Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

The iPad has become a commercial hit, selling more than 1 million units in a month and setting the publishing world into a frenzy.

Publishers are reacting in myriad ways, from building apps to waiting it out. But most are planning on doing something to cater to the device. My favorite recent bit of irrational exuberance over the device came at a meeting when another publisher gushed about how radical the device could be, then described an app that was about as interesting as a dried sardine in a sink drain. It certainly wasn’t focused on usability.

And usability is a potentially big problem for the device. As I’ve said here before, I gave up my iPad rather quickly. It didn’t work for me, and I found the size unwieldy — gestures were too big, and I felt silly using it.

It seems I’m not alone.

Last week, Jakob Nielsen unveiled his first usability study of the iPad. His summary — well, it sums it all up:

iPad apps are inconsistent and have low feature discoverability, with frequent user errors due to accidental gestures. An overly strong print metaphor and weird interaction styles cause further usability problems.

Nielsen’s analysis goes on — users want a home page experience for most apps, but they don’t get it; they want search tools, but search tools are not provided; they expect to scroll but instead have a confusing array of gestures to figure out.

Essentially, it seems that they want the Web in a tablet computer form, but publishers are creating apps that rely on print metaphors:

Overall, we think that sticking to the page-by-page model . . . is unnecessary and does not make use of the habits people have formed during the many years of browsing the Web. It makes users work more to impose a sequential model of navigating through the magazine. . . . This sequential page model implements some of the worst practices we’ve seen on the Web, in particular, linking with no information scent (the dreaded “Next article” and “Previous article” which say nothing about what those articles will cover).

Nielsen also wonders about the iPad’s implicit design, which encourages immersive experiences. Users, however, like to visit a lot of sites online, browsing, using search engines, sampling, and engaging in “information snacking” behavior. The iPad’s architecture runs counter to this, and users seem frustrated by it.

Interaction models are inconsistent on the iPad — some menus pop up, some slide out, some demand you to find a little menu button, etc. Users can miss entire suites of functionality because of these inconsistencies.

Gestures are the basis for the touchscreen experience, but they’re inconsistently deployed across apps, leading to spotty “gesture memory” among users:

Using many gestures can confuse people: they are likely to forget which gesture they’re supposed to use for what feature, and memories for different gestures often end up interfering with each other.

The summary on Nielsen’s site is, as always, well worth reading, and the full report is available as a free download. I’d recommend both.

But try reading them on your iPad first.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


7 Thoughts on "iPad Usability: Confusing, a Prevalence of Print Metaphors, and Weird Interaction Models"

Apple’s kind of put themselves in a funny spot here–they’ve been roundly criticized for trying to exert too much control over the user experience for the iPhone/iPad through limiting access to the iTunes Store and limiting developers’ choices in the tools they can use to build programs. Now they’re getting criticized for not exerting enough control over the details of the interface design used by those programmers. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Though I can only imagine the whining we’d hear from developers if Apple started rejecting apps because navigation is non-obvious or unintuitive.

It does raise an interesting question–we frequently talk about the future of publishing and point out the great value in editorial oversight and curation of information, that these are things that readers will still pay for despite the availability of lower-quality free alternatives. Is there a line where curation goes overboard, where exerting too much control makes it less attractive even though it’s of arguably higher quality?

A quick aside on usability–one point where I disagree with Nielsen is on the mobile versions of most websites. I’m an iPhone user, no iPad as of yet, and I can’t stand the vast majority of mobile versions of websites. Some are really nicely done, WordPress as one example, which gives me all the usability of the main site in a tidier package. I like Southwest’s mobile site for check-in as it’s completely devoid of any extraneous graphics and makes for a fast experience (though lately I’ve been using their app). Others though, are dreadful, for example The Consumerist mobile site which eliminates all the comments and limits you to browsing only a limited set of recent stories. Even worse are the mobile sites like the NY Post’s which divert you to the mobile home page when you click on a link that should bring you to an internal story, making it impossible to find what you want. So in my experience, mobile versions of sites can be superior, but very frequently are vastly inferior to going to the full site, even on a tiny iPhone screen.

Good comments, as usual. Recently, a Forrester researcher brought up the whole “curated computing” idea, which I and others (including Tim O’Reilly) instantly flagged as questionable. I don’t think users want their computing devices curated. I think they want their information curated. There’s a huge difference. “Curated computing” sounds like a euphemism for “lack of functionality.” It’s like saying that a Motorola StarTac is a “curated smartphone.” Gimme a break.

There are great mobile sites out there, but not everyone “gets it.” Sadly, despite 15 years of Web site experience, usability issues still haunt many.

I’d like to point out the difference between “standards” and “conventions.” The reasons we can navigate books so well is a result of hundreds of years of typographic conventions, not formal standards. Nobody mandates that a superior figure signals that you should look for a corresponding footnote in a book, or that a big bold subhead is a higher level in the hierarchy than a small italic one; we all “know” these things because they’re pretty universal typographic conventions. When you look at early books–15th and early 16th century ones — there’s all sorts of “weird” and confusing typography (or, things that are really hard to do in print but were easy to do on a manuscript) because those print conventions weren’t firmly established yet. To take a couple of more recent examples, I distinctly remember how confused I was the first time I saw the desktop GUI(having been used to the command-line user interface): all those floating, overlapping “windows” that are so obvious now were a visual jumble at first. There will always be folks who balk at these conventions or push at their limits; remember how visually challenging “Wired” magazine was when it first came out? I also remember seeing an early Web page design with underlined phrases colored blue that WEREN’T links, and saw people clicking like mad on them to no avail; even then, I thought “bad design — don’t they know that means that’s a link anchor?” These kinds of conventions are what the iPad obviously needs right now (especially for the gestures, which is a new aspect that the iPad’s print and online predecessors lack). It will soon get them. I for one would rather see them evolve organically rather than being mandated (= restricted) by Apple. The iPad’s conventions will start out drawing from both the print and online paradigms, as all these new environments initially mimic their predecessors, but if the tablet really does catch on I suspect we will eventually have tablet conventions that are so well established that we won’t even be aware of them anymore. — Bill Kasdorf

It’s a great point, Bill, especially because it seems that what confused a lot of people with iPad interfaces was that they didn’t follow online conventions but tried to stick with print conventions (or abandoned conventions altogether). And to Kevin’s comment, conventions smooth out those differing experiences. I know that the road signs in airports and parks are often confusing not because they aren’t worded correctly but because they don’t follow normal road sign conventions. With conventions, you probably get a mainstream reaction with some discrepancies around it, not total experience entropy.

I think this is an obvious comment, but I’ll make it anyway: This is nothing new, i.e., the problem isn’t an iPad problem but rather a user experience and design problem.

Most websites are completely unusable. This is not limited to mobile websites, although because of their small form factor they do tend to be even more unusable than their full-sized counterparts.

Most print magazines are exceptionally difficult to read, too. The current design of Conde Nast Traveler, for example–long seen as a leader in design–has been widely panned. It is pretty much impossible to determine where one piece (or ad) stops and another begins.

The problem also exists with road signs (although not so much in the US, where we have the most advanced system of signed public roadways in the world). You might not think of how a road sign appears as usability, but it is.

Bottom line: Give 10 people the same content/information and you’ll get 10 different user experiences for consuming that information. Some will be good, most will be bad. I don’t think we should be regulating what the experience is, though. Let users decide for themselves.

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