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. 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.
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.
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