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Jul 27, 2011 | 3 minute read

Consider Use and Usability When Designing Tablet Apps

written by Linda Bustos

When designing applications for the Web or mobile, usability is always paramount. But we do well to consider use context as well as user experience. Tablet computers have larger screens that allow for more flexibility in design and features, but tablet devices are also more likely to be used by multiple people: 1) the novelty and coolness of tablets make owners eager to show off the device and content to friends, and 2) unlike mobile phones, tablets may have shared ownership, e.g. one per household.

Social Use of Tablets

In a recent post we looked at the use context of cellphones, ereaders and tablets based on research by Nielsen. You may recall that 58% of mobile phone users vs. 44% of tablet users operate their gadgets whilst among friends and family. What the data didn't tell us is whether the devices are used "solo" or to share content with others, or what activities were performed. It's not unusual to find a group of friends or colleagues together, each tapping away at their own devices. Answering calls, responding to texts and updating their Twitter feed while with others does not necessarily involve others.

Tablets, on the other hand, lend themselves to "showing off" photos, videos and apps. Usability research firm CX Partners observes on its blog:

"For the first time ever during conducting user research I found users describing how they would use different parts of the app depending on whom they were with at the time. Users described how they would use one particular interface with their mates because it was more abstract and far cooler than a more conventional alternative.

This made us realise how users were happy to sacrifice usability if there was an alternative that made them look good in front of their mates."

So what?

This doesn't mean that all users behave this way, but it should get your creative juices flowing. How can you make your app so informative, entertaining or just plain cool that users want to show them off to their mates? For example, EyeBuyDirect's Virtual Eye Try tool allows you to upload a photo of yourself and see what you would look like in various eyeglass styles. A mobile app allows folks to get their friends opinions on the go. A subscription membership site like's family tree feature is shareworthy, as could high school yearbooks (e.g. Memory Lane).

What would make someone say "I gotta show {so and so} this!" or "I gotta get that app!"?

2. Device Sharing

If your application stores data like purchase history, wish list, or connects to account information like a credit card, your app should be password protected. Most importantly to prevent "friendly fraud" (a friend/family member making unauthorized purchases with a cardholder's information). Think of kids purchasing Smurfberries while their parents make dinner. But even wish list data should be private (think of a surprise anniversary gift bookmarked on Amazon). Passwords could be asked for when loading up an app, or before certain actions are taken such as during checkout.

You have more freedom in an iPad app than a mobile app, larger screens mean tablet apps are easier to use. Your tablet app does not need to be the bigger brother to your mobile, neither should it be. Consider both the usability and use of the device you're designing for.

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