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Impact - A Blog by INM

Five Usability Challenges of the iPad

July 28, 2010 by Andrea Simmons
New York Times App on the iPad

After spending some quality time with the family iPad over the past two weeks, I’ve discovered some key usability challenges that are hard to ignore.  A major issue with the device is the lack of consistency between applications. Although Apple claims to have a stringent review process, the experience and the behaviours vary considerably between apps. At one extreme you have the infinite page scrolling of the Gap 1969 Stream application, which is nothing more than a massive page that you can navigate through and click on items to view. At the opposite extreme, you have the Flipboard application that transforms a simple RSS reader into a new type of interactive magazine.

Here are my top five usability observations with the iPad:

  • Navigation – There are many navigation inconsistencies between apps. In some cases, there are clear indications of how to go from section to section, but in others, like the USA Today application, the navigation is cryptic and hidden behind the main logo.
  • Orientation – Some apps don’t respect your orientation and actually force you to rotate the device and conform to their pre-set layout.  Allowing users to customize their view and then not respecting their choice is not a good practice.
  • Lack of “back” functionality – In many of the applications there is a distinct lack of the browser equivalent of the “back button”, meaning that there is no obvious way to navigate back to the main screen of the application without clicking on the iPad home button and re-launching the application. I found myself reaching for the home button too many times when all I was really looking for was a way to get back to the main screen of the application I was in.
  • Focus on the effects, not the content – In far too many applications the developers have shifted the focus onto the interaction and the effects instead of focusing on the content that’s being delivered. Well-used effects are designed to orient and navigate the users through the content, not to distract them from it.
  • Hidden features – Every so often I’ve tapped the wrong way or missed a link and discovered a hidden “feature”. For example, when you double tap on the screen with three fingers it will zoom your content up to fill the screen. This is not exactly an intuitive action that you would just try out.

My initial post on the iPad was quite critical, however in spending some time with the iPad, I can see the appeal as an internet and entertainment device. It does still have some usability and functionality kinks that need to be worked out, but the relative simpicity of the device makes it "easy enough" to meet the needs of most users today. Apple should define some iPad usability best practices for developers to follow to help unify functionality and make navigation more intuitive for users across all apps.