iPad Usability Study Opens Door to Standardized iPad Interface

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Last night my two sons, age three and six, borrowed my iPad, launched Netflix, 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.

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