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Many iPad apps counter-intuitive, Nielsen Norman study finds

updated 10:05 am EDT, Fri May 27, 2011

The Daily, Amazon Windowshop among offenders

Many iPad apps are failing to provide intuitive interfaces, or not compensating for the limits of fingers, a Nielsen Norman Group study claims. The firm tested 16 people who had already owned iPads for two months, asking them to perform tasks in selected apps as well as some websites. Among the tasks were finding a story in The Daily they could easily return to, listening to the last Science Friday episode in the NPR app, and finding a birthday gift for themselves on Amazon.

Results showed that it was often unclear which parts of an app interface could be tapped, and that there was no indication in many cases whether or not something needed to be swiped or scrolled. Only apps with arrows or book-like content didn't produce any confusion in terms of special gestures. The iPad owners were, simultaneously, unwilling to read instructions. In a blend of the two problems, a Moleskine notetaking app was abandoned because it required so many special gestures that there were two pages of instructions.

Another failure was Amazon's Windowshop, which was found, ironically, to be harder to use than the Amazon website. iPad owners thought it too dissimilar from the web interface they were familiar with, and also complained that it showed incomplete information about products from a search results page. One user left the app to finish a purchase at

Nielsen Norman comments that iPad apps are better when they're designed to be more functional than a matching website, but in a way geared toward regular users of the brand. It may nevertheless be possible to go too far, an example being the ABC News app's presentation of stories on a spinning globe, which proved to be a waste of the iPad's screen space.

Button placement was a recurring problem. Many of the tested apps lacked back buttons, forcing people to jump to a homepage to recreate some actions. Buttons were sometimes placed too close together, lending themselves to accidental presses; size was another issue in this regard, and Nielsen suggests that a square centimeter is the minimum practical size for a button. The firm adds that some apps jam popover menus into windows that are too small, apparently in order to keep background images visible.

Nielsen arrives at several conclusions, among which is that some companies don't need iPad apps, and that the ones that do are often putting out poorly designed software just to be on the tablet. iPad apps should be simpler than equivalent websites, and designed for people who are regular brand users; if not, it may be simpler just to improve the iPad-friendliness of a website. One feature that should never be included in an app, according to Nielsen, is a splash screen, and especially not a long introduction sequence.

by MacNN Staff



  1. rtamesis

    Joined: Dec 1969


    History repeats itself

    These results are not surprising at all since many apps on iOS ignore Human Interface Guidelines published during the 80's and 90's about properly designing intuitive apps.

  1. Eldernorm

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Just a thought

    So he is saying that the world is not as nice a place as he would wish it to be......

    OK, so whats the big deal. We all know this.

    Just a thought,

  1. hayesk

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Only 16?

    How does anyone think a sample of 16 out of millions has any degree of validity?

  1. AngryFanBoy

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Unsurprising -

    knee jerk responses defending your pet products.

    Seriously, I love my Apple products (I have them all!) but agree that many apps are poorly designed with no strategy to move backwards through screens. This leads to either returning to beginning of sequence or sometimes actually restarting the app! That's just poor design by the devs.
    Once again, not Apple's fault O hair-trigger defensive fanboys!

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