Jakob Nielsen finds print model dents usability of iPad apps

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

The launch of Apple’s iPad sparked off discussion as to whether the device could save the news industry. Indeed, many of the first iPad apps came from established media outfits, such as the New York Times, AP News and BBC News.

But in an initial study of the usability of several media apps, Jakob Nielsen concluded that:

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.

Nielsen highlighted the inconsistent nature of the interaction design across different apps. Touching a picture could enlarge it, link to another page or could have no effect.

More interesting is the way media organisations have adapted practices from print to the iPad.  Nielsen noted how the print metaphor of going from one article to another, much like you would in a newspaper, dominates news apps.

Swiping for the next article is derived from a strong print metaphor in many content apps. In fact, this metaphor is so strong that you can’t even tap a headline on the “cover” page to jump to the corresponding article.

As Nielsen points out, the linear concept of the next article is ill-suited to a medium where users can choose where to go next.  The report suggests this may be because the iPad apps emphasise “author authority”, rather than “user empowerment”:

Early designs err on the side of being too restrictive. Using the Web has given people an appreciation for freedom and control, and they’re unlikely to happily revert to a linear experience.

Clearly these are early days for iPad apps, and Nielsen acknowledges that this is only a preliminary report.  What we don’t know so far is how people will use the iPad on a daily basis.

What is happening so far is publishers providing apps based on established approaches of print media. It brings to mind Marshall McLuhan’s quote:

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.

There is much to learn in the full report, available for free as a PDF download.

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