words, upon further reflection I change my mind. Or, I accidentally highlight too many words. Don Norman might call this kind of error a slip.

To design for errors, Norman suggests making it easier to correct them. In iAnnotate, it can be difficult and time consuming to do this. A highlight can only be changed only when the user first makes it—two blue selection bars appear at either end of the highlight.


Once the user makes the next highlight, or switches tools, the highlight can only be deleted or copied—not enlarged or made smaller. Thus, the user must delete and completely redo the highlight.


Norman also advocates for making it possible to reverse or undo actions. Though you can delete highlights, sometimes too much gets deleted. In certain cases, I don’t want to exit the highlight tool, since I have a lot of highlighting to do and feel that I lose time by constantly exiting the highlight tool to scroll. iAnnotate makes it possible to scroll with a tool open by using two fingers on the screen. However, if you scroll while highlighting and highlight two separate blocks of text but want to delete only one, you can’t—both get deleted since they are considered part of the same highlight.

The bottom two highlights are connected.



iAnnotate deleted both highlights.
iAnnotate deleted both highlights.

The highlighter tool begins to tap into the affordances of digital technology, such as the ability to get rid of what would be permanent in the physical world, but does not take full advantage of the potential for digital marks to be edited or erased.

Constraints in the physical and digital worlds

The highlighter problems touch on a broader issue iAnnotate faces regarding expectations of what is possible digitally versus manually. With the highlighter, iAnnotate begins to utilize affordances specific to digital technology in a positive way. But these affordances can also present difficulties for the user by removing useful constraints.

For example, when I take notes on paper, I often have only one or maybe two writing implements available. In iAnnotate, this physical constraint disappears and there are multiple options for writing: a pencil tool that can be repeated in many colors, a typewriter text box, a “signature box,” and a comment bubble.


The app presents almost too many functions (and a total of 6 different toolbars), and I often lose time searching for the one I actually want to use. Of course, as a user I do not have to use all of the options available to me. iAnnotate facilitates this choice by making the toolbar customizable: users can choose the tools and their order. However, all of the tool icons are given equal visual weight. It might be helpful if the user were able to specify the size of an icon, so that more frequently used tools could be visually emphasized.

iAnnotate tries to solve the problem of translating paper-based annotation habits to a digital interface. Designing for this kind of transition is difficult, since the user already has habits based on a different medium. iAnnotate seeks to bridge this gap by retaining the look and semantics of physical annotation through the names of many of its tools. This is helpful, but it’s important to consider that users may experience a gulf of execution if their expectations of the affordances of the app’s tools are vastly different than the affordances of the physical tools. Though a digital annotation app has more flexibility, it’s important to keep in mind what users intend to do when they sit down to annotate.