Apps, Tablets and Usability

Kerry Butters

The current trend towards flat design presents a real threat to the usability on tablets, a recent study from researchers at the Neilson Norman Group (NNG) has found. The latest study was one of six to be carried out on usability and, while it was found that tablet usability is improving, there are still issues such as poor gestures, rescaled design and workflow.

While for the most part the study found that sites in general tend to work reasonably well, the biggest issue with usability was found to lie in apps. However, with sites it’s not a huge issue and for the most part those the study looked at only needed “limited adjustment” to suit most tablets.

This means that with regard to responsive sites, “tablet usability is reasonably solid” and has really improved recently, but apps are a different story.

Testing, testing …

The study tested apps on a variety of tablets, from first generation iPads to the latest Android and even some Windows devices. The researchers found the following usability issues to be the most common:

  • Poor instructions that people don’t read
  • Difficult features
  • Mismatch with user workflow
  • Unresponsive/confusing gestures

This was generally because tablet applications requiring high-usability involves a lot of work, as they require a few different elements that need to be modified, including user interface for different sizes.

Do you need an app?

Apps are great for many things, such as gaming, video streaming, shopping, interacting and more, but does the client really need an app developed, or would they be better off sticking with a mobile website?

NNG say in most cases they would recommend that companies stick to a website, especially since the number one favorite activity on tablets is browsing. An app should only be considered if it adds “value-added functionality” to its audience.

In order to decide if a client needs an app over an updated, responsive site, in the planning stage discuss with them what they want the user to do with the app. The most common reasons for using apps on tablets are:

  • Browsing: news, sports, videos, webs
  • Consuming: books, articles, movies, games, music
  • Checking in: social media, email
  • Comparing: restaurants, shopping
  • Locating: nearby businesses

A lot of these can actually be done via a website anyway, but unless the client specifically wants to use an app for offering multimedia, why bother? Most people don’t carry out complex tasks on tablets unless it’s an emergency and they can’t access their main device.

Add to this that search is complex when it’s included in app development and doesn’t tend to give true results that collate with the SERPs, and you can see why it might not be the best choice for most businesses and they would be better off spending the extra cash on a decent responsive site.

Having trouble convincing a client? Just point out that the majority of people prefer to use websites for shopping and tablet conversion rates are 4% higher than mobile.

Common app user issues

Gestures present a problem for many developers and this is to some extent down to the lack of gesture control guidelines, technology companies’ “misguided insistence” on implemented new and “ill-conceived” conventions and a lack of interest from developers in general to research.

Problems include:

  • Accidental touch (links, images etc.)
  • Swipe ambiguity: different areas of the screen requiring different gestures, leading to confusion
  • The inability to ‘see’ what gesture they have made and no way of reversing it
  • Learnability issues due to the problems described above. A user can’t learn to use an app that has conflicting gestural areas
  • Flat design minimizing signifiers (what buttons to press, links, etc.) in app and websites
  • Poor rescaling makes for poor usability

With regard to the last one on the list, good responsive design with a content delivery plan will address this, in most cases. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to responsive and these must be optimized to suit each device they are likely to be viewed on.

Design considerations

Firstly, it’s worth remembering that tablet users tend to use their devices when they are doing something else, such as watching TV. This means that what’s on screen should be quickly and easier scannable and should only use one key concept plus a navigation menu.

Keep it simple, the more actions that have to be taken by the user, the more could go wrong. This includes navigation and content presentation too. The former can to some extent be designed around the latter.

Strong colors should be used and subtle shades avoided, due to the differing screen resolutions and the use of mobile and tablets in outside conditions. Apps should be foolproof and very visual, so don’t include a book’s worth of user instructions, nobody is likely to read them and they are very off-putting. Instead, go with big buttons and clear indicators to actions.

Forms and permissions

Avoid forms in an app if at all possible, in fact, avoid them on sites designed for mobile and tablets too. With touch devices, forms can be one of the most frustrating things that users come across. Input fields should be recognizable, with clear labelling as to what should be inputted, such as name, email and so on. However, make sure that as little information is required as necessary, as people don’t use apps to fill in forms if they can help it.

Any errors due to areas not being completed properly will have users deleting the app and forgetting it.

The key to successful app development

Usability, when taken as an integral part of the design process from the very start of a project is more likely to lead to a successful app, be it paid or unpaid. Once the app is launched, it’s not the end of the story and the first 6-12 months should be concerned with looking at customer ratings, updating bugs and improving function.

A well-designed app will have already addressed content and navigation and this will be an ongoing process. Depending on what it’s for, an app can cost a lot of cash so it’s worth getting it right for the client as soon as it’s possible.

Basic cost of app development
Simple table design $1,000-4,000
Database app $8,000-50,000
Games $10,000-250,000
Additional costs
In-app purchasing (new content or full versions) $1,000-3,000
Web services (remote access point for updating with XML files) $1,000-5,000
Game center (easy integration with SDK) $1,000
Sharing (social media, email, etc.) $500-1,500
Add for Apple products
iPhone base level $500-1,000
iPhone 4 compatibility Add 25% to above
iPad Add 50% to above
Apple annual cost $99
Apple % of sales 30%

The table above is a guideline to how much your client should expect to be paying you for app development. This does depend heavily on the functionality of the app and what’s expected of it, but it gives a reference point for you when it comes to how much you can charge and whether it’s commercially viable from the point of view of the designer, and the customer. These are variable and are not set in stone as to whether you should be charging more or less.

App development is a great string to your developer/designer bow and certainly shouldn’t be dismissed. But you have to bear in mind that many companies are probably doing themselves a disservice by having an app developed for the sake of it, so it pays for you to know this and to advise your clients as well as you can.

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