Usability Ain’t Everything – A Response to Jakob Nielsen’s iPad Usability Study

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The conclusion of the Nielsen Norman Group’s April 2010 study of iPad usability is that it has problems and more standards are the solution. Yes, the iPad is imperfect, but resorting to standards as the solution is an antiquated reaction that fails to consider how interactive systems have evolved. We’re not Usability Engineers anymore (not most of us, anyway); we’re User Experience Designers. Experience is more than just usability.

I’ve covered this ground on Johnny Holland before. Just after I got my iPhone I came to many of the same conclusions Nielsen did about the how the iPhone is difficult to learn. But here’s the thing; I didn’t stop there. I talked about how some of the factors that made the iPhone difficult to use also made it fun to use, which is why it has flown off shelves since it was introduced. As I got used to it I began to think more about how playfulness was more delightful than pure usability in some contexts and vice versa. Something I use occasionally for very specific tasks delights me if it is simple and usable. But something I use often or for more amorphous tasks that is simply usable will either provoke no emotional response or, at worst, will become tedious. In that context, a more playful interaction style will keep me engaged and might even lift my mood a little.

This is the perspective from which I’ll look at what Nielsen found, identify where it’s valuable, and point out where it’s a little myopic.

“Wacky Interfaces”

Wacky. Yes, “wacky.” As in, “Isn’t it cute how kids these days are trying to create beautiful experiences.” Beauty does not require an unusable interface, but a beautiful experience might ask you to engage with it a little more deeply through a lack of obvious affordances.

For more than a decade, when we ask users for their first impression of (desktop) websites, the most frequently-used word has been “busy.” In contrast, the first impression of many iPad apps is “beautiful.” The change to a more soothing user experience is certainly welcome, especially for a device that may turn out to be more of a leisure computer than a business computer. Still, beauty shouldn’t come at the cost of being able to actually use the apps to derive real benefits from their features and content.

He almost gets it. No, the iPad is no business computer, and that’s exactly why beauty is an asset. People will, much of the time, interact with this device in order to have an experience rather than complete a task. Nielsen’s wholesale discounting of beauty fails to take into account that some apps will be experiential and content based while some will be functional and task based. Engaging with a system is not what people want to do when they have a task to complete. That’s when basic usability is more delightful.

Long-standing GUI design guidelines for desktop user designs dictate that buttons look raised (and thus pressable) and that scrollbars and other interactive elements are visually distinct from the content.

The iPad does not have a Graphical User Interface but a gestural one. GUI design guidelines do not necessarily apply when users can interact directly with the content.

For the last 15 years of Web usability research, the main problems have been that users don’t know where to go or which option to choose — not that they don’t even know which options exist. With iPad UIs, we’re back to this square one.

The iPad is also not the Web. Interacting with apps is completely different from interacting with websites. Most apps have far fewer options than the average website, lessening the potential for confusion. On top of that, people use apps in a much more focused way than they use a website. Users can access the entire Web when they open their browser, but when they open an app they choose to focus on that app’s content and functionality only. In that context, a more deeply engaging, exploratory design can enhance the user’s experience.

“Inconsistent Interaction Design”

I take issue with this finding because Nielsen evaluated multiple applications. That’s like saying it’s bad that Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop are inconsistent. They allow completely different audiences to accomplish completely different tasks. He considers it confusing that the same gesture affects the same type of content differently in different apps. When there’s a limited gestural vocabulary (and there has to be) and a diversity of contexts, it’s easy and usually risk-free to experiment with figuring out the correct gesture if you get it wrong the first time. And because it’s gestural, it’s inherently playful and fun. It’s not a chore like trying to parse Word’s menus or toolbars.

Nielsen says that iPad UIs suffer from the “triple threat” of low discoverability (non-obvious controls), low memorability (difficult to remember inconsistently applied gestures), and accidental activation. I agree with the first and the last, mostly. Non-obvious controls can encourage exploration and playfulness in some contexts, but they can be frustrating in others. Accidental activation is certainly annoying, but it’s usually easy to deactivate whatever was activated. That problem in particular I think is due to the absolute newness of the apps and the platform. At least two iPad developers I’ve heard from indicated that they changed the design of their apps once the iPad was released.

The second problem he identifies, low memorability, I completely disagree with. My pre-literate two-year-old daughter knows how to unlock my iPhone & iPad, navigate to her favorite drawing app, launch it, draw with it, and change the various options. It took very few demonstrations before she learned this. If you look on YouTube there are videos of small children expertly navigating iPhones and iPads. You show them how to do it once, they do it, and they remember it.

The link between physical motion and cognitive development (especially in children) is well established in cognitive research, making gestural UIs much more easy to remember than your typical desktop GUI. On top of that, the number of gestures that are possible is pretty limited. Even if you don’t perform the correct gesture first, it won’t take long to figure out what the right one is.

“Crushing Print Metaphor”

Nielsen again complains that iPad apps are not like the Web.

The current design strategy of iPad apps definitely aims to create more immersive experiences, in the hope of inspiring deeper attachments to individual information sources. This cuts against the lesson of the Web, where diversity is strength and no site can hope to capture users’ sole attention.

My friend Pete Barry likes to talk about the value of experience. The reason people choose to consume content through these “limited” apps is because the experience they provide is valuable to them in some way. That experience is a benefit rather than a drawback. Besides, the open Web is just two taps away.

“Card Sharks vs. Holy Scrollers

Nielsen references Jef Raskin’s differentiation between “two fundamentally different hypertext models,” Cards and Scrolls, indicating that iPad apps mostly fall into the Card model. On a Card, all the interaction occurs on a fixed size canvas that is swapped out to provide access to more content or functionality. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what a Scroll is.

Nielsen said:

There’s no real reason we can’t have both design models: cards on the iPad and scrolls on the desktop (and phones somewhere in the middle). But it’s also possible that we’ll see more convergence and that the Web’s interaction style will prove so powerful that users will demand it on the iPad as well.

If I read that right, I actually agree with him. The iPad doesn’t have to force all apps to subscribe to one model; each app can use whichever model is most appropriate for its context of use. I’ve even seen some apps that mix the models, like Early Edition. This newsreader arranges RSS feed articles like a newspaper, with a home page and different pages for each individual feed. Wherever an article appears on any of these pages, you can actually scroll in place to get a sense of what it’s about! Granted, this is something users are likely to discover accidentally, but it’s a pleasing, delightful interaction nonetheless.

Nielsen’s Recommendations

This is what really gets me going. And not in a good way. He has four, but they really roll up into three:

  • Make iPad UIs look more like GUIs
  • Make iPad interaction design more like the Web
  • “Abandon the hope of value-add through weirdness.”

And yes, that third is a direct quote. In 2010. Beauty isn’t weird. Compelling interactions aren’t weird. Both of these are critical components of modern interaction design, where designers seek to go beyond simple usability and create positive emotional experiences that build loyalty and emotional attachment. What is perhaps most confusing about these recommendations, though, are the first two. Jakob Nielsen is a smart guy, and clearly the iPad exists within entirely different contexts of use than a desktop GUI or a website.

What I really want to know is this: why does Nielsen feel that iPad apps should be designed for contexts they won’t be used in?

—–

Header image by nDevil /CC 2.0

Fred Beecher

Fred Beecher is a Lead User Experience Consultant at Evantage Consulting in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Fred has been working in user experience design for 13 years, doing user research, information architecture, interaction design, and usability evaluation for a diverse array of clients like Medtronic, UnitedHealthcare, 3M, RBC Dain Rauscher, General Mills, Thomson Reuters, National Marrow Donor Program, and more.

56 comments on this article

  1. Jess on

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Fred! I had the same reactions, but couldn’t be motivated to articulate it. Nielsen and the invocation of his name by clients mostly just makes me roll my eyes and sigh. Why is he considering the UI in a context for which it wasn’t designed…? Because he’s not a designer. Never has been, never will be.

  2. Thanks Fred

    You have hit the nail on the head. Its the experience, not the usability. There just seems to be something lacking from Nielsens review, its as you say he’s just not getting it. These devices are about easy of use, but they are almost game like in experience. Maybe its the start of something. A move away from the boring UI of the non designers (such as Nielsen) to the world where we can have beauty and a practice device.

    Still can’t believe the quote about ‘Abandon the hope of value-add through weirdness”.

    Nielsen in some ways is becoming like Gartner.. really just another hurdle to be overcome. Usability is not a process it’s an experience.

  3. Excellent article, Fred. What Nielsen (and most others) fail to see is that the iPad is a social device, not a computer. You pass it around. You play with it. It becomes integrated with other activities in a way that a laptop (or even a netbook) never really can. It’s even acceptable to pull out an iPad at a dinner gathering. You wouldn’t dream of doing that with a “computer”. This is also why the “beauty” aspect you’ve so eloquently highlighted is essential.

    As far as I’m concerned, the problem with the iPad is one of politics. The lack of Flash is a major annoyance. And I find the iTunes dependence very restrictive. But I’ll put up with a lot of inconvenience because the advantages so strongly outweigh my irritation.

  4. Ashim on

    You couldn’t have said it better!

    Time and again, Nielsen has proved that he is no authority when it comes to embracing new technologies (flash is evil) and fresh interactions (his iphone reviews). He is no doubt an expert on user testing and methods of user research.

    I downloaded the whole 93 page report and as proclaimed by Neilsen, is preliminary to say the least.

    I published my stab at his review on my blog some days ago-
    http://ashim.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/my-observations-of-the-ipad/

  5. Ashim on

    Time and again, Nielsen has proved that he is no authority when it comes to embracing new technologies (flash is evil) and fresh interaction styles (his iphone reviews). He is no doubt an expert on user testing and methods of user research.

    I downloaded the whole 93 page report and as proclaimed by Neilsen, is preliminary to say the least.

    Here’s my observations of the iPad and my views on his review
    http://ashim.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/my-observations-of-the-ipad/

  6. Stacy on

    Sometimes we just over-analyze things. I believe Apple has done a fine job of thinking through both the design and usability of the iPad. It’s a new model and will naturally solicit criticism, but it seems like a very logical progression for human interaction with a ‘computing’ device.

  7. I don’t know if Nielsen ever reviewed usability of the iPOD but if he did my guess is he would say that the touch wheel was too different from the norm to catch. But of course spend ten minutes using an iPOD and you wonder why everything doesn’t have a touchwheel.

  8. Thanks for the comments all.

    Since this article was submitted for publication, I’ve come across an additional article by Dan Saffer in which he hypothesizes the maximum number of gestures an untrained person can remember to be, yes, seven plus or minus two. While this certainly isn’t rigorous research, it’s based on some focused thinking and it supports some of the arguments I make in the article. http://www.kickerstudio.com/blog/2009/01/how-many-gestures-can-users-remember/

    Eric: This whole walled-garden thing is something I’ve thought a lot about lately. It should grate against the part of me that hates restriction, censorship, and control. But the part of me that appreciates a smooth, integrated experience is putting the beat-down on my inner punk. To me, convenience is exactly what the walled-garden offers. Watching what people with jailbroken phones, etc. go through reinforces that. I don’t want to fuck around with my technology anymore. I just want to use it.

    Ashim: Aren’t you amused that now we’re ALL (mostly) saying Flash is evil? : ) Thank you for the irony, HTML5. : )

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  10. Mael on

    You have arguments, he opposes studies. You should conduct such a study to be credible.
    I agree with some of your objections, but usability (AND user experience) needs research. Every usability praticionner know how surprising it is to see users breaking our long-established believes about what user like to do in some context.
    Sorry, but a blog post against a Nielsen report can’t be enough.

  11. Jordan Roher on

    I’m sorry, but I disagree with this response. Is it a response? Jakob Nielsen does actual usability studies with real users watching them use a product, and derives conclusions from evidence. Your article has one datum (your daughter can use a drawing app) and basically says “nuh uh” and “he doesn’t get it” over and over again with invisible, Wikipedia-style [citation needed] all over the place.

    This sentence is highly suspect:

    “People will, much of the time, interact with this device in order to have an experience rather than complete a task.”

    What does “have an experience” mean? Are you talking about a game? Games are experiences, but are the opposite of usability: I play a game to be challenged, to find solutions that are non-obvious and require sharp reflexes.

    The iPad that Apple is selling *does* things. You know, tasks. Watch an ad or go to their website. You can check your e-mail on an iPad. That’s a task. Visit a stock market website to check your stocks. Another task. Buy a book. Task. Buy an app. Task. And then the apps themselves are just bundles of tasks. The Facebook app lets me leave a message on my friend’s wall. Task. The bird watching app lets me find a bird based on its picture. Task. On and on. Unless you use your iPad 100% to play games, I’d say that, much of the time, you’re using it to accomplish something, whether it’s checking the weather or your calendar for the week. You know, tasks.

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  14. I think the thing that shocks me the most is that they wrote a 93-page report based on the experiences of seven users. How could you possibly extrapolate that much data from such a small population?

    Thanks for the thoughtful, well-written article.

  15. headbiznatch on

    “But something I use often or for more amorphous tasks that is simply usable will either provoke no emotional response or, at worst, will become tedious. In that context, a more playful interaction style will keep me engaged and might even lift my mood a little.”

    that’s a gem of a thought which sums up how i feel about modern UX design. i enjoy including useful AND playful aspects to the interface and hope that they eliminate some drudgery from the day-to-day use of my app. in a perfect world, the joy of using a given UI might even encourage someone to get started on that work, just because using the app is pleasurable. these elements also mean that i personally enjoy using the app as i test, an effect which feels like a small win right off the bat.

    thanks for sharing your insight.

  16. Lukas on

    “I talked about how some of the factors that made the iPhone difficult to use also made it fun to use, which is why it has flown off shelves since it was introduced.”

    I know this is not the point of the essay, but I feel like I have to rant a bit about this. I’m not sure where this conflation of “difficult” and “fun” started, but most people don’t find difficult things fun. The psychology of fun is pretty well established. In the context of computers, applications, websites, and games, “fun” is a result of feeling in control, of flow, of mastering something we *perceive* to be a difficult problem. Note the word “perceive”. If a problem is actually difficult and we have trouble mastering it, or if achieving something is harder than we think it should be, we don’t feel fun; instead, we get frustrated.

    “That’s like saying it’s bad that Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop are inconsistent.”

    But it is bad. You don’t want to relearn how to close windows for every new application you install.

    “He considers it confusing that the same gesture affects the same type of content differently in different apps.”

    And it is confusing. Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid, but that doesn’t make it less confusing. There is no obvious way of telling which gestures can be applied to which objects, so if different applications behave differently, people will make mistakes. That’s confusing.

    “When there’s a limited gestural vocabulary (and there has to be) and a diversity of contexts, it’s easy and usually risk-free to experiment with figuring out the correct gesture if you get it wrong the first time.”

    There are so many different possible gestures that it is often impossible to figure out how to do something purely with experimentation. Making this worse is the fact that there is no consistent way of undoing changes on an iPad, so exploration is usually *not* risk-free.

    “The second problem he identifies, low memorability, I completely disagree with. My pre-literate two-year-old daughter knows how to unlock my iPhone & iPad, navigate to her favorite drawing app, launch it, draw with it, and change the various options.”

    Simple, natural gestures are easy to remember. I don’t think anyone disputes that. Unfortunately, not all gestures used by iPad apps are as simple and obvious as swiping a slider.

    What mainily confuses me about this essay is the implied idea that you can’t have a usable application that is also engaging, fun, beautiful, and encourages exploration. Usability merely means that people are capable of figuring out how to use an application. It doesn’t mean that you have to make it boring.

    Nielsen points out that there are things on the iPad which generally tend to make applications harder to use, but I don’t think he suggests that all applications have to follow all of his “rules”, or that they apply to all applications regardless of context. Obviously, usability is a question of context, and not every rule applies to every application in every situation.

  17. It’s surely significant that (a) iPad devs have adopted a print-like visual paradigm in their UI and (b) Nielsen doesn’t get it. Usability, as UI people have been telling each other for years while doing the opposite in their day jobs, is about simplicity: do less, present less, refine down, reduce confusion. What we do in print design is very different. Like you said, it’s not about affordance but experience.

    Often what makes a magazine compelling is its opacity. You should be able to see what it is immediately – the remit, the scope, the tone – but beyond that you should have to work. And you shouldn’t notice everything first time around. It’s more like designing a movie than an app. I think this extends beyond magazines.

    Agree that Nielsen misses a crucial point in criticising the lack of differentiation between operational and decorative elements. On a touchscreen, _everything_ should react when you touch it. _How_ it reacts is another matter – and yes, something should give you a clue what to expect – but the idea of a blanket visual distinction (eg “content flat, UI furniture raised”) is redundant. (I wonder how far and how fast more complex gestures will replace UI furniture.)

    More prosaically, bas relief for touchable controls often feels wrong. On a monitor, the illusion of 3D is preserved when you click. On a touchscreen, the 3D effect is unconvincing from the start due to the unknown viewing angle, and dissonant when you touch physically and feel flat glass.

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  20. Once again, Jakob just doesn’t get it. It’s 2010 on an iPad, not 1996 on an intranet.

  21. There’s no reason why something can’t be both beautiful and useable. I get really annoyed when apps don’t have proper affordances like areas that look clickable and lack feedback. End result is easy to predict – I don’t use them as much, or I end up not using them because I don’t understand them or find the features I need to use to find the app useful.
    When I read this rebuttal all I could think about were DVD menus and how every man-jack who has ever designed one was more concerned with ‘experience’, ‘beauty’ ‘delight’ and so on. End result is DVD menus are a pain in the rear and my kids can’t play their movies because they can’t use the menu. The ones they watch most often are the ones that auto-start (yes a select few of them actually do).

    Pad-apps are DVDs happening all over again. If something is useable but not beautiful and exciting, the designer is an ass. If it’s beautiful and exciting but baffling, the designer is just a different kind of ass.

  22. Fred Beecher on

    Wow! Thanks for all the in-depth comments! Especially to those of you who find fault with my argument or are otherwise poking holes in it. I wish I had time to respond right now, but sadly I’m going to have to wait until tonight.

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  26. This is a tricky line to navigate! While I agree that fun and engagement is important, I find it hard to support the return to a “Wild West” mode of interaction design.

    We experienced this in the early days of CD delivery, and again when entirely Flash-based websites came along. They sucked, with the “hunt the navigation buttons” driving everyone crazy.

    Yes, touch and gestures are completely different than mouse and keyboard. I programmed hand-held computers 15 years ago, and learnt this the hard way.

    But that doesn’t mean we give up on design standards and interaction design models. If the iPad (etc) is going to be successful beyond early-adopter geeks, then it needs to be both simple and enjoyable.

    I’m not sure it’s hit the mark yet, but I guess only time will tell. Hard to separate business, marketing and design in this modern age…

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  28. Thanks Fred!

    The one thing I’d like to add is that the iPad really is a poster-child for the modern age of UX and Design. Even with the iPhone, and subsequent devices the mimicked it’s level of interaction, things were still thought of from a web/desktop centric point of view. The iPad, though described as an enlarged iPhone, finally breaks through that paradigm and shows us that the “Minority Report” future is possible.

    There is one scene in Avatar that I love, because it always reminds of what is “possible” with an iPad-like device. It’s when one of the doctors “grabs” content from one workstation and “throws” it onto his tablet. How can you explain that level of interaction coming from a web centric point of view? All the metrics that have helped guide us for so long just don’t apply anymore.

    Great article!

  29. Always interesting to read news and other professionals ideas and experiences about Internet usability. In general we dont make websites to be freaking usable but common sense matters and have a weight of the reason to make a website. 5 years ago we saw many flash websites with no usability at all. We still see flash solutions that are non-user friendly at all but when a client is stuck to the idea of what they want, its hard to convince them of a better solution.

    Education is one of the most important parts of client management…

  30. Steve on

    Thanks Fred!

    The one thing I’d like to add is that the iPad really is a poster-child for the modern age of UX and Design. Even with the iPhone, and subsequent devices the mimicked it’s level of interaction, things were still thought of from a web/desktop centric point of view. The iPad, though described as an enlarged iPhone, finally breaks through that paradigm and shows us that the “Minority Report” future is possible.

    There is one scene in Avatar that I love, because it always reminds of what is “possible” with an iPad-like device. It’s when one of the doctors “grabs” content from one workstation and “throws” it onto his tablet. How can you explain that level of interaction coming from a web centric point of view? All the metrics that have helped guide us for so long just don’t apply anymore.

    Great article!

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  32. (Apologies for the lateness… I’ve been having trouble with Johnny’s commenting system.)

    Mael: You bring up a very good point. But I have actually done an informal study on the iPhone previously that led me to many of the assertions that I make in this article: http://userexperience.evantageconsulting.com/2009/09/playfulness-usability-context-delightful-user-experience/ No, it’s not a rigorous study, but my findings are based on observation rather than just opinion.

    Lukas: No, a system doesn’t have to be difficult to be fun or immersive or beautiful. I apologize if that’s how the article came off. If something is just plain difficult to use, you’re right, that’s not fun. With gestural UIs though, there is a thread that connects difficulty with fun. Non-obviousness. It’s not always obvious which gesture will perform the action you intend, but because the UI is gestural it’s inherently playful to figure it out. Since there are only nine basic gestures, it is possible to explore and discover quickly. Granted, this assumes you know those gestures, and I think Apple could do a better job of showing those to people, but we’re veering off the point.

    Two other components of beautiful or immersive experiences are visual design and animation. Yes, these things can easily get in the way of usability (much as they consistently did in the early 2000s), but they can also support it to wonderful effect. Take the Calendar app on the iPad. It absolutely must be usable because people check their calendars for a reason. But the layouts, the transitions between them, and some of the graphical framing make it such a pleasant experience *just to look at your calendar!*

    Jon: Totally agreed. See my above response to Lukas. DVD menus are an example of a system in which visual design and animation have been considered *to the exclusion of* usability. They’re not immersive; they’re just irritating.

    James: Well, we’re dealing with touchscreens here, which are a little wild west by definition. With this technology, you can interact directly with the content… WITHOUT the need for intermediary controls. This is new to most people. I expect that as the gesture library patent wars die down, the fallout from that will be gestural conventions rather than standards. We have some of that already… tapping generally means “activate,” while swiping generally means “move.”

    Brad: I wouldn’t throw away EVERYTHING that UX research has taught us up to now just because we have access to big touchscreens. There’s a lot that still holds true, like the idea that you can have a visual affordance. But yeah, we are a little in wild west territory these days, partially due to technology and partially due to the UX community’s awakening to the idea of instilling positive emotion rather than just avoiding the provocation of negative ones.

  33. Marty Fried on

    I think you are the one missing the point, by confusing what a person wants to do with how they need to do it. If you want to have fun and play a game, you will get annoyed if the controls for that game don’t allow you to do what you expect. If you try to pause the game, and accidentally quit, you will learn to hate that game. If you get tired of using an app, and want to leave it for another, you will get annoyed if you can’t figure out how to close the thing.

    Learning how to use something can be fun, but you need to eventually win. If you are constantly spending your time learning to use it, and never actually using it, it will get boring.

    Looking like a magazine is not an interface. A magazine has a totally intuitive UI – want to zoom in? Hold it closer. Want to browse? Turn the pages. Want to find an article? Look up its page number and go there. Tired of reading it? Toss it aside.

    The iPad needs some consistent controls. Perhaps it has them, but they are hidden. If so, maybe an interesting app that teaches how to use the controls would be good – a tutorial of sorts, but engaging enough so people will want to use it.

  34. Jordan Roher -

    I agree with you that the iPad is a task-based device.

    However, since the simple apps (buy, read, watch etc) you are describing aren’t Microsoft Word with thousands of functions, after you’ve perfected the usability of the few functions that the apps allows the user to do, there is still a lot of other factors and values that influences the user experience – fun, visual appeal, stickiness. That is where Apple, through excellent product design, has created a good foundation for app makers to succeed, as the iPad in itself provides a very robust seminal user experience.

    And Games need good usability even more than most applications – they are in themselves mastery apps. Games should’t be about wrestling with the interface. Think about Tetris or Super Mario Bros – how would those games work if the controls were imprecise and prevented the user from getting immersed in the experience? I doubt they would have been remembered today.

  35. Fred Beecher on

    Marty: I looked a lot at what and how and, more importantly, in what context people want to do a thing in a blog post I’ve linked to in the article and again in the comments. Basically, there are some contexts in which usability is more important than playfulness and others where its the other way around, but neither is ever 100% unimportant within a gestural UI. GeUIs are inherently playful… Actually, I might back down from that a bit and say that iPhone OS at least is inherently playful. As you say, a game cannot be unusable. Likewise, a utility app cannot be completely lame to use if you want it to be purchased over apps that do something similar.

    And I do agree, learnability is one of the biggest (more likely THE biggest) issues in GeUI interaction design. GeUIs are easily learned, but users need to be shown the non-obvious stuff for this to happen. I’ve recently fallen in love with tutorials again as a result. Simple, quick, easily reaccessible. This, on top of avoiding non-obvious interactions as much as possible is at least one path to GeUX nirvana. :)

    Mattias: Exactly. Thank you.

  36. JJ on

    For someone with 11 years of experience in the field, this response is quite silly. Beauty is part of usability. When something is ugly, its usability is affected. And Nielsen is not saying that iPad applications are too beautiful to be useful, as you seem to imply.

    It’s a never-ending story. Some people think that a cool 3d-flash animation makes their website better. It doesn’t. At the same time, some iPad applications may make it difficult to understand what the hell the user is supposed to do in it and how to do it. This is what Nielsen means. Make it useful, make it usable, then make it pretty.

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  39. If you’ve read this far down the page, hopefully you’ve got quite a balanced view of the situation; it isn’t quite as simplistic as some would have you believe.

    PLEASE don’t take this article as permission to create beautiful junk or unusable eye candy. Real people have limited tolerance for the flights of fancy dreamed up by “designers”!

  40. JJ: I honestly don’t think beauty plays a role in usability. Experience, sure, but not in pure usability. Or maybe to a small degree, e.g., we tend to view things that are well-ordered as beautiful which also makes them usable. But beauty and usability are two very important parts of something bigger, the user experience as a whole, and I am absolutely not saying that we need to return to the days of ubiquitous 3D Flash animations. I’m saying that playfulness, emotion, etc are becoming more important factors in experience design. As the article title says, it’s not JUST about usability, but that doesn’t mean usability isn’t important. There’s a balance we need to strive for.

    Patrick: Oh absolutely this is not a license to create junk. : ) As I said above, usability and playfulness need to be balanced in a manner appropriate to the context of the system. Read the blog post I linked to in the article, and you will get a more clear idea of what I mean.

  41. Fred,

    Great article and interesting debate here. As someone who doesn’t do UX, but works on the periphery, I find this type of debate very interesting.

    My first response to anyone defending anything Jakob Nielsen does these days is to point to Jakob’s website. It is quite honestly one of the ugliest sites on the internet.

    I’m not an UX expert and Jakob clearly is… but having to create a post to defending why your website is so ugly, defeats any UX gains from the lack of eye-candy filled design.

    I would much rather get lost in the unusable, but eye candy filled Leo Burnett’s big pencil navigation than read anything on Jakob’s website.

    I saw Cennydd Bowles speak on UX at SXSW and a comment stood out to me (paraphrased): “Saying your website is usable is like saying your restaurant has edible food. It’s not enough.”

    So to Patrick’s comment… as an outsider my opinion is perhaps that we should be aiming to find the right balance between eye candy and pure usability without style?

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  45. IAWerks on

    This is a very thoughtful article. Well done.

    Jakob Nielsen is definitely ultra conservative in his approach. He seems to exclude anything outside his strict usability guidelines and frowns on creative elements that stray from the “known.” His own Web site, as many readers pointed out, leaves a lot to be desired. As you said, the emotional experience shouldn’t be discounted.

    That said, his research is top notch and shouldn’t be ignored in favor of untested, radical design approaches. A thoughtful blending the the known and the innovative strikes a good balance for this medium. In fact, most apps I’ve seen are full of unique interactions. That’s what makes this platform so exciting!

    On a side note, it’s slightly annoying that the comments function here displays the most recent comments last. I might consider displaying newest posts first. Just a suggestion.

    Thanks for the article.

  46. Logical doesn’t always = smarter. Standards are a map, not necessarily a destination.

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  52. I’m a little late to the party, but still wanted to weigh in.

    In response to Fred’s comments about the relationship between beauty and usability, there’s a pretty strong link established here.

    This paper (1995) was one of the first to explore it.

    I don’t necessarily think that anyone is disagreeing with their conclusions – that a design should be both functional and beautiful – but it’s important to point out that there is, indeed, a link here.

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  56. Michael on

    Funny, I just got an iPad last week and my experience has been nothing but frustrating. It’s really a usability disaster (I also do usability testing of websites).

    I’m so tired of running into nearly blank screens that don’t have the information they should (particularly in iTunes, as though everyone should already know how that works), little pointless navigational quirks, and a general lack of information — I’ve seriously gone to Google a dozen times in the past hour to figure out how to do even basic stuff, only to find dozens of others with the same problems, or worse, Mac fanboys gushing over how great the iPad is without any actual information (wow, kinda like this article!)

    At this point, all I’ve figured out is that even “Clippy” was better than nothing at all!

    Maybe in time I’ll appreciate all this “playfulness” (as though that’s what I look for in any product), but for now I just want to toss it aside and go back to my laptop.