Apple iPad apps have become "less wacky" in the past year but user interfaces for many are still too confusing, according to a new iPad usability study released this week by Web usability consultant Jakob Nielsen.
"This year's testing still found many cases in which users accidentally touched something and couldn't find their way back to their start point, as well as magazine apps that required multiple steps to access the table of contents," Nielsen wrote in a summary of the 116-page report.
The expert on human-computer interaction published his first report on the iPad's usability in May 2010. One major difference between last year's study and the one released this week—for the first study, Nielsen tested users with no prior experience using iPads, but for the more recent one, he recruited users with at least two months' experience.
Nielsen found that there had been "good uptake" of several UI improvements to iPad apps over the past year, including more use of back buttons, search, homepages and direct links to articles from headlines on the front pages of media sites.
"One of the worst designs last year was USA Today's section navigation, which required users to touch the newspaper logo despite the complete lack of any perceived affordance that the logo would have this effect," Nielsen writes.
"During our new testing earlier this month, several users had the same problems as last year's test participants, even though we recruited people with more iPad experience. Happily, a few days after our test sessions, USA Today released a new version of their app, with somewhat improved navigation."
Testing 26 iPads and six websites, Nielsen had eight men and eight women participate in the study.
Problems that continue to plague iPad apps and sites include "read-tap asymmetry," which refers to content that's "large enough to read but too small to tap," touchable areas that are too small and too closely packed together, leading to user errors, and "low discoverability," meaning an active area in an interface that looks like it's not touchable to users.
New app developments that confused Nielsen's testers include having multiple items on a screen that can be swiped, long introductory segments for apps that must be suffered through whenever the app is used, and too much navigation built into apps.
Nielsen did have a theory as to why there has been some noticeable improvements to app interfaces, however.
"[W]e originally tested the launch applications that shipped at the same time as the iPad itself; they were thus developed by teams working in isolation under Apple-imposed secrecy that prevented them from gaining user feedback," he writes. "In our first report, many of the bad designs we documented were due not to bad designers, but rather to the inevitable outcome of non-user-centered design projects.
"In contrast, the apps and sites tested in the new study were designed by teams that benefited both from our original usability report and from whatever user feedback they'd collected on their own during the past year."
PC Magazine - By Damon Poeter