Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has just issued his first report on the results of his iPad usability testing. Nielsen and his testers spotted a number of problems with the iPad’s usability metaphor. In summary, Nielsen says:

iPad apps are inconsistent and have low feature discoverability, with frequent user errors due to accidental gestures. An overly strong print metaphor and weird interaction styles cause further usability problems.

For viewing the standard web, Nielsen notes, the iPad works pretty well, with just a few minor problems. But apps are another story. Nielsen tested 7 users, all with at least three months’ iPhone experience, using a number of applications on the iPad.

Nielsen compares iPad app user interfaces to the state of the web just after Mosaic invented the image map—suddenly anything can be clicked on, whether it makes sense or not. Furthermore, there is little consistency across apps: even if you’ve learned how to use one app, the next very similar app from a different developer might do the same things in totally different ways.

He finds that a number of the news articles tested suffer from a print metaphor at the expense of usability, forcing users to swipe for “next article” rather than giving them the choice of where to go.

He also notes that media publishers’ iPad apps try to create their own miniature walled gardens, each information source a separate app, in stark contrast to the free-ranging nature of the web—publishers hope to attract users to their media and keep them there.

Nielsen concludes with a list of suggestions for improving the iPad user experience, and a link to the full 93-page report on iPad usability issues.

I think Nielsen makes some good points, though it is uncertain what can actually be done about the issues he highlights except by individual app developers on an app by app basis. But that’s how usability evolves over time in the absence of strict usability-guideline authority.

Speaking of strict guidelines, it’s interesting to note how Apple seems to have loosened them, at least in some cases.

For instance, it used to be that Apple insisted all adjustments to app settings had to be done under the “Settings” app, not from within the application itself. This caused a great deal of frustration to users of early versions of Stanza and other e-book apps, since readers didn’t like having to leave the app and launch another one just to change font or margins, then go back again to continue reading. Now almost nobody follows that particular guideline anymore, at least for settings that are likely to be changed often.

Related: Jakob Nielsen on the Kindle 2 and Kindle App


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