I must confess, the iPad we bought for device testing has migrated home to the flat, and now only makes its way back to the office for specific needs. Not for purely selfish reasons I hasten to add, although it is partly that. Rather it’s because when we first got it, I was unsure as to exactly how it would fit into the average user’s life. The iPhone was easy, within an hour or two of using it I could see it’s niche; a pocket sized, versatile device with good connectivity and an intuitive interface. The iPad, not so much. Too large to carry around without making a conscious effort; lacking the keyboard for serious work, and unable to run most of the existing software most users are accustomed to using on a laptop.
The real trouble is that we here at Black Company make terrible cold testers. We’re technical, so we tend to focus on the implementation details rather than the broader feel of the interface. We’re advanced users, used to knowing everything about the software we use; being forced to learn a whole new interface makes us grumpy, but not nearly as grumpy as having not having all of our usual tools to hand. So as I usually do with such things, I hand them straight to my wife without saying a word, and simply watch how she uses it. The question was, really, would it find a use naturally, or would we be using it for the sake of it? And what would that use be?
Put simply, it did, and the use is: content viewing. I had thought that my computer time was read-write, but in reality, outside of work, the majority of my time is spent consuming content and not creating it. Facebook, Twitter, blogs and RSS feeds obviously, but more and more with on-demand video services like iPlayer. The iPad keyboard is, frankly, not pleasant to use (I’m writing this blog post using it as a proper test), but for the majority of content viewing we do, that’s not an issue. In fact, in the few months we’ve been using it, the biggest annoyance has been the fact that much of the on-demand TV we want to watch is on Channel 4, and their web solution was Flash based (i.e. not available on iPad.
And it was what we had to do when we did want to watch those things that drove it home to me. The iPad lies around the living room happily. It’s discreet and portable. To get the laptop out, plugged in, booted, takes a good 5 minutes, not just because it lives in a bag in the other room. So it’s a new way for us to experience the content out there, that we just wouldn’t have done before, and I don’t think I would have appreciated that without properly field testing it (or at least, allowing Vicki to do that).
That’s not to say that there aren’t other lessons to learn too. The bad apps we’ve found are the ones which simply take an iPhone user interface and make it bigger. But the key thing to appreciate about the iPad is that there’s likely to be only one in the household. Whereas the iPhone is a naturally single user device (not just because it’s something you keep on you as you move around), the iPad is passed around amongst the household. So apps like Facebook and Twitter have to account for the fact that you’ll want to easily pop back to the top level and switch users; as well as some loose protection against accessing other people’s accounts. You trust the people you share the iPad with, but not that much. And of course, it’s far less likely to be moving around out in the world, so apps that focus on the geo-location data are far less useful. On iPad, the value is on it’s versatility to display content in a relaxed environment (not necessarily at a desk). The larger display is key to that versatility.
The trick will be to take the things we understand about how the iPad gets used, and use it to inform our app designs.