Four usability fails the iPad must get right

The iPad is in many ways an iconic and revolutionary device, clearly filled with breathtaking potential. But despite the obvious beauty, hype and charm, it’s important to keep a firm focus on some “usability fails” of the iPad if it is to fulfill its potential and become a major leap forward in personal computing.

Here are four areas where the iPad needs work.

Fail #1: Anything can be the UI
Partly because of the touch interface, and partly because as a medium the iPad is fairly revolutionary, there are no strict rules and standards in place as to what the User Interface (UI) of iPad apps (and iPad-specific websites) should look like. With multi-directional swiping and multi-touch inputs, designers have realised there is no longer a need for as many traditional buttons, icons, drop-down menus and other UI elements to achieve the same functionality as a traditional interface. Who needs a ‘Next Page’ button when you can just swipe to the left?

The problem is that, when anything can be the UI, you quickly get to the stage when…anything is the UI. Every application is different, and each has its own unique UI mysteries just waiting to puzzle and confound the user. Can I tap here? Does this arrow shaped image mean I swipe up here? If I pinch out this image will it zoom in? It’s confusing and time-consuming.

Fail #2: Poor link “clicking” on websites
The native iPad Safari browser is pretty darn sexy and efficient in many ways. However the iPad screen is not immense, and fingers are not the size of mouse cursors. Traditional text hyperlinks on websites are often the same size as the body text, and you can often find many links clustered together. This kind of design is acceptable when a mouse is being used, but is problematic in the touch screen environment of the iPad.

Usability stumbling blocks like this are one of the strong motivational forces behind the development of iPad apps as opposed to multi-platform websites that you hope iPad users will visit. Perhaps not too far in the future, it will become an important usability consideration in the design of all websites – to be iPad/touch screen tablet friendly.

Fail #3: No gesture standards
Research has shown that we are not very good at remembering which specific gestures do what in an application. We can learn something and use it, but after a couple of minutes we have forgotten it. It’s all very well having all this choice in terms of interaction with an iPad, but if we cannot even remember them then they are pointless.

This has a lot to do with a lack of standards – what a two finger tap means in one application could be what an upward swipe means in another. Our lack of training time, coupled with an inconsistent and constantly surprising learning ground impacts negatively on the iPad user experience. Learnability is a key component of good usability, and standards are the foundations of learnability.

Fail #4: It doesn’t know what it is yet
A lot of iPad applications have attempted to give us a new way to consume media. This is an area that has received a lot of attention, and lots of people hope that it will contribute to helping the ailing media industry. There is clearly a lot of potential because of the physical characteristics of the iPad (it is slim, has a beautiful screen and a touch interface). However, titles that have attracted a lot of attention so far such as “Time” and “Wired” magazines have, to a certain extent, ignored so much of the simple power that can be learned from the way the web works.

These apps are essentially print magazines plus a little bit of flair. They look beautiful, and can embed a video in the middle of an article instead of a picture; but in contrast to the rich amounts of metadata and interconnectedness of information on the web, it can feel a lot like a step back.

One simple example should illustrate this point: A contents page in a magazine works because you can get there in a fraction of a second by flipping a page. You then take a fraction of a second to get to the page you want because you can turn multiple pages at once, and you can judge roughly how many pages to turn at once to get to page 60, for example.

This format has terrible usability in the context of an iPad. I can only change one page at once for a start. I am also consuming digital content so I expect hyperlinks. When I don’t find hyperlinks I get frustrated. Even a scrollable ‘contents’ bar accessible from any page of the magazine is not a great solution, especially if it is heavy in its use of images as opposed to text. It is also no easy task finding out how to access this contents bar in the first place (yes, different in every app!).

So in conclusion…
These four usability fails are not necessarily problems with the iPad itself – the hardware is excellent and the capabilities of the UI are mouth-watering. What needs to be kept in mind is that ultimately the iPad – just like other Apple products – is only a beautiful vessel for the real experience, which is the software. The iPad has created an environment in which so much is possible, including terrible usability blunders.

Now more than ever is the time for user experience experts to make their mark… a two finger swipe across the face of poor iPad usability.



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