iPad Usability Study Reveals What We Do and Don’t Like In Apps

iPad (s aapl) users aren’t stingy with their devices, according to a new usability report by the Nielsen Norman Group focusing on Apple’s tablet. In fact, iPad owners who lived with one or more individuals reported that they shared their iPads freely, unlike the iPhone. The report also illuminated many things we like and don’t like about the apps we use on our iPads.

For example, the study found that users aren’t crazy about using their iPad devices to deal with complicated forms that require lots of user input, especially if those forms are found in non-optimized websites, rather than housed in an app. Users would skip registrations processes rather than deal with inputting information in many cases. The solution to such a problem would be to make forms simpler, requiring less information, and reduce the need for repeat entry of information (so apps that offer to remember login details are better, for example).

iPad users also aren’t as able to decipher non-obvious control systems as some developers might think. In cases where it wasn’t made clear what tapping an item that wasn’t obviously a button (i.e., a logo) would do, users often missed the functionality. Examples cited in the report include the logo in the top left of The Daily (s nwsa) app, which returns users to the app’s home screen. USA Today (s gci) originally used a similar mechanism, but changed their logo to include a “Sections” label to tell users that it was in fact designed to be tapped and tied to a function.

Likewise, gestures in apps can sometimes cause trouble when there are no visual cues to provide information about how they work. Don’t think that placing an instructional video or graphic at the beginning of the app will solve the problem, either. Many users don’t read instructions, though visual instructions that are incredibly obvious, like those used by Bing (s msft) for iPad, tested well with those participating in the study, since users couldn’t avoid grasping their meaning even when they quickly dismissed them. Nielsen Norman Group advises developers that they’re much better off including visual markers throughout, indicating that swipes and other gestures can be used. For example, magazine apps like Wired include arrows that show the direction a user should swipe to unveil more content.

Another alternative is to provide explicit tips in the form of dialog boxes, like Adobe Photoshop Express (s adbe) does. The iPad Photoshop app uses gestures to control effects like “soft focus,” and pops up notifications to alert users of what to do. Tips can be hidden at any time, so they won’t become annoying.

What users find very annoying according to the report are splash or loading screens. No matter how clever, or how easy on the eye, splash screens and animations become annoying very quickly. Startup sounds, in particular, are singled out as especially bad, because of the potential they have for unpleasantly surprising people who open apps in surroundings where noise might not be appreciated.

Also, almost universally, apps will benefit from having back buttons on nearly every page, and should aim for a simple homepage-like table of contents over more complicated navigation schemes. Users prefer a home base from which to operate without having to hunt through carousels or wade through long columns of thumbnails, and they always want the option to go one step back from their current position, because of accidental taps or to refer back to something they just saw.

As mentioned above, iPads tend to be communal devices, at least within the household. But the report also highlighted some other interesting points regarding how we use the Apple tablet. Generally, we use it for gaming, checking email and communicating via social networking, watching videos/movies and reading news. We also tend to shop, but the participants in the study generally preferred shopping on their desktops, and some even perceived iPad shopping to be more risky from a security perspective. iPads also tend to be carried around by many users, or at least taken along for the ride when long waits or trips are expected.

Now that the iPad is more than a year old, it’s interesting to see how people are using it, and what is and isn’t working when it comes to app usability design. No doubt there’s still plenty of innovation left in iPad app interface design, but this report illustrates that some things never go out of style when it comes to user experience.

How does your experience with the iPad either agree or disagree with the findings described above?