The State of iPad Usability

By Richard MacManus

The latest report from web usability guru Jakob Nielsen is about iPad usability. It's the second such report from Nielsen Norman Group and it features in-depth analysis about how people are using iPads. As is usual with Nielsen reports, it also lustily lists all the design flaws that his users found - such as touchable areas that are too small, low discoverability and "swipe ambiguity."

I've found some of Jakob Nielsen's past reports too easy to dismiss, due to generalizations about current trends and a lack of specifics when critiquing websites. But this report about iPad usability is a fine return to form for the Web veteran.

The iPad report, co-authored by Raluca Budiu and Jakob Nielsen, is a hefty 129 pages and is available for free download. The report tested 26 iPad apps and six websites. The testers in this study were required to have at least two months experience using iPads.

There has been "good uptake of several of our recommendations from last year," claims the report - such as apps implementing back buttons, broader use of search, homepages and direct access to articles by touching headlines on the front page.

The report reiterates a common understanding about the iPad, that it's mostly for media consumption. Email is "the only slight exception to the rule." Specifically, the Nielsen participants reported using their iPads for games, checking email and social network sites, watching movies and videos, and reading news.

Website or App?

This is a question that many online services are asking themselves as they consider the iPad.

Nielsen reports that websites are generally very usable on the iPad. However the report cautions of a design issue it labels "read-tap asymmetry," which is when "the content is readable, but the links and widgets are too small to touch reliably."

iPad applications had many more problems though, in comparison to websites.

The study tested a few tasks that were performed both on the Web (meaning via a Web browser on the iPad) and using an application. The report concludes that "our participants were always successful on the Web [but] a third of the corresponding tasks that involved apps ended in failure." The report gives two reasons for this:

  1. The apps contained less content than the websites.
  2. The app design was confusing or the app made the user work more.

Dr. Nielsen's Design Prescriptions

Confusing design is where Jakob Nielsen traditionally leaps to the rescue, with his "keep it simple" philosophy for successful usability. Sometimes Nielsen is guilty of being too dismissive of current Web trends. Indeed, his own website is often criticized by Web designers for its 1990s style minimalism.

However, the guidelines in this particular report are well defined and backed up with research. For example, on having large enough touchable areas:

"Research has shown that the best target size for widgets is 1cm x 1cm for touch devices; however, we still see some apps that have tiny targets, far below that recommended limit."

The report lists many other examples and they are well worth perusing if you're a developer or designer of websites and/or apps.

There's also some useful analysis of how iPad usage differs from the computer. For example, this extract regarding media websites:

"From our testing of news and magazine apps, it turns out that most users read just a few articles per session, and spend most of their time scanning headlines and summaries for something of interest. That's why it's important to support the browsing activity better by giving it extra space, especially if there are a lot of news stories to go through."

The report offers a full case study about magazine apps, starting on page 96.

A Return to Form for Jakob Nielsen

Overall, this is a detailed report that is packed with examples and screenshots. It's free and is a must-read for anybody designing websites or apps for the iPad.

It seems that the era of mobile phones and tablets has given Jakob Nielsen a second wind in the field of Web usability, after years of not very useful hot air about Web 2.0 PC trends. Nielsen is back to his best with this report on iPad usability. Welcome back, Mr. Nielsen.