One Hundred iPad Apps
By Applications User Experience on Jan 23, 2012
John Cartan, User Experience Architect, Applications User Experience
It's still early days in iPad app development but some standards and best practices are beginning to emerge. One of the best ways to understand what works on a tablet is to examine the cornucopia of apps already out there.
There is power in numbers. So to conduct my app survey I selected one hundred proven, well-designed, productivity, business, and content apps, gathered from my own incessant downloading and the "keepers" from every iPad owner I could find.
Once I settled on my list, I sorted them into piles and began methodically examining the properties and behaviors of each one. When other groups at Oracle asked me about tablet standards, I went through my collection, counting how many apps did this and how many apps did that.
My list is somewhat arbitrary, so you have to take the results with a grain of salt. But one hundred is a big enough number to reveal basic patterns - and provide decent ballpark estimates. The results sometimes surprised me and have already helped settle some arguments and open some eyes.
One of the first questions I looked at was layout. Do iPad apps place their controls on header bars, footer bars, both, or neither? Tab bar layouts (footers with function switching icons) are common on the iPhone - how common are they on an iPad? What kind of apps tend to use a split view (selection list on left, contents on right)?
It turns out that fully half of my apps are header only (28%) or full screen (22%); these tended to be the most interesting and innovative apps. Split screens, at 20%, were the dull but efficient workhorses: Mail, Dropbox, Settings, etc. Bringing up the rear were apps that used both header and footer toolbars (12%) and the tab bar layouts so common on iPhones (only 11% on the iPad). Footer-only apps, at 7%, were the rarest; this layout is favored for camera and drawing apps which need controls at the bottom to change settings without obscuring the screen with your hand.
Designers new to the iPad often ask about orientation. Those porting desktop apps have always used landscape. Mobile designers usually assume portrait. Neither is eager to double their design work.
But the ability to change orientation is one of the things users most value about tablets; if leveraged correctly it provides a wonderful flexibilty. Sure enough, 89% of the apps support both orientations. 9% are landscape only; these include book apps, apps which closely imitate real objects, and cases where portrait simply doesn't make sense (like Keynote). Only two are portrait only, one imitating a notebook, the other a magazine - more evidence that tablets really are different than smartphones.
Some designers wonder if they should add leather trim around the edges of their apps. Realism is the use of realistic, non-functional graphic elements to imitate physical objects or create a sense of comfort or familiarity. Good idea or not?
Only 17% of the apps went this way. Imitating objects like books or cameras can help users quickly grasp how an app works, so realism can increase usability if employed carefully. But most apps worked better without it.
One of the first iPad prototypes our group developed made heavy use of "swim lanes", flat carousels the user can flick left or right. This tested very well with users, but seemed strange-looking to some of our developers and executives. They wondered if this technique was accepted or odd in tablet land.
I was a little surprised to find that swim lanes are used in nearly half of all the tablet apps we looked at (46%). They are used for image browsing, doc picking, tool palettes, and book navigation. In retrospect this makes sense: horizontal flicking is a natural way of interacting with a tablet.
Another common interaction on tablets is the retracting panel. Nearly a quarter of all apps (24%) use some form of retracting panels. Panel usage seems to be on the rise, possibly because apps are starting to display more complex, layered information.
One of my most recent investigations addresses a common misconception about tablets, that they are useful mostly for viewing content, not creating it. This is certainly not true for me; I now do most of my work on the iPad (including this blog). So do our one hundred apps consume, or can they also create?
When I looked at this, I found apps that primarily consume, apps that primarily create, and a third group of "interaction" apps that require data entry but don't really create things: calculators and measurement tools, utilities for file transfer and banking chores, and social interaction apps for chats, tweets, and meetings.
The result? Only about half of the apps (52%) focus on consuming content, a full third (32%) help users create content, and the rest (16%) perform other useful tasks. So yes, tablets are great for reading and surfing and looking at images. But they are also quite proficient at creating content and doing data entry.
Finally, one the most widely used and appreciated results of my app survey was the simple deck of screenshots I distributed with it. When you are stumped about how to present something on a tablet, or just in need of some inspiration, it's marvelous to sit back and flick through the one hundred screenshots.
You can't come away from this without noticing the stunning variety of iPad apps. Each one is different, often radically different, than the one before. Yet they are all remarkably efficient and easy to use. We designers often push consistency as a way to ease learning and reduce errors. But it would be a mistake to try to make all iPad apps look alike.
The magic of the iPad's natural user interface is the magic of the natural world: each animal different, but different for a reason, suited to its particular niche. If you want to create great apps, one of the best ways is to just go into the jungle and look around.