Perspectives on iPad Usability: No Need for Scaled-up iPhone

3 minute read
Marisa Peacock avatar

Jakob Nielsen's report on web users

Usability expert, Jakob Nielsen has finally reviewed the iPad and offered his perspective of the magical tablet’s usability.

Although he immediately acknowledges that “from an interaction design perspective, an iPad user interface shouldn't be a scaled-up iPhone UI,” Nielsen compares its functionality to the iPhone and talks about what focus groups are saying.

First Impressions

Their first study was conducted a few weeks after Apple launched the device. Seven users -- all with at least 3 months of iPhone experience -- but only one was an "experienced" iPad user, reviewed iPad apps and content. Nielsen notes that the self-acknowledged experienced iPad user had one week of using the device.

The group of testers sampled a variety of websites and applications on the iPad. From GQ magazine to USA Today to NPR and Kayak.com, users interacted and reported on the apps usability and their personal user experiences.

Nielsen likens the recent onslaught of iPad apps to the interfaces developed for web designs in 1993, in which he says graphic designers allowed anything they could draw to be a user interface, “whether it made sense or not.” Nielsen says:

It's the same with iPad apps: anything you can show and touch can be a UI on this device. There are no standards and no expectations.

Though he does admit that the iPad etched-screen aesthetic looks good, Nielsen says it’s a trade-off for the “re-emergence of a usability problem we haven't seen since the mid-1990s: Users don't know where they can click.”

Not knowing how to navigate their way around a device limits the decision and choices users make when interacting with an interface that aims to deliver many reasonable options.


Once users in the Nielsen study learn how to navigate their way, it’s not always clear what actions do what. Does tapping on a photo do the same thing as when an application is tapped? In other words, the actions required by users aren’t consistent.

Because each application has a completely different UI for similar features, users can't transfer the skills they’ve learned from one app to the next. Nielsen provides this example:

Learning Opportunities

In different apps, touching a picture could produce any of the following 5 results:

  1. Nothing happens
  2. Enlarging the picture
  3. Hyperlinking to a more detailed page about that item
  4. Flipping the image to reveal additional pictures in the same place
  5. Popping up a set of navigation choices

Users were also easily confused by functionality that Nielsen describes as low discoverability, low memorability and accidental activation, all of which contribute to usability problems that inhibit the user experience.


With just a little bit of insight, Nielsen’s study yields recommendations that can save future iterations of the iPad from what users found to be an inconsistent and confusing interface.

In order to make the iPad designs more usable, Nielsen recommends the following:

  • Add dimensionality and better define individual interactive areas to increase discoverability through perceived affordances of what users can do where.
  • More consistent interaction techniques that empower users to focus on your content instead of wondering how to get it.
  • Support standard navigation, including a Back feature, search, clickable headlines, and a homepage for most apps.

Of course the 93-page report outlines more in-depth analysis, but unless iPad wants to secure a market whose users are inexperienced Apple users, we’re not sure any of these analysis or insights will have much merit.

The beauty of the iPad as we’ve described before, is that it’s not for everyone. Neither a phone nor a computer, its limitations are purposeful. There are millions of iPad users who have been busy adapting to its usability and functionality.