Touch screen tablet devices: Best practice

by Dave Rolph on 2 March 2011

With the iPad having stolen the limelight for most of last year, a clutch of new tablet devices are being released this quarter mostly based upon the Android platform. Whilst touch screen technology has been around for a long while, until now it has been excluded from the masses. However, that is all about to change. So where does this leave the usability of these devices? The reality is somewhat confused.

With tablet devices there is a shift away from the web browser interface and stand-alone menu-based applications. In design terms it is like having a blank canvas. These previously familiar paradigms are now redundant as app designers search for new interactions which better support touch screens. Unfortunately, these new interactions are often embryonic, and do not benefit from the evolution of best practice. Whilst this may prove fruitful for innovation, it also provides widespread opportunity for the proliferation of usability problems.
One of the strongest areas of iPad app growth is for the replacement of traditional media such as books, newspapers and magazines. In fact, News Corp has recently launched “The Daily”, a news publication created specifically for the iPad. The digital representation of this content seems experimental, with few apps sharing similar navigation. Even some basic interactions are non-intuitive and difficult to identify or understand.
The rush to deliver new products and gain a foothold in this market appears to have somewhat circumvented this fundamental issue of usability. I can’t help feeling a sense of déjà-vu here. Remember anyone? With tablet devices we have another new medium and no one really knows how to get the best out of it (yet). This is compounded by the issue of charging (or not) for this type of content, making success here even more challenging.

As for all new technology, it will take time for touch screen tablet devices become accepted into the mainstream. The usability of applications run on these devices is key to how they will evolve and for what they will be used for. 6 months ago the majority of apps available for iPad were the same ones you could use on the iPhone. This is changing rapidly as app designers harness the enhanced screen size, battery life and new charging structures. As tablet devices mature, I look forward to being able to recommend best practice for designing touch screen interactions.

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