Blog Post

iPad Usability Study Opens Door to Standardized iPad Interface

Last night my two sons, age three and six, borrowed my iPad (s aapl), launched Netflix (s nflx), and started streaming Scooby-Doo. Earlier that day, the younger of the two was using the iPad to play his favorite game (iTunes Store Link), which he found and launched himself. So far, no one I’ve met has had a problem using the iPad, it’s just that simple. I’m not alone either. Dan Benjamin, from 5by5 Studios, has stated many times on “The Conversation” and “The Pipeline” how his son, even younger than mine, can use his iPad.

The real world experiences of children using the iPad has not stopped the Nielsen Norman Group from releasing a preliminary 93-page report detailing the usability problems of the iPad. (Thanks to Mark Pilgrim for the Link). Citing problems in learning gestures, hidden controls, small buttons, and many other usability errors in 34 popular apps and sites. The researchers admit that the report is not up to their usual standards, since the iPad has not been available long enough to know how people are going to use it.

This report is less thorough than our normal research reports and does not contain as many detailed and actionable design guidelines as we usually provide. We decided to publish the report anyway (as a donation to the community), because all experience from the last 30 years of usability shows that early usability findings have disproportionately large impact on design projects.

Also interesting to note is that the research was carried out using seven people, one-on-one, for 90 minutes each.

One of the most interesting aspects of the report is the inclusion of websites into the study. Nielsen Norman Group summarizes its findings:

For a truly optimal experience that takes into account both the constraints and strengths of the device, an iPad-specific website may be the solution.

After reading through the report, I find it “must read” material for anyone developing iPad applications or marketing their website to iPad users. The usability testing is not a study of the usability of the iPad itself, but the usability of the apps that were tested, which can vary from one app to the next, and change as each app is updated. Very little attention was paid to system wide software like the keyboard, or how the device is handled physically other than saying that it was “heavy.”

Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines define certain aspects of how an app should look and feel on the iPad, but given the disparity of user interfaces between apps, it’s obvious that developers need studies like the Nielsen Norman Group’s. Time will tell what the best interfaces are for the platform, and what UI mistakes developers are making now. What we should not do is hold this report as a study of the usability of the iPad itself, which my young son will happily tell you is just fine.

4 Responses to “iPad Usability Study Opens Door to Standardized iPad Interface”

  1. steven

    TH, you say that Apple ‘could’ stifle innovation by restricting developers? How is that justified by the sudden change of their development licensing!? Obviously it ‘is not’ preventing quality of applications, as Apple quote as a way of ensuring the quality that the Neilson study suggests as otherwise.

    Restriction of development platform is another topic however, but it clearly isn’t preventing sub-quality usability for users, even with these mysterious guidelines Neilson could not understand. If Apple want to enforce quality, they should at least support that philosophy across theirbrand … perhaps with time however, they will.

  2. Apple has comprehensive and well documented Human Interface Guidelines for apps on the iPad and iPhone. They understand the issues far more than the Nielsen Norman Group.

    Apple could strictly enforce those guidelines but would likely be criticized by developers and tech pundits for stifling innovation. Conversely, if they say nothing, as they do now, they are criticized by self appointed Interface “experts”.

    The iPad has only been in the wild for a month and a half so it is way too early to criticize issues that are still being addressed. Who knows, maybe an interface no one thought of will rise from this anarchy of experiences.

  3. If the device is heavy and awkward to hold, and the user interface (or application) is confusing rather than intuitive, it’s no surprise that I’m hearing so many reports of iHurt, iPain and iFrustrated, and to top it off iBroke. So why is the consensus always the same — iLove and iBeautiful?

  4. It is amazing how everyone who refers to this report talks about “problems with the iPad” when in reality the entire report is about problems with APPLICATIONS on the iPad. Not even Apple applications, but THIRD PARTY apps. Not even one paragraph in the entire report points out a flaw with the iPad’s usability.