iPad app development is on a steep upwards trajectory yet in its wake is iPad app usability. Recent work we conducted for a Sydney client echoed some of the findings that Jacob Neilson began to uncover recently in US regarding usability.
One of the biggest challenges we found (amongst many) was that users adopt two distinctly different mental models when using an iPad. They are the magazine mental model and the computer mental model.
Magazine mental model
With the magazine mental model users expect the app to work similarly to an ebook or emagazine because the shape and size of the iPad device mimics earlier e-reader devices. Users are satisfied with media publications that have been brought online in an electronic form, as it is an efficient, extensive and familiar experience. It is a very linear experience and the structure of the material is in a familiar format of chapters with an initial table of contents (or a catalogue with product categories). It is a wide but flat experience, rather like snorkelling in the water, looking down.
An example of the kind of industry or content suited to a magazine mental model could be online shopping. Anything where the user will be browsing and reviewing choice prior to making their purchase choice/decision.
Computer mental model
However for every other app, users expect a more computer mental model. So what this? We’ll it’s not to say that an iPad is simply a paired down PC but rather users also expect an more accessible, engaging, interactive and immersive experience. This is to be delivered in a fluid way with functionality ignited at the touch of a fingertip. For example, in our travel project participants in the study wanted to be able to see in real time where the current cruise ships were on the globe. The ideal iPad app experience should be a deep one, rather like scuba diving where you can dive deeper, much deeper.
Some examples of the types of industries or content suited to this format are: online booking services (travel, entertainment), financial budgeting and planning (modelling) and travel schedules. Where the real experience (e.g. holidays) involves engaging all senses – sight, sound, touch – these would be ideal for the computer mental model.
The expectations that users bring to experience are two fold, the experience must not only be informative but entertaining. Our research revealed that majority of participants used the iPad while eating a meal, having a drink, relaxing on the couch or in bed. Other research from the UK revealed that in 2010, as much as 20% of iPad usage occurred in bed! It goes without saying given the context of use an app must be simple and uncomplicated. All in all it’s a very tall order.
There seems to be a sense of déjà vu with the rash of iPad and mobile app developments. Where 10 or so years ago businesses were rushing to have a website, we are seeing a repeat somewhat with the development of the apps. In the rush to develop these apps however the usability experience is less than ideal, and often not even considered. The difficulty expands many issues but two critical ones include a lack of navigation and the lack of affordance, which should be on the top of the list when designing an iPad app.
Lack of navigation: The discipline of developing a simple, stable navigation is lacking in many apps. So many apps don’t even have an obvious back or home button to help participants get back on track when lost. The home page is a critical landmark which users are familiar with and the lack of it severely undermines the process. The mouse-over functionality is non-existent on the iPad and therefore rollover menus and dropdown menus are eliminated from the experience. These are very helpful functions normally on a website so the navigation design needs to work even harder to bring the content out in an easy, simple way.
Lack of affordance: The seemingly current trend to have sleek, flat designs on an iPad app means that perceived affordance for target areas on the screen are eliminated (For example a properly designed button has the visual affordance of pushability). Participants in our research became confused as certain links were either avoided as they didn’t look like a link or participants actively tapped items that were deliberately not a functioning item. As the design stood it was not clear what you could push or not, thus generating a considerable amount of frustration. You may very well wish to make your functions discoverable – if there is a game element – but hiding features from your users is not recommended.
If you would like to know more about our experiences with mobile & iPad testing shoot us an email lphillips@objectivedigital or call us on 02 8065 2438.