Report: Early iPad Apps Have Usability Problems

Early iPad applications have usability issues and suffer from user interface inconsistencies, according to a report published by the Nielsen Norman Group. In addition, the usability consultancy found many standard Web sites do not perform well on the device, suggesting marketers may find more value investing in iPad specific sites.

Describing the research in a blog post, report author Jakob Nielsen outlined key findings and flaws across a range of applications currently available for the device. Among the main issues, he said, is that apps tested are “inconsistent and have low feature discoverability, with frequent user errors due to accidental gestures.” Despite the device being hailed by many as a potential savior of print media, he added that “an overly strong print metaphor and weird interaction styles cause further usability problems,” and urges application developers to suggest web-like navigation commands such as back buttons and clickable headlines and titles.

Though the report is presented as preliminary research and based on findings from only a handful of study participants, Nielsen suggests that in light of the attention the device is attracting from developers and marketers alike, “It would be a shame for apps to be designed without the benefit of the usability insights that do exist, despite the gaps in our current knowledge.”

The report highlights a number of navigational flaws within applications, which can prove frustrating for users and potentially reflect poorly on the brands aligning themselves with them. Among these issues were users’ inability to find content successfully, confusion as to which elements are interactive and which are not, and instances of users getting “lost” within applications.

Indeed, interaction with advertiser content in some early apps from media companies effectively closes the application in order to drive them to browser-based ad content. However, that functionality varies from app to app, potentially confusing users and discouraging them from interacting with such content.

The research also analyzed the necessity for iPad specific sites or landing pages – an area of particular relevance for online marketers. As the research states, a standard website is not optimal for the device, as “links are usually too small to tap on reliably and fonts may be inappropriate for comfortable reading.” It also notes the inoperability of Adobe’s Flash plug-in, on which many sites are currently based. “For a truly optimal experience that takes into account both the constraints and strengths of the device, an iPad-specific website may be the solution,” it concludes.

The report goes on to question the need for native applications at all, provided that a brand’s web experience offers suitable functionality. In reference to GAP’s 1969 Stream content and e-commerce application, the research found users were frustrated by a lack of features on the application in comparison to the firm’s full site. “If fewer products can be purchased in the app than on the website, or more generally, if people perceive that they are disadvantaged by using the app, they will go to the website… On the iPad, your app competes more directly with your full website.”

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