The much-anticipated Apple iPad will be available to Canadian consumers on May 28th. We’re excited about the iPad’s design potential and we’re very interested to see how it will be received by customers.

Creating a new category

Larger than an iPhone but more portable than a notebook computer, Apple is betting that there is an untapped market between mobile phones and notebook computers, and that its iPad will create a new category of devices within that “sweet spot.”

The device’s thin, sleek design makes it more portable than a notebook and offers an intuitive touch screen experience that, until now, has only been available to iPhone users. As Steve Jobs says, “It’s phenomenal to hold the Internet in your hands.”

Using good design to update an old idea

Tablet devices are not new – Microsoft unveiled a tablet PC in 2001, and the HP Compaq tablet PC was a notebook-like device that featured a rotating/removable keyboard that allowed it to act as a tablet device. These offerings, however, were really little more than pen-enabled computers; their user interfaces were never re-designed for portable use. The tablets simply replicated the “on-monitor” experience of a desktop or notebook computer – complete with icons and a standard PC interface.

Apple, on the other hand, rethought what a touch-screen device could and should be. Recognizing the usability benefits of a touch screen, Apple developed a tactile and appealing interface for its iPhone in 2007. The iPad will replicate the iPhone’s ability to move and “grow” items using your fingertips, and will provide a larger screen on which to do so. This large screen – and the device’s portability – will make it an excellent e-reader.

Through its touch screen developments, Apple is creating a new form of behaviour among users that is moving people away from the pointers and icons of the past and towards a more intuitive interaction with their machines.

Developing a realistic user interface

The primary input devices for the iPad are the fingertips, which have developed muscle memory from years of interacting with buttons, switches and sliders in the physical world. The most notable aspect of the iPad is that the user interface behaves like its real-life counterparts.

The dimensionality of the iPad user interface makes user interaction with the device much more satisfying because it replicates a real-world interaction model. Shadows and keylines reflect the way light hits a surface so it feels as if the interface has an embedded physics. It truly resembles a high-tech, touchable instrument panel.

Apple has been able to create an interface that better accommodates the human hand. Rather than simply replicate the iPhone interface on the iPad, Apple re-engineered the iPad homescreen to compensate for the increased resolution provided by the larger screen. The most notable change from this upgrade is the icon size, which is 15 pixels larger on the iPad than on the iPhone.

The new “split view” interface model, which can be seen in Mail app on the iPad, is also a usability improvement over the iPhone.By introducing various swipe-able panes that can scroll independently, Apple has added lots of space to the screen. In fact, these panels help to retain the context that is being interacted with – something the iPhone achieves though transition animations that expand and shrink to compensate for the device’s small screen size.

It’s all about the apps

In essence, Apple has created an accessible platform through which users can integrate the physical and virtual world. How they do so, and with which applications, is up to the user. Providing users with this ability, however, is an excellent way for Apple to endear itself with consumers and build customer loyalty. Owning an iPhone or iPad is just the beginning; it’s what you can do with it – the “apps” – that matter.

Apple understands that, increasingly, consumers are moving away from differentiating technical products on specifications, cost and convenience and are judging products based on the experience they receive as they interact with the product. Expensive and fancy technologies are always being dreamed up, but it is those technologies that please customers the most that will be most successful at building brand loyalty.

With the expansion and availability of the Internet, it’s easy to compare services and products and to voice dissatisfaction, so companies like Apple realize that they need to win user hearts through well-designed products that offer innovative, all-embracing experiences. By allowing users to easily run new and customized applications of their choice, Apple is encouraging users to create a personal relationship with the device and, by extension, with Apple.

Changing the way we receive information

Because of its potential to display the printed word in a readable format, the newspaper industry also has its eye on the iPad. The New York Times is said to be developing an iPad-enabled version of the Times, and has already done for the Kindle. Analysts seem torn, though, on whether digital readers will save or hurt newspapers. The UK’s Guardian newspaper says that “…publishers are hoping that Apple will can offer the same magic for the print world that it did for the music industry with iTunes.” According to Geek.com, the New York Times, however, is struggling to come up with pricing for an iPad-optimized edition.

While the New York Times may have difficulty transitioning from a print-oriented mindset to one that is digital, its customers may not. Apple has understood that if it can offer users a rich newspaper-reading experience online, they will take advantage of it and appreciate it. Many newspaper readers would be happy to ditch their bulky newsprint versions in favour of a continually-updated, handheld version. Simplifying and enhancing a daily routine – such as reading a newspaper – is just one way that Apple can build brand loyalty and differentiate itself through the iPad.

Making tough usability decisions

All good design processes include a good understanding of the product or service’s context. This context includes financial constraints, processes and how human beings behave. With the iPad, Apple is demonstrating that it understands user behaviour and how consumers are most likely to use its new product.

All signs indicate, for example, that the iPad will not be useful for multi-tasking. A Mobile Magazine article states that, “The operating system that powers the iPad is not up to task in the multi-tasking department. Some applications can utilize the operating systems’ multi-tasking features, some cannot.” In its 5 reasons not to buy an iPadarticle, VentureBeat points out that, “If you make a Skype call [on the iPad], you can’t punch up another app during the conversation. Twitterholics will find themselves hopping back and forth awkwardly between apps.”

Apple, though, may be purposely sacrificing multitasking abilities to provide a better user experience. The company has always been good at keeping usability and design at the forefront of its product decisions, and it excels at developing precise tools for a specific audience. Apple knows that, when developing a mobile device, features that do not address user goals and tasks and/or which diminish the user experience should be put on hold or re-thought.

The first generation iPad is also said to lack a USB port or SD slot, but Apple may be recognizing the benefits of Cloud Computing and the ease with which data can now be stored in one virtual location and accessed from any location via the Internet.

While a desktop or notebook computer is meant to help the user develop content, the iPad is targeting a consumption-oriented audience that wants to consume information from the Internet or read a newspaper. These users may not need – or want – the distraction of multiple open applications or multiple peripheral devices and thumb drives attached to their machines.

Users will decide

Ultimately, consumers will decide how the iPad will be used and what features it will include – and there’s no doubt that Apple will be listening and responsive to users’ feedback. At Pivot, we have already begun thinking, sketching and designing applications to run on the ipad and look forward to other tablet based devices to appear in the very near future.

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