Design Great Tablet Apps By Making Users Forget They’re On A Tablet

Originally posted by Algonquin Studios CEO, Steven Raines, on January 25, 2012 on his blog.

According to Pew Internet, tablet ownership doubled over the 2011 holiday season, with nearly 20% of adult Americans now owning tablet computers. In combination with widespread high-speed wireless Internet service, the market for business-to-business applications for these tablets is set for explosive growth. Targeted sales applications represent a signficant area for innovation since videos, schematics, product specifications, and other documents can be easily transported and presented – either directly on the tablet or to on-site monitors or projectors via optional cables. In essence, it’s a sales manager’s dream come true… especially for organizations that have highly structured sales processes backed by well researched tools.

In a recent brainstorming session with a client, I was asked what features of tablets should be incorporated in the design of this kind of application to really make it stand above other apps or a traditional web site displayed on the tablet (when I say “tablet” I mean the iPad style device with “Apps” not simply a computer without a keyboard.) The client’s question got me thinking about where the real value in tablets lies and how that translates to design. To evaluate this, we have to think first about what it is that makes a tablet special. More often than not, tablets are marketed as being light, easy to use computers. But they aren’t the same as the computers we use for business.

The core value of the tablet is only its form-factor, portability, and battery life. Thanks to solid state memory tablets are light-weight. The limited scope of applications and single-tasking (or more appropriately “serial-tasking”) allow much longer run-times than a laptop. Tablets allow us to have a “book” with a whole library of information stored in something that you can hold in one hand. But to achieve this we give up a lot of great things from the world of PCs and laptops. On tablets:

  • peripherals are limited;
  • virtual keyboards require as many as three clicks to get to essential characters like the equal sign;
  • meta-applications (like plug-ins for the OS’s file manager) aren’t applied to every app that could take advantage of them;
  • devices have small screen sizes;
  • precision control either does not exist (on capacitive touch devices like the iPad) or requires a stylus that is easy to lose and hard to use.

These factors combine with the nature of the applications we’ve come to expect on these devices to create an experience that is wholly unlike the things that make PCs great, such as:

  • True multitasking;
  • dragging and dropping between applications;
  • fine control over drawing / selection (for photo manipulation, CAD, or design work;)
  • context-sensitive menuing;
  • comparing documents side-by-side and referencing the Internet while working on documents.

Since most netbooks and the new “ultrabooks” similarly address portability and battery life nearly as well as tablets but have all the features of PCs, form factor / user interface are all that remain (outside of some hardware that most tablets now have standard like the accelerometer, GPS, camera, and compass.) to differentiate tablets from other computers. Tablet interfaces are significantly less feature rich than even the most basic Mac or Windows netbook. But of course, it IS the form factor and interface that is the whole point of the tablet and that is where the way we think about application design really changes.

Good design for tablets isn’t about taking advantage of some special features only tablets have – it is about providing users with a way to achieve the workflows they have become accustomed to on their PCs while using the tablet. It isn’t about something new, but reinventing something old and something lost in the translation to the new platform. Take Apple’s email interface built into iOS: I can’t count the number of new iPad owners who have complained to me that they could not simply multi-select messages to be moved or deleted. Of course you CAN… but not how you’d expect (instead of dragging to select messages or holding SHIFT and selecting, users click a button and get radio buttons to select multiple messages and instead of dragging to move messages to a folder, users select the action to move and pick the folder.) Apple has been forced to provide an alternate way to achieve something that the interface doesn’t accommodate in the expected fashion.

So the obvious challenge faced by designers of tablet applications is that the expectations left over from the PC experience are many. But a more daunting challenge is that very few new conventions have been set in the tablet world. Without a standard way of replicating the workflows of the desktop, designers are forced to try different things and until a particular way of interacting with apps to resolve a workflow issue becomes dominant, users will be unable to simply “pick up” an application based on prior experience. This prevents designers from relying on user expectations the way they do on a desktop and, to a lesser degree, the web and extends the design process. It also means that application developers will be forced to eventually modify applications to accommodate the dominant convention once it emerges and this refactoring means fewer resources will be available to develop new features for these applications.

The Holy Grail of tablet design is, of course, to develop a way of working that is so intuitive and easy that it makes the transition back to the world of the PC… assuming we still have PCs by then.

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