iPad Usability: Year One

by Jakob Nielsen on May 23, 2011

Summary: iPad apps are much improved, but new usability problems have emerged, such as swipe ambiguity and navigation overload.


A year after our first usability study of iPad apps, it's nice to see that iPad user interfaces have become decidedly less wacky. It's even better to see good uptake of several of our recommendations from last year, including apps with:

  • back buttons,
  • broader use of search,
  • homepages, and
  • direct access to articles by touching headlines on the front page.

Even so, this year's testing still found many cases in which users accidentally touched something and couldn't find their way back to their start point, as well as magazine apps that required multiple steps to access the table of contents.

One of the worst designs last year was USA Today 's section navigation, which required users to touch the newspaper logo despite the complete lack of any perceived affordance that the logo would have this effect. During our new testing earlier this month, several users had the same problems as last year's test participants, even though we recruited people with more iPad experience.

Happily, a few days after our test sessions, USA Today released a new version of their app, with somewhat improved navigation:

Before and after screenshots of upper left part of USA Today's iPad application
USA Today section navigation.
Left: As tested a year ago and earlier this month.
Right: The new design with an explicit
Sections button.

One of our test users was a regular user of this app. Although he said he'd eventually discovered the section navigation on his own, during the test session he complained bitterly about how difficult it had been to find. Users rarely remember the details of interaction design widgets, which is one of the key reasons that it's better to watch users than to ask them about usability. The fact that this user recalled his troubles months later is testament to how strikingly annoying the old navigation design was. It's also astonishing that it took a full year to get this usability flaw changed after we originally reported it.

User Research

Normally, it wouldn't be worth doing a new study this soon: usability guidelines change very slowly because they derive from human behavior, not technology. However, in this case, it's reasonable to conduct new research now, a year after the iPad launch.

Our original research necessarily tested users who had no prior experience using iPads. A complete lack of experience is obviously not representative of typical tablet usability. At this point, even first-time users of websites or apps will have visited many websites before on the iPad and will have used many apps before opening a new app for the first time.

For the new study, we recruited users with at least 2 months' experience using their iPads. Typically, we recruit people with at least a year's experience. However, because the iPad was released only slightly more than a year before our study, anybody with a full year's experience would have been a very early adopter — and thus completely unrepresentative of mainstream users.

In any case, 2 months' iPad use is definitely enough to learn the user interface conventions and to have racked up substantial time using touchscreen apps.

A second difference between the two studies is that we originally tested the launch applications that shipped at the same time as the iPad itself; they were thus developed by teams working in isolation under Apple-imposed secrecy that prevented them from gaining user feedback. In our first report, many of the bad designs we documented were due not to bad designers, but rather to the inevitable outcome of non-user-centered design projects.

In contrast, the apps and sites tested in the new study were designed by teams that benefited both from our original usability report and from whatever user feedback they'd collected on their own during the past year.

In the new study, we systematically tested 26 iPad apps and 6 websites. We also tested many other apps that our test participants had installed on their iPads, but these tests were less systematic, with typically only a single user per application.

In total, 16 iPad users participated in the new study. Half were men, half were women. The age distribution was fairly even for 14 users between the ages of 21–50 years; we also had 2 users older than 50. Occupations spanned the gamut, from personal chef to realtor to vice president of human resources.

Our insights about iPad usability are further informed by findings from various client studies and by many aspects of last year's original research, which continue to be relevant.

Replicated Findings

Many of last year's usability findings were seen again this year:

  • Read–tap asymmetry for websites, with content that was large enough to read but too small to tap. We did see some examples across a few websites that were designed to work well on tablets, with bigger touchable areas. For example, Virgin America's reservation page let users touch anywhere in the entire table cell containing a desired departure, as opposed to having to touch the much smaller area represented by the radio button (or even its label).
  • Websites worked fairly well in the standard iPad browser as long as users didn't have complex tasks; focusing on reading and looking at pictures or video was relatively easy. (If your service requires substantial interaction, consider an app instead of a site.)
  • Touchable areas were too small in many apps, as well as too close together, increasing the risk of touching the wrong one.
  • Accidental activation due to unintended touches again caused trouble, particularly in apps lacking a Back button.
  • Low discoverability, with active areas that didn't look touchable.
  • Users disliked typing on the touchscreen and thus avoided the registration process.

Last year's main finding was not a big issue this year: users weren't as tormented by widely diverging user interfaces. Apps have become more consistent and standardized, making them easier to use.

New Findings

I thought I'd driven a stake through splash screens many years ago and eradicated them from the Web, but apparently splash screens are super-vampires that can haunt users from beyond the grave. Several new iPad apps have long introductory segments that might be entertaining the first time, but soon wear out their welcome. Bad on sites, bad in apps. Don't.

Swipe ambiguity plagued users when multiple items on the same screen could be swiped. Carousels often caused this usability problem in apps that also relied on swiping to move between pages. Many users couldn't turn the page because they swiped in the wrong spot. Their typical conclusion? The app is broken.

Many apps squeezed information into too-small areas, making it harder to recognize and manipulate. In a related problem, apps featured too much navigation. This design problem was so prevalent that it deserves its own acronym: TMN. While it's true that our training course on navigation design covers 25 different navigation techniques, any given user interface should contain only a few. These two problems interact, because a larger number of navigation options gives each one less space.

One example of excess navigation is the content popovers that many apps use to display thumbnails of available articles. Sometimes the popovers appear as menus or carousels, and sometimes they work by scrubbing a slider. Whatever the implementation, these long lists of thumbnails had lower usability than homepage-like tables of contents, which users could return to when they wanted to navigate to different locations rather than simply continuing with the next article.

Tablets Are Shared Devices

Except for people who lived alone, our study participants uniformly reported sharing their iPads with other family members. When we asked them to walk us through the apps on their tablet, people frequently came across apps that someone else in their family had installed.

The iPad's shared nature contrasts with the much more personal nature of mobile phones, which are typically owned and used by single individuals.

Obviously, tablets might become truly personal devices in the future as competition drives down the prices. But for now, you should assume that you're designing for a multi-user device. For example, users might be reluctant to stay permanently signed in on an app, and they'll still forget their passwords. It's also important to design recognizable application icons so they'll stand out in the crowded listings of several users' apps.

What Are iPads Used For?

The most common uses reported by our participants were playing games, checking email and social networking sites, watching videos/movies, and reading news. People also browsed the Web and performed some shopping-related research. But most users felt that it was easier to shop on their desktop computers. Some also worried about the security of e-commerce purchases on the iPad.

A common characteristic of all this iPad use is that it's heavily dominated by media consumption, except for the small amount of production involved in responding to emails.

About half the users carried the iPad with them frequently; the other half used it mainly at home or on longer trips.

We've come far in just a year. iPad usability is much improved, and people habitually use many apps. As always, this is no reason to relax our vigilance; new usability problems have appeared and the old ones haven't been totally vanquished. Mainly, though, the future is bright for touch-driven tablet user experience.

Full Research Report: Free Download

The full report from our updated iPad usability testing is available for download (free), as is the original research report (same link for both downloads).


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