Usability expert faults iPad user interface, calls it "whacky"

I have lots of gripes about the iPad user experience. Apple describes the iPad as "magical." I find it "frustrating." Usability expert Jakob Nielsen explains why, indirectly answering the question I asked last month: "Is iPad just a proof of concept?" In a post with two dates -- April 26 and, today, May 10 (from the homepage) -- he explains in summary: "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."

Haha, with all the fuss about Apple being too strict about approving applications, maybe with iPad more strictness is needed to ensure usability. Or perhaps the problems are less the apps but fundamental weaknesses to Apple's iPad UI approach, some of which may be there for business reasons. Apple CEO has pitched iPad as the savior of print media, and big publishers have signed on for the ride. However, in Nielsen's UI studies, the out-dated print motif approach is one of iPad's biggest usability shortcomings.

Nielsen emphasizes that the findings are "preliminary." For time's sake, I'm referring to his blog post on top-line data. However, a 93-page report is available.

Nielsen's findings mirror my own experience using iPad. The good: I really like the increased use of fingers, because the most natural user is you -- or me. The UI is most compelling when there are two-finger, or two-hand interactions. Web browsing is exceptionally easy and more enjoyable on iPad than any device I've used. I can't imagine why anyone would use the New York Times or Wall Street Journal apps when the Websites are so much more consumable on iPad; it's about the fingers. What makes the Web so good resonates with what makes the apps so bad, from a usability perpective; more on that topic in a few paragraphs.

The bad: In my experience, the iPad UI -- and its supporting apps -- mix motifs and gestures, leading to lots of finger booboos. I accidentally tap this when I mean to tap that. News Websites are chock full of hot links that lead to accidental clicks when scrolling. After being so accustomed to the Web, the iPad motif is jarring. Navigating backwards, for example, is different from the browser-UI approach and inconsistent among apps. Features aren't always obvious and iPad's one-task-at-a-time orientation is frustrating.

Because of my experience, Nielsen's findings ring true. Some of them:

  • "The iPad has a read--tap asymmetry, where text big enough to be read is too small to touch."
  • "Most Web pages offer a rich and overstuffed experience compared to the iPad's sparse and regulated environment; when an iPad app suddenly launches users onto the Web, the transition can be jarring."
  • "Swiping for the next article is derived from a strong print metaphor in many content apps. In fact, this metaphor is so strong that you can't even tap a headline on the 'cover' page to jump to the corresponding article."
  • The iPad offers no homepages, even though users strongly desired homepage-like features in our testing...In electronic media, the linear concept of 'next article' makes little sense. People would rather choose for themselves where to go, selecting from a menu of related offerings."
  • "The current design strategy of iPad apps definitely aims to create more immersive experiences, in the hope of inspiring deeper attachments to individual information sources. This cuts against the lesson of the Web, where diversity is strength and no site can hope to capture users' sole attention."
  • "A strategic issue for iPad user experience design is whether to emphasize user empowerment or author authority. Early designs err on the side of being too restrictive. Using the Web has given people an appreciation for freedom and control, and they're unlikely to happily revert to a linear experience."
  • "Once they do figure out how something works, users can't transfer their skills from one app to the next. Each application has a completely different UI for similar features."
  • "The first crop of iPad user apps revived memories of Web designs from 1993, when Mosaic first introduced the image map that made it possible for any part of any picture to become a UI element. It's the same with iPad apps: anything you can show and touch can be a UI on this device. There are no standards and no expectations."

The latter finding is most significant from a usability perspective. Among my six principles of good product design: "Build on the familiar." Good design builds on something familiar to end users. For many of iPad's media content apps -- and that includes Apple's iBooks -- the familiar motif is the print metaphor. However, based on Nielsen's findings, which jive with my own experience, the Web browser is the more familiar -- and also more liberating -- motif. Apple presents a UI that could be liberating because of the intimate finger-touch approach only to chain users to the outdated, and increasingly archaic, print metaphor.

UI inconsistencies lead to other problems, such as confusion about when and where to swipe; features that are difficult to discover; swiping and other finger motions that are difficult to remember and "accidental activation" of functions or features.

Something else: Nielsen asserts that Apple defies long-standing design conventions about differentiating buttons and other functional features from content -- all so the UI can be prettier. "The penalty for this beauty is the re-emergence of a usability problem we haven't seen since the mid-1990s: Users don't know where they can click," he asserts.

In Apple's defense, there's more to usability than the UI. There also is UX, or user experience, which is as much emotive as it is functional. From a broader usability perspective, such as multitasking, I have major gripes about the iPhone UI. There are simply too many limitations compared to, say, the Google Nexus One. But iPhone is more a joy to use. There's something about UI design and tactile, responsiveness of the screen that make me feel good. I can say the same about using iPad. Despite UI shortcomings, iPad is pleasing to use. In my experience, people are more forgiving of shortcomings when they feel good when using the product.

Nielsen agrees, but cautions:

The first impression of many iPad apps is 'beautiful.' The change to a more soothing user experience is certainly welcome, especially for a device that may turn out to be more of a leisure computer than a business computer. Still, beauty shouldn't come at the cost of being able to actually use the apps to derive real benefits from their features and content.

Clearly, Apple has much work to do refining the iPad user interface and applying more consistent UI elements to the applications. Strangely, this is less a problem on iPhone/iPod touch, and I believe because of the constrained screen. There isn't space for much deviance. Nielsen asserts that iPad has a "wacky style." Yeah, but is that "magical and revolutionary," as iPad marketing asserts?

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