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The iPad is selling like hot cakes. Already, Apple has sold more than 1m of the tablet devices.

But how does the iPad stack up in terms of usability? According to a study conducted by Jakob Nielsen and his firm, Nielsen Norman Group, there's room for improvement.

To test the iPad's usability, Nielsen Norman Group recruited seven testers to use it with a variety of popular apps and websites. All seven had at least three months' worth of experience using the iPhone, but only one had experience with the iPad. That's a limitation worth noting, but it also means that this study might provide a good level of insight into the new experience new iPad users are likely to have.

What Nielsen Norman Group discovered is a "triple threat" of iPad disadvantages that "causes significant user confusion":

  • Low discoverability. In short, users are given no "perceived affordances" that indicate how different elements on the screen will react when they're touched. This is problematic, obviously, because without these perceived affordances, users are unlikely to know what they're supposed to do. Nielsen observes that the price users pay for the iPad's "etched-screen" "beauty" is that they "don't know where they can click."
  • Low memorability. Exacerbating the problem of low discoverability is the fact that iPad apps and websites behave differently. One example of this: touching a picture could produce five different results depending on the app or website. Because of this inconsistency, iPad users can't transfer their skills from one app or website to another.
  • Accidental activation. Low discoverability and low memorability above contribute to unexpected results when a screen element is accidentally activated.

Interestingly, initial criticism of the iPad was that it simply looked like an enlarged iPhone. And based on the testing conducted by Nielsen Norman Group, it appears that it's not just the device itself that has been scaled up, but the interface as well.

Unfortunately, Nielsen notes that the "iPad user interface shouldn't be a scaled-up iPhone UI." The iPad's size and physical characteristics make it a much more ideal device than the iPhone to browse the web with. Whereas Nielsen's past iPhone usability studies revealed that iPhone users prefer the app experience to the web experience, Apple is billing the iPad as "the best way to experience the web."

That Apple is marketing the iPad as a web browsing device makes sense. Given that the iPad sort of sits in a no-man's land market between smartphones and netbooks/laptops, one would think that if the iPad is going to realize its full potential, consumers would need to embrace it as one.

The question is whether the usability issues that surfaced in this study will hinder the iPad's adoption over the long haul. It will certainly be interesting to see if and how Apple, app developers and web designers address some of these issues.

Photo credit: cogdogblog via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 11 May, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2378 more posts from this author

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Josh

Apple fan boy Gavin? Thought so.

about 6 years ago

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media_lady

I've been using my iPad for over two weeks and have experienced nothing of the sort.

I should note that I was a skeptic about the device, seeing lots of drawbacks (such as no USB, no Flash, not being able to quite replace my laptop).

After just a minute with the iPad, I was wowed by the ease, smoothness and speed of my browsing and navigating experience. Our Saturday mornings have been transformed; it's now a scene of espresso, magazines and an iPad. I find it to be the perfect lounging companion. I also found discovering the various additional functions and capabilities a delight, an adventure all part of the fun - the complete opposite of an unintuitive and frustrating experience of, say, figuring out how to program the VCR years ago.

As for the notion that the iPad has "low perceivability" - of cours epeople who've never touched an iPhone or experienced a touch-device as advanced as this are going to know what it does, or how it reacts? Imagine giving a TV remote to someone who's never seen a TV in their life. What makes the iPad so great is that it's such a groundbreaking device.

Forget flimsy research studies of 7 people stating it's difficult to use, go play with it at an Apple store; it has to be experienced. That's what's gotten 1mm+ off the shelves.

about 6 years ago

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Milosevic

Do not blaspheme the Apple and it's holy products, lest ye feel the wrath of a million fanboys.

about 6 years ago

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Robert G

to be fair - it's more people bashing apple than fanboys these days. i'm sure nielson may have some valid points - but i gather people who bought one are more than happy so far

about 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Gavin,

Jakob Nielsen and his firm are quite well-respected in this area and their findings here are available for everyone to read in a 93-page report that doesn't cost a cent. Trying to hint that there's some sort of vested interest behind the report is really stretching here. Had you actually read it, you would know that the study was not commissioned.

The purpose of this post was to detail Nielsen's findings. It was not to speculate about the "likely impact" OS4 might have on them. Operative word: speculate.

You're certainly welcome to disagree with the findings based on your own experience but I do find it interesting that you believe I should have downplayed the findings by acknowledging that platforms like the iPad go through an "iterative process." That's a strange caveat to add if you truly believe that the iPad is already so wonderful and has no usability issues.

I look forward to your 93-page rebuttal to Nielsen.

media_lady,

You should be writing copy for Apple. Seriously.

about 6 years ago

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Hubert Pereira

The fact that Apple hit the million mark in 28 days itself speaks volumes. And  Apple managing to do it even when the economy is still struggling to pull itself out of a recession may be noted as remarkable achievement.

There has been sufficient time from the date of release until now for official reviews and user comments to slow down the momentum of sales, however this is not the case. If this Gizmo was as bad as some would love it to be, that argument does not hold any water.

From where I am writing, the iPad is selling at double the declared US prices, which is unacceptable, but who am I to blame if the product has made itself to the top product of 2010. So the poor will have to wait until sufficient stocks come on the shelf, and when is that going to be? I have read analysis that the total sale for the next two years are going to be in the region of five to seven million units - and can the production line stand such a stress?

So I am of the opinion that in spite of the shot comings and negative reviews and / or articles being published in the media, iPad is there to stay for now - and will keep attracting attention all over the world.

Europe will have to wait yet another 3 weeks before they get their hands on an iPad. How long will Asia have to wait for it to hit the shelves?

And finally I am wondering where are those people who rhymed its name with the maxiPad....

about 6 years ago

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application development

I also think that the problems you've mentioned are kind of inessential and the research seems to be rather subjective, 'cause I've never even thought about such difficulties and have never read about this before. But anyway there's sertainly something to think about after such a research. It was interesting to learn about this, probably now I will pay attention to these usability flaws, though I'd better not concentrated on them;)

about 6 years ago

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Andy

  • Low discoverability. In short, users are given no "perceived affordances" that indicate how different elements on the screen will react when they're touched. This is problematic, obviously, because without these perceived affordances, users are unlikely to know what they're supposed to do. Nielsen observes that the price users pay for the iPad's "etched-screen" "beauty" is that they "don't know where they can click."
=> Have the study investigated whether these people were particularly risk averse compared with other members of the population? How about patience? Have these "testers" heard about the "trial and error" method or things such as learning curve? => Have they been given tasks such as navigate to a specific website and they were not able to perform the task (i.e. failed) after half an hour?
  • Low memorability. Exacerbating the problem of low discoverability is the fact that iPad apps and websites behave differently. One example of this: touching a picture could produce five different results depending on the app or website. Because of this inconsistency, iPad users can't transfer their skills from one app or website to another.
=> Who's fault is that not all the applications work the same way? Should Apple be more strict than it is now in terms of controlling what applications are accepted to the Appstore? => Should all applications work the same way hindering innovation and experimentation with user interface design? => Have these testers been restricted in any way carrying out the task they wanted over a prolonged period of time due to "low memorability"? => Since when are we calling touching a screen "skill"? => How much is the average learning curve on an app? I.e. how important it is for the user to transfer their skills? If the learning curve is 5 minutes then can't they just learn to use every app separately?
  • Accidental activation. Low discoverability and low memorability above contribute to unexpected results when a screen element is accidentally activated.
=> How bad was the impact of the unexpected results? Did these consequences caused damage to property, life and so on? Loss of electrons in circuit?  => So if you make a mistake now it's Apple to blame? => Did the research examined the users attitude to the device? (Bad attitude can lead to more mistakes)? => Are they suggesting that it's easier to accidentally activate something on an iPad than on a PC with keyboard or mouse? Have you ever mistyped a word? => Are they suggesting that the elements of the user interface are too small (i.e. people accidentally activate something because too many buttons are next to each other? => How the frequency of accidental activation changes along the learning curve? Has this been examined? I think either the article or the research was seriously flawed. Or Both. My understanding from what I read is that it was definitely not the iPad.

about 6 years ago

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Craig M

For the last decade I've watched people double click on applications to open them (correct), then go to a website and double-click on links to activate them (incorrect).

To me this says that the difference between web and desktop has always been confusing people, it's hardly a recent problem discovered on the iPad (there at least people have the "single touch" expectation for both apps and websites).

about 6 years ago

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David Jones

What is with people trying to find something wrong with this device as oppose to giving a fair view and telling us how good it is at the things it's designed to be good at? Yep big Apple lover, do you know why, because their better by far in so many ways!!!!

about 6 years ago

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