Is the iPad a Time Machine?

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Apple’s latest device has made quite a splash in the marketplace.

With over two million devices sold in just two months it is showing no signs of stopping.  Some analysts predict the revolutionary product will sell more than 7 million units in its first year.  But what makes Apple’s latest gift unto the masses so amazing?

Some analysts argue that the iPad represents the next evolution of personal computing. They reason that the future of content engagement is bound for hand-held, portable devices, displacing the desktop/laptop paradigm that has dominated computing for the past 10 years.

Still, for all the iPad acolytes, others are less bullish on the future of the device.  They believe that the device is nothing more than an oversized iPhone, minus all of the amazing stuff that makes the iPhone great: the ability to call, take pictures, or make videos. Others say that it lacks too much functionality to ever replace laptops, netbooks and personal computers.

But for me, the lure of the iPad is something all together different.

Like it or not, the iPad has created a rift in the space-time continuum, bringing developers and designers back to a place when things were new and the excitement of opportunity and challenge reigned supreme. In a sense, the iPad is a time machine bringing us back to the dawn of the web, back to the primordial ooze of “optimized for Netscape” and usability faux pas like Geocities, animated gifs and the infamous <blink> tag.

The iPad is a Usability Time Machine

Our usability team has recently been scrutinizing usability practices on the iPad. During our development, we’ve discovered some interesting “back-in-time” moments that remind us a lot of when the web was young such as…

Lack of Standardization – iPad is a touch-based interaction device. For most of us, this is a fairly new interaction model.  We were introduced to it with the iPhone and other touch devices, but the iPad is a little different.  Because of this, there seems to be no real standard of user interactions.  Add to that the growing number of applications, mobile-optimized web sites, iPad optimized web sites and non-optimized websites, and you quickly realize you are in the “Wild West” of user interaction models.

Trial and Error Navigation: The world where users used to mouse-over, click and drag to engage content has been replaced with tap, double-tap, one finger swipe, two finger swipe, pinch, spread and rotate.  And in many cases, those new interactions don’t do the same thing across applications and sites. What works one way on one application/site is totally different when you open something new.  The entire user interaction model seems to be very trial and error based. You basically open an application and just start tapping and swiping around the screen to see what works and what doesn’t.  You then try to take some of your learning to the next engagement and start over from scratch.

This reminds me a lot of when the web first started. New code features in various web browsers produced varying effects. Flash was making its way in the world and designers and developers were trying every new trick in the book on their guinea pig consumers.  Standards were non-existent and visual design was overpowering good usability.  The motto of most designers was “if user’s can’t figure it out, they are probably not our target audience”.  I almost hear those faint cries from my old project managers from years gone by every time I get stuck on an application or site on this new, visually stunning device.

The Promise of Tomorrow: For those of you who remember being around in the early days of the web as a designer or developer, you (hopefully) remember how exhilarating it was.  Every day brought something new, a new opportunity to explore creativity.  New technologies brought new challenges and these challenges pushed us to attempt things no one had seen before.

Engaging with content on the iPad comes with its fair share of complications, frustrations and out-right dumbfounding interfaces. But in the end, just like the infancy of the commercial web, it’s not the device that is to blame for user confusion but rather the design of the content that lies within.

Perhaps we’ve become complacent with our skills as guardians of usability. We have expected that people will work around our mistakes and “figure it out.” Maybe the introduction of the iPad will force all of us to step back in time to when we didn’t take the user’s computer savvy for granted, when time with our content was limited and we all paid a little more attention to delivering value rather than wowing with wiz bang visuals.