Computer usability expert Jakob Nielsen has posted the findings from the first usability study that he conducted of the Apple iPad. In my opinion, developers writing apps for the iPad should read the report for ways to improve the usability of their apps. In summary, Nielsen’s report found user interfaces to be inconsistent between apps, that it is difficult for users to discover features of apps, and that there are frequent user errors due to accidental gestures.
Nielsen says that the user interfaces of current iPad apps harken back to web designs from 1993. Back then, due to the common use of image maps as an interface, users didn’t know where to click on a page. Nielsen notes that iPad apps with flat buttons rather than the raised buttons found on most desktop user interfaces look good but create the problem that users don’t know where to click. What is worse, he says, once a user figures out how to interact with one app, that knowledge doesn’t transfer to other apps because developers are creating different UIs. As an example, Nielsen points out that touching a picture can produce five different results depending on what app is being used.
The report is comprehensive and ends with recommendations for iPad developers. I suspect that part of the problem right now is that because the iPad is so new developers have not had the chance to compare their work against other applications. Most of the initial iPad apps were developed without the benefit of the programmers having an actual device for testing, instead they had to rely on the emulator that was part of the software development kit. Over time as more apps are available I expect developers will borrow the best ideas from each other and we’ll start to see more consistency.