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A year ago, Jakob Nielsen's firm, Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) looked at the usability of apps on the world's hottest new computing device, the iPad. What it found: problem areas that create "significant user confusion." The three most prominent: low discoverability, low memorability and accidental activation of UI elements.

At the time NNG conducted its study, the iPad was new, so it wasn't unexpected to see that iPad apps were still rough around the edges usability wise. The tablet is a decidedly different device, and with no best practices yet developed based on real-world observation, developers of iPad apps were sort of left to experiment.

Today, the iPad is more than a year old, and has millions of owners. So NNG decided to look at usability on the device again to see if apps have seen improvement.

The good news: there has been. Some prominent apps, such as those offered by brands like USA Today, have been updated and some of the updates have created better user experiences.

By and large, NNG believes iPad app usability "is much improved." The bad news: despite meaningful progress, many of the same issues NNG discovered in its first study persist.

Five common iPad usability issues

Accidental activation

For iPad apps, common usability issues are touchable areas that are too small or placed too closely to other touchable areas, and touchable areas that are not obviously touchable. These issues frequently cause accidental activation issues, "particularly in apps lacking a Back button".

Users disliked typing on the screen

The Nielsen study found that most users didn't like typing on the screen, as 'users must split their attention between finding the keys on the screen and reading what they typed'.

This reduces user willingness to complete registration forms. This is something publishers and online retailers will need to pay very close attention to if they hope to boost iPad conversions.

Users would tolerate a certain amount of typing when they saw a need for it, such as to complete a purchase, but became annoyed with unnecessary registration and longer forms. 

The key here is to keep required data entry to a minimum, provide shortcuts where possible, and deal with typos and common input errors. 

Small target areas

This is a common problem, especially when using desktop versions of websites on the iPad. The thumb or finger is less precise than the combination of mouse and cursor on a laptop or PC, so users can easily click on the wrong links. 

To avoid this problem, provide plenty of space between links, and make buttons and calls to action nice and big. 

Swipe ambiguity

Many apps, especiaily magazine-style apps, require users to swipe to navigate between pages. This is an easy and intuitive way to read content on the iPad, but it can cause problems if it is not implemented well. 

If users aren't clear where on the screen they need to swipe, such as when there are other element on the same page that require horizontal navigation they may assume the app is broken. 

Broad target areas for swiping and visual clues such as arrows can help to minimise this problem. 

Excess navigation

Nielsen's study also found a tendency to cram too much navigation into apps, such as long lists of thumbnails in news apps - the BBC app is one such example. 

This makes it harder for users to decide what to click on, and makes it more likely that they will select the wrong option. 

The findings highlight an important characteristic about the iPad: different types of websites and apps may have very different UI requirements. On the web, there are common best practices which often apply broadly.

On the iPad, there may be significant differences between, say, a productivity app and a news website.

Companies hoping to create wonderful iPad experiences will therefore need to remind themselves that designing for the iPad is not designing for the web.

Patricio Robles

Published 27 May, 2011 by Patricio Robles

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

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