Jakob Nielsen* and crew have churned out a quick usability study of the Apple iPad. And while it’s far, far too early (and the number of test subjects too small) to be making any hard and fast recommendations or rules (and Nielsen stipulates as much), the report reminded me of something that struck me this weekend watching a new iPad user (and non-iPhone user) try to acclimate herself to the device.
It’s odd that a company (Apple) known for its rigid user-interface standards has bet the farm on what is literally and figuratively a tabula rasa, where anything and everything goes. The only constant is that the hardware button takes you to one of the home screens. That’s it. Every single user-interface decision beyond that is open to the interpretation of the individual app designer. Certain conventions are emerging already (such as the sidebar/popover internal navigation scheme seen most prominently in Mail), but every app can be, and often is, a UI adventure.
To exacerbate the problem, once they do figure out how something works, users can’t transfer their skills from one app to the next. Each application has a completely different UI for similar features.In different apps, touching a picture could produce any of the following 5 results:
- Nothing happens
- Enlarging the picture
- Hyperlinking to a more detailed page about that item
- Flipping the image to reveal additional pictures in the same place (metaphorically, these new pictures are “on the back side” of the original picture)
- Popping up a set of navigation choices
Nielsen has always been something of a design puritan, so I don’t find myself agreeing with everything he’s selling here. But this report asks some excellent questions.
The appeal of iPad is how the interface essentially disappears, allowing the user to interact directly with the elements on/behind the glass. But that invisibility also presents challenges to designers to understand that a user may be able to hold only so many interface schemes in his long-term memory.
* The first time I’ve ever typed Jakob Nielsen’s name twice in the same day, I think.
(Traffic photo from flickr user UweBKK. Creative Commons.)