Commentary

iPad Apps: How Do You Work These Things?

Ipad

Much of the discussion about iPad apps lately has focused on publishers' tussles with Apple over conditions tied to offering subscriptions on the popular tablet. Now that companies like Time, Hearst and Conde Nast have worked out subscription deals with Apple, maybe it's time they focused on making the apps more user-friendly.

A new studyby the Nielsen Norman Group finds navigation on many iPad apps is confusing, leaving users unsure about which gestures to use and where to access content through the touchscreen. Apps also tend to cram too much information into too small a space, with things like pop-ups showing thumbnails of available articles.

Rather than test with complete newbies, the study was conducted with 16 iPad users who had been using the device for at least two months. It involved testing 26 apps and six Web sites. Many of the problems with apps stemmed from ambiguity about whether to tap, swipe or scroll parts of the screen. And if someone can't turn a page because they're swiping in the wrong spot, for instance, they'll typically conclude the app is broken.

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Touchable areas that were too small or too close together also often led to accidental contact that took users somewhere they didn't intend to go in the app and unable to get back to their starting point. In a similar vein, the report also cited magazine apps that required multiple steps to access the table of contents.

It wasn't all bad news. In updating its initial iPad apps study from last year, Nielsen Norman found apps had adopted certain recommendations including adding back buttons, broader use of search, and direct access to articles by touching front-page headlines. It noted in particular the addition of a "sections" button to aid navigation in USA Today's app, which it cited as one of the worst designs a year ago.

The report also found Web sites worked fairly well on the iPad using the device's standard browser, a boost for proponents of marketing via the mobile Web versus apps. But the findings overall suggest publishers are sacrificing clarity for the cool factor as they try to wow users with an array of new tablet features and effects.

Just because you can do anything with digital media doesn't mean you should -- a lesson that goes back to the early days of the Web, when slow-loading splash pages were all the rage (and are now only found on agency Web sites). Figuring out what people don't like and changing it is a key part of adapting to any emerging media format like tablets, smartphones and other connected devices.

In that regard, the Nielsen Norman report found that because people don't like typing on touchscreens, they avoid registration processes on the iPad. That means magazine and newspaper publishers shouldn't count on signing up many subscribers directly via tablets if it involves filling out a form with a virtual keyboard.

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