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Posted by on Jun 3, 2010 in Science & Technology | 0 comments

Usability Guru Jakob Nielsen Critiques the iPad

In London he told The Guardian that the new interface is not transparently intuitive. It’s inherently confusing and has to be learned:

“There were really a lot of usability problems in this first-generation of iPad applications. It’s often quite difficult for people to discover what they have to do because the options are not very visible. I have to say of both the device itself and the content, it’s very attractive, which is good. But at the same time, overemphasising the attractiveness and hiding the functionality, that does cause problems.”

By now the Internet has evolved a set of conventions that we all know for doing basic things. The iPad violates those conventions:

“…everything is different. If you pick up a few different magazine apps, every one of them will treat the articles and pictures differently. How do you go to the next article? It’s different in each application, the problem being that then you can’t learn.

“When it comes to reading a magazine, the interest should come from the content, not the interface to that content. You don’t want to have to struggle with ‘how does this work?’ I don’t think [Apple] have detailed-enough guidelines, which partly comes from them pushing it out too quickly.”

The trouble with touch:

Nielsen says that some of the iPad’s problems are endemic to the touch tablet format. “With the iPad, it’s very easy to touch in the wrong place, so people can click the wrong thing, but they can’t tell what happened,” he says. There are also problems with gestures such as swiping the screen because they’re “inherently vague”, and “lack discoverability”: there’s no way to tell what a gesture will do at any particular point.

“People don’t know what they can do, and when they try to do something, they don’t even know what they did, because it’s invisible,” Nielsen explains. “With a mouse, you can click the wrong thing, but you can see where you clicked.”

Lack of consistency and lack of discoverability are problems that should worry Apple, because they have been its strength for decades. Discoverability was the core attraction of the Mac’s pull-down menus when it was launched in 1984, and the main reason Apple opted for having only one button on the mouse. “One of the great successes of the Macintosh was that it had very detailed human-interface guidelines for how applications should work,” says Nielsen. “In those days, as a Mac owner, you could pick up another application and just use it, whereas as a PC owner, if you bought another application, it was another user interface – completely different.”

In defense of Flash:

“Flash has been quite often mis-used to cause grievances in the user interface. That said, it has also been used in later years for more useful things, such as video. In my view, there’s no real need to change to another technology once we have one that works pretty well. But Apple doesn’t seem to like Adobe, I guess, so they’re pushing that we should change to HTML5. But from the user perspective, which is what I’m trying to advocate, it doesn’t make that much difference. Technically, it doesn’t really matter.”

But don’t we all expect HTML5 to win in the end?

“Five years from now, it’s likely that HTML5 will be a better way of doing video – it’s a very good long-term trend – but that doesn’t mean you should throw out all the existing stuff now,” says Nielsen. “You have to be able to read old formats.” Not everything gets updated.

He says he still believes in a micro-payment business model for content providers, but the iPad is not it. He sees downloading apps as “a sort of midi-payment.”

The full 93 page report.

You can find me @jwindish, at my Public Notebook, or email me at joe-AT-joewindish-DOT-com.