Testing on tablets

Dan Seward
December 02 2011

We'll be talking about the proliferation of device types and communication options available for years, I imagine, but right now it's time for us to weigh in on tablets. This article talks about the proliferation of tablets, and why a website is probably better for most businesses than a tablet app. It will re-emphasise the importance of having device-specific web design in place (our mobile usability whitepaperdiscusses web design for smartphones).

Tablet computers have really only been part of the picture for about a year and a half, but there are a few pieces of information coming together to tell us how important designing and testing with the tablet browsing experience in mind actually is.

1: Tablets are booming

The bottom line is that tablets are popular, and are becoming more so. iPads, a novelty / convenience item by most users' accounts, are out in force. Apple had sold roughly 30 million of these devices in its first 14 months, and sales continue to climb. At current rates, including the growth of other brands of devices, we'll hit 100 million tablet devices in the wild in a couple years, tops. Some schools are requiring them for students - an entire generation of savvy tableteers is on the way. Airlines are handing them out to customers on flights. Tablets are even reshaping the way we work. Some notable web companies are smartly getting in on the act, providing sites optimised for the tablet experience.

Performance of Android tablets is almost to the point where people are starting to consider them as a reliable consumer alternative to the iPad. Increased adoption of Android tablets foreshadows a repeat of the smartphone market - Android taking big chomps out of the Apple monster. Sure, you could build apps for each platform (and for WebOS, and the Playbook, and Windows 8), for both tablets and handheld mobile devices, but most of the time an optimised website will be less work and suit more users. And anyway, people probably aren't as likely to use apps as websites...

2: Tablets are used for web browsing - especially quick browsing

An insightful article over at UX Mag sheds a great deal of light into how this first batch of tablet users is using their devices. An interesting assertion is that people habitually go to the web to find content. You could build an app for your business, but if it provides content, people are going to check the web for that material first because it's what they do all the time for information of all types. You can provide value in other ways via an app (interactivity beyond what the web can offer), but if people just want to get information from you, they're just likely to check the web first, because that's what they always do.

While it's not surprising, the tablet fills a practical niche somewhere between the PC and the smartphone. Tablets are too big (and only sometimes connected to mobile data networks) to make good mobile devices. But they're portable enough to be used all over the house, which is basically what people are doing with them - if you're a general-public consumer and you own a tablet, you're likely to use it to hop onto the web for quick bites of information on weekday nights.

Here's how a few researchers describe the breakdown of use among those who have both tablets and PCs:

  • Web browsing
  • Reading
  • Casual computer usage
  • Playing games
  • Emailing and social networking
  • Significant amounts of text entry
  • Shopping
  • Multi-tasking (inc tabbed browsing)
  • Work that requires specialised programs
  • Activities where security is a concern
  • Tasks that require information that is stored only on the computer

Sources: UX Mag , The Godfather, Google Admob

Some of our clients work on websites that fit firmly into the first column of activity, but awareness often hasn't shifted to include the mobile ecosystem, let alone the brand-new world of tablets.

3: Common sense usability

Tablets have a unique strength when compared to handheld devices - they're big enough where they can display ordinary websites in a relatively usable manner. Tablet web browsers are markedly better than phone browsers, due mainly to the increase in screen real estate. Of course, some of the same usability pitfalls that confront mobile devices lurk within tablets:

  • Small fonts can be highly problematic
  • Hover effects are much less useful cues
  • Challenge to indicate clickability
  • Awkward scrolling on long pages
  • Uncomfortable and inaccurate text input
  • Click-target size for fingers
  • Poor contrast
  • Gestural confusion

One big difference between the tablet experience and the mobile experience is that tablets are shared by multiple people. Where phones are ultimately highly personalised, with people leaving themselves logged-in to all sorts of services and accounts, tablets aren't quite so easy. At least with desktops, you can set up multiple users. With the iPad, you can't. This should have ramifications for any account-based web design that considers tablets.

Thinking about the future

The world of personal computing is changing in fundamental ways. Non-stop evolution towards a mercurial future makes the challenge facing web designers and developers seem monumental, but the common access point that underpins mobile, tablet, and desktop experiences is the world wide web. For better or worse, the web already has over 1 trillion unique pages and it's fairly safe to assume that computing devices for the foreseeable future will allow people to access those pages.

Designing web sites that are optimised for (and tested on) tablets and mobile devices is not a niche consideration. Increasingly, this will be the way that people access the internet. Good designs will take into account the needs of tablet and mobile users, but while smartphone users will need a wholly optimised version of a site, carefully designed standard sites have the potential to work well on both tablet and desktop environments.

Usability tip

Label your buttons well to increase step-through and conversion in long forms

How often do you see "next" or "submit" buttons in forms and wizards? Pretty often, if you're using a computer! This is poor practice. Clearly labeled buttons that describe what the user is actually doing will help them work through data entry processes. Instead of "next", just let your user know what they're doing on the next screen: for example, "Enter personal details" or "Go to payment options".

Categories: Usability testing,Mobile & Tablet