iPAD usability study

The Nielsen Norman Group published a study of the iPAD’s ease-of-use. Nielsen Norman specializes in usability research for software and web sites. They say this study is a bit preliminary, but is based on:

  • expert reviews. This includes checking the user interface against the company’s general usability guidelines.
  • monitoring seven users trying to execute tasks on the iPad. Six of these users had no prior iPad exposure.

Given the positive reception of the iPad – mainly due to its perceived ease-of-use and “fun factor” – the report contains a surprising amount of critical notes. Implicitly the report suggests that Apple has sometimes chosen for good looks (like typographic clarity) at the cost of usability. A rough summary:

  1. It not always easy for the user to know whether touching something on the screen will trigger an action. Read: more cross-application user interface conventions would be helpful.
  2. It is not entirely predictable what will happen if you “click” on such an object. It may do just about anything: what happens if you click on a photo. Read: more cross-application user interface conventions would be helpful.
  3. Some important navigation features are missing for non-browser applications. In particular there is no convention on how to achieve “undo” or “back”. And consequently many applications just don’t provide these operations. Read: more cross-application user interface conventions would be helpful.

Ironically Apple is often accused of being too prescriptive and protective – which Apple then ritually justifies by saying that such rules and restrictions are needed to provide the superior user experience that its customers expect.

Obviously many of the issues discussed in the report are not the result of sloppy design: they are part of an ongoing struggle of how to design interfaces that can work intiuitively across dissimilar devices (desktops, iPads/TVs, handhelds) and dissimilar applications (passive content viewing, active content browsing, content creation, gaming). One example mentioned in the (pretty readable) article: using a mouse you can click on almost anything that you can see. With a “fat finger” however, clickables need to be correspondingly large targets. Another example of a fundamental issue is that you can standardize the controls used by applications in a particular environment. But, once a web site opens up in the browswer, you are confronted with a likely different set of conventions.

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