Is the iPad mobile?

My Android phone died on the train when I was several stops away from my destination. I should have remembered where I was supposed to get off, but, like everyone else, I rely on technology to offload cognitive processes when I should be using my brain.

Wait, I thought, I have both my iPad and my laptop in my backpack.

I felt ridiculously conspicuous pulling out either just to check Google Maps. Between the two, I chose the iPad. It’s smaller and it has 3G. However, I felt as if all my fellow passengers were reading my giant screen along with me.  There’s a reason, I realized, that I’ve been observing commuters on their phones or slightly larger Kindles, but seldom whipping out their iPads on trains, bus stops, or speed walking through the city.

The iPad hit the market about three years ago, quickly becoming disruptive by creating a user need where there previously was none. 22% of U.S. adults now own a tablet. Given that it looks and acts like a larger smartphone (minus the obvious calling feature) and that there are apps, it’s easy to classify it as a mobile device. And that’s probably true – the iPad is more mobile than, say, your laptop.

However, as an app developer or a brand that wants its presence on the device, the larger question remains. Do you design for users on the go? Or do you focus on a more in-depth user experience? What is your content strategy? After three years of usage, we have data and opinions to support multiple points of view.

Mark Zuckerburg famously stated that the iPad isn’t mobile (Parr, 2010). Jakob Nielson’s report suggests that iPad users don’t use their iPads in truly mobile situations, and those that do take their iPads away from home tend to use them in more relaxed situations (Nielsen, Budiu, 11).

Where does that leave your feature offering and user flow?

I design mobile apps for Cars.com. After several years, countless usability sessions, and app design for three platforms (Android, iPhone, and iPad), our design team came to the realization that we should not necessarily think of it as design for mobile, but as design for tablet, or even more broadly: design for touch.  And when it comes to interaction, this is certainly true. The iPad shares the same interaction model as other touch devices. Our content strategy, however, has had to shift after trial and error.

Our apps are built primarily around the assumption that users are searching for cars. On top of that, since they’re doing so on a mobile device, they’re also interested in contextual tasks, which include finding dealers who stock those cars, contacting those dealers, and test-driving the cars. This basic flow was positively reviewed in the app marketplace for both the iPhone and Android apps. Thus, when the iPad app was developed, we had employed the same content strategy. We also focused a large effort on creating an in-app map feature, assuming users would be using it on the go.

After conducting user testing, I realized the following:

  • About 20% of our users have WiFi iPads instead of 3G. This meant that all the contextual features we were considering, such as on-the-dealer-lot and on-the-go usage would be available only to those who either have a 3G iPad or access to a free WiFi.
  • iPads were generally a shared device. Spouses and families typically had one per household, and therefore no one person carried it with him or her at all times.
  • The largest iPad use case was on the couch, in front of the TV. In this case, iPads replaced laptops for consumption of information, such as browsing the web, or more cognition-heavy tasks such as researching a product. This is different than a laptop, which is still turned to for creating, or a smartphone, which is used for contextual and hyper-local information, such as finding the closest dealership or grocery store. This is also the reason why Josh Clark recommended considering the “belly zone” when designing the navigation for your app and avoiding putting controls on the bottom (Wroblewski, “Design for Mobile: iPad Design Tips”).

Given all the arguments against the iPad being mobile, where does this leave content strategy? All evidence points to the fact that you should design for touch but consider content differently. Think of it as a touch device that is used in one place. As you plan your content strategy for an iPad app, consider the following.

Focus On What You Do Best

It’s tempting to cram in many bells and whistles into this highly visual device. After all, the graphics are at the foreground and Apple’s design guidelines extensively instruct us to let the user interact with the content, not the chrome. The content, however, should be what your brand does best. Focus on your core user path and keep the flow simple and fairly linear, at least in the beginning.

For example, our initial app at Cars.com primarily allowed users to research new cars. We designed for large graphics and minimal content, thinking that we were meeting iPad users’ expectations. Our users, however, expected to find listings of cars, not just research, because that’s what our brand is known for. Their expectations didn’t change simply because they were using an iPad. We re-focused on search, which is what we do best, and our ratings improved greatly.

As you consider content, pare down features that are essential to your brand and develop one solid user flow. Often, your core user flow is an obvious one. We leveraged analytics to understand how consumers used our regular site on their iPads prior to making changes to the actual iPad app. After all, a significant portion of traffic to our site comes from iPad devices. This provided insight on what specific features from the site can be customized in the native app for a better experience.

Consider The Funnel & The Couch User

If you have a cross-channel brand, consider the consumer journey through your brand. For example, for us at Cars.com we’re always thinking about the consumer’s shopping funnel. When people first begin their search for a new car, they may perform high-level searches, research, and comparisons. As they get lower in the funnel and near their car purchase date, users turn to their smartphones for activities such as locating and contacting dealerships.

Since we’ve established that people use their iPads on the couch, we now aim to design primarily for the couch user. Our iPad tasks focus more on the initial search, with research features folded into the main flow, and we spend less time worrying about location-based services. Our secondary and tertiary flows, however, include map features and geo-location because it is still, after all, an iPad.

Sync Across All Channels

50% of U.S adults now own either a tablet or a smartphone, and many own more than one. This has major implications on how and when users consume information across the same brand. For e-commerce, for example, one-quarter of visits to e-commerce sites occur from mobile devices, however all but 15% return back to their laptops to purchase. For us in the automotive industry, 79% of new vehicle buyers use the Internet to research their vehicle purchase. While virtually all of them use a desktop/laptop at some point, nearly 30% use multiple devices.

That means, depending of where they are in the shopping process, users can ostensibly be searching for cars on their laptops at work, checking listings on the iPhone during the commute, and comparing cars in front of the TV on their iPads at night. This doesn’t mean that we should necessarily replicate all tasks and flows equally across all devices. It does, however, mean that the user experience should be seamless.

Figure out what your users are doing on each device and provide syncing capabilities across channels. On Etsy, for example, where 25 percent of the visits but 20 percent of the sales come from mobile devices, the site syncs items in the shopping cart, favorite items, purchasing history, and conversations with sellers.

For Cars.com, this means that when users save their favorite listings or dealers, they are expecting to see the same saved items whether they are on their Android phone, laptop, or iPad. It’s perfectly fine if the iPad is only used on the couch, as long as when the user is ready to head to the dealership with their smartphone in their pocket, the same information they had saved on their iPad the weekend prior is available at their fingertips. If there is any difference in the information they see, it should be contextual to the user’s mobile needs and mental model.

With smartphones, that means taking into account location and urgency. For example, seeing a dealership nearby on a smartphone can include such data points as sales and service hours, and whether they are open now. In another instance, availability of listings can show in order of proximity to the user’s current location.

What About Other Tablets?

The iPad may have started the trend, but other tablets are certainly catching up. Now, just over half of tablet owners report owning an iPad. Nearly half own an Android-based device. The Windows 8 tablet has recently entered the market, and so has the iPad mini. What are the implications of these newcomers?

In addition to whether a device has cellular service, price and physical size ultimately factor into the users’ decision to take a device on the go. From my experience with the Surface Windows 8 tablet, its physical size alone may preclude it from becoming a mobile device as well. In addition, Windows is advertising a physical keyboard attachment. While this may be convenient, the keyboard definitely places the tablet closer to the laptop realm and may not necessarily be very portable. It weighs in at two pounds, according to Microsoft’s website, which is heavier than the iPad. The tablet is also expensive and is only WiFi for now.

The iPad mini, however, is smaller, lighter, and has a cellular data plan option. Like smaller Android tablets, it’s relatively less expensive, which makes users more inclined to bring it along when they’re on the go. This could mean, however, that your apps on these smaller tablets resemble more of the smartphone app experience rather than the larger tablets, at least in terms of the tasks users conduct.

Iterate Often

Whichever features you decide to release, the app marketplace is dynamic and provides a direct pipeline into user feedback by way of ratings and reviews. With the pressure to keep the app fresh in the marketplace, it’s tempting to add more features.

For example, GateGuru from Kayak initially delivered its promise to show airport information and flight status. However, more and more features were added to the point that users are now questioning whether it’s even the same app.

As mentioned above, we experienced something similar with our Cars.com iPad app. The first release of our app did not meet users’ expectations because it didn’t deliver what our brand promises: the ability to locate car listings. The app ratings and reviews certainly reflected that, and we worked quickly to ameliorate our standing with the app marketplace to add listings in the next iteration.

Conclusion

Listen to your users and always check whether the new features are desirable. As you first release an app, start with your core competency and consider the features that are essential to your primary user path. As you iterate and add more features from your business and product road map, take into account what users are saying. You may find yourself adding or sunsetting features based on how and where people are using your app. Mobile or not, the tablet market is here to stay and, directly or indirectly, users will tell us what features to build next.

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Posted in Big Ideas, Interfaces, Special topic: Content strategy | 10 Comments »

10 Comments

  • Cara Rickard

    May 15, 2013 at 11:41 am

    I think the main takeaway from this article is that all design should be based around user behavior and needs. The number of devices and the way people use them will continue to increase, so while we should consider how mobile functionality (like geolocation) can augment the user experience, we shouldn’t make assumptions about usage.

    Asking “is the iPad mobile?” is only helpful if you’re doing so to see what features you can use to create a better experience. If you’re asking that question to create a finite list of how people will use your site or application, then you’re approaching the problem in the wrong way by making assumptions.

  • Barry Briggs

    May 17, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Great article!

    Many of your observations echo my own (admittedly anecdotal) experiences of tablet computing.

    I agree with your comment about it not being about mobile, – it’s about “touch”. I’d also add that it’s about screen size, as this can be a key differentiator from smartphones when considering interface and interaction design.

    Consider the way good iOS apps are universal, but have interfaces optimised for the device, and compare that against the lack of Android apps optimised for tablet when they were first launched? The user experience of opening an app on a tablet and seeing a “stretched” version of the smartphone interface is very disappointing.

    The numbers you quote around WiFi vs 3G device usage are also interesting. I think I need to look into GA (or any of the other analytics providers) to see if they provide that level of granularity? It would certainly help gauge a site’s usage patterns and allow you plan a tablet strategy that fits your own users’ behaviour.

    Thanks for a great read – it’s definitely one to save to Pocket app for future reference :)

  • Hilary Marsh

    May 30, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Great article. I find it pretty ironic that Mark Zuckerberg considers the iPad to be non-mobile, since the Facebook experience on the iPad is mobile vs. full desktop, and really suffers because of it.

  • Chris

    June 22, 2013 at 11:00 am

    You also need to look at how many people actually put a sim card into their 3G iPad, without a sim card or with an expired prepaid sim it is effectively a wifi iPad again. I suspect many people just buy the 3G because it is “The best” and “Just in case I need it”.

  • aloes12

    July 10, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    Great post. iPad is not mobile, I personally could not go with him around city or something. Just for using at home, nothing else.

  • Seria o iPad um dispositivo móvel? E o que meu conteúdo tem com isso? « Panorama Geek

    July 10, 2013 at 11:21 pm

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  • service ac jakarta

    July 22, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Great article. I find it pretty ironic that Mark Zuckerberg considers the iPad to be non-mobile, since the Facebook experience on the iPad is mobile vs. full desktop. i like it.

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