Understanding Tablet User Experience: The Device Universe

Andreas Pfeiffer | October 06, 2013

The Device Universe is the third important part of the value a device brings to the user. Being connected is not enough – a modern tablet should to provide the user with a rich set of content and apps as well as accessories and physical extensions that have the potential to transform a relatively useless device into a gateway to a wide range of possibilities and entertainment options.

That, at least, seems to be the implicit promise of the modern tablet: a simple interface to every app and every bit of digitized content that can be found on the planet. Without explicitly naming it, the device universe is what manufacturers rely on to make their devices attractive.

Demonstrating the actual reach and sophistication of the device universe is a much more complex affair: often, manufacturers are  limiting themselves to umbrella statements that may sound impressive but have little practical value: Both Apple and Google proudly announce hundreds of thousands of apps, and seemingly countless movies and music tracks. An embarrassment of riches that glosses over the current shortcomings and underlying difficulties that emerge on closer inspection—and which creates the backdrop to a fierce battle of market-dominance among the small group of companies big enough to compete in this global market-place.

What seems to be the problem?

Without even touching upon some of the hairier issues of these devices—the vendor lock and geographic zoning inherent in each vendor’s approach which we will discuss later on—the most frequently used qualifier for the device universe is the number of available apps, movies, books (or whatever else one is meant to buy).

Upon scrutiny, however, that impressive numbers seems to be more of a curse than a blessing. Nobody can even begin to evaluate the quality of half a million apps. Of course, app stores usually provide some form of ranking mechanism—popularity with users, sales ranking, staff picks, etc, but how useful are these selection mechanisms really? What makes me assume that the ubiquitous  ”most popular” ranking will actually direct me to the app that I would really benefit from? Searching for an app is like digging for the proverbial needle in a haystack; It is frustrating to say the least to look for something specific – and to be greeted with dozens and dozens of barely comprehensible icons of apps that bear only the faintest connection to the area one needs to find.

For content, the problem is relatively minor: be it music, movies or books there are well-established magazines and websites, as well as countless blogs and enthusiast’s sites that provide guidance and allow some form of serendipitous discovery. For apps, the situation is more complex. Apple’s and (to some extent) Google’s app stores try to provide intelligent suggestions, but very clearly a lot needs to be done. In fact, one can safely state that as the development of apps for tablets and smartphones quickly joins the ranks of the most active areas of human creativity, the real challenge will not be to provide an app store that allows the developers to flog their wares, but to come up with sophisticated and highly diversified tools for mining the rich potential of apps. And in that respect, a lot of progress needs to be made.

Problems with current app store implementations

Beyond these basic aspects of discoverability, the main problem for a tablet user is to find apps that have been optimized for such a device. As of now, Apple is the only supplier that clearly differentiates between iPhone and iPad apps, making it easy to pick the right app. Amazon and Google make some attempts at pointing out tablet apps, but there is no clear mechanism for distinguishing between the two. This is worsened by the fact that Google Play, for instance, does not even recognize some of the smaller tablets as such: when we connected to Google’s app store from the 7 inch Galaxy Tab 2 during our tests, the store seemed to assume we were connecting from a phone and did not even display a selection of apps for tablets. As for Amazon, the Kindle Fire cannot run standard apps for Android, so the selection of tablet apps for the platform is as yet very limited.

About the App Store

The app store is one of the most important aspects of the overall user experience and value proposition of a tablet device.

There is a reason for this: unlike a PC, which one usually buys in order to have access to a small number of full-featured application programs (Microsoft Office, a web browser, Adobe Photoshop…), a tablet is usually not purchased to use a specific set of apps, but rather to gain access to the quickly growing number of small, specialized apps and the wide range of tablet-optimized content that has become available over the past few years.

And while you can purchase application software for your PC in a variety of ways, tablet-specific apps are strictly limited to the app store that is available on the tablet of your choice.

There are hundreds of thousands of apps for both of the major tablet platforms on the market. The number of available programs for a tablet platform is usually quoted as a positive, yet in reality, it is quickly becoming the one big problem a tablet user faces: with hundreds of thousands of apps available, how do I find the one that I want, the one that corresponds to my needs? And how can I find out which app is optimized for the device I use? How can I browse and discover the vast number of available options? How can I make some serendipitous discoveries in the glut of seemingly indistinguishable apps?

That’s why the quality of the app store is of such vital importance to the overall perceived value a user derives from a tablet – and that is also the reason why quantifying the actual quality and usefulness of the app store is one of the most important factors of any user experience benchmark of tablets.