Understanding Tablet User Experience: User Experience Friction

Andreas Pfeiffer | October 06, 2013

What exactly is User Experience Friction (UXF), and how can it be measured?

The operative question is of course: what is a good, frictionless user experience? Well, that should be fairly simple: an ideal device should provide a completely natural user experience. We should be able to use it without having to learn anything, and nothing should inhibit our expected use of the device. Interactions should be intuitive, every operation should be smooth and natural. We should not have to wait for the device to do anything, nor should the device keep us guessing at what is necessary to achieve a certain goal. (As I said, that would be an ideal device.)

User Experience Friction is basically anything which separates the device we use from that ideal user experience: we all KNOW what User Experience Friction (UXF) is when we experience it, (although of course UXF may represent something completely different for every one of us.)

On the most basic level, UXF is the slow-down or friction that occurs when the user experience of a device deviates from our expectation or knowledge – and it can occur in every are of our life. If you rent a car that magically has reversed the side of the blinker on the steering wheel of the car, we experience friction: where the hell is the blooming thing? When you press the wrong button in an elevator because it is badly labelled: UXF again.

UXF is a fact of life. In the so-called real world we don’t think much about these things, because we have prior knowledge that they can occur: we know car designs differ from one another; we know there is no universally agreed upon way of labeling equipment, and so on. Even on computers, most of us have acquired enough knowledge to find our way around basic options, although we may have difficulty in finding a specific setting or command (UXF again, of course)

On recently invented devices such as tablets or smartphones, the situation is more complex. Not only are these devices new, so we have had much less time to get used to them, but worse, their feature-set and behavior is not yet frozen: every new generation of device or operating system brings new possibilities, and therefore new areas of UXF.

The situation becomes even more complex when you have to deal with competing vendors and  operating systems, which make it difficult for vendor B to use the most efficient discoveries of vendor A. Case in point: Apple had a very smart idea when designing iOS: every iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch has a physical home button that sits outside of the display area. The idea being that wherever you are on the device—maybe in an app that has frozen, or one that has a badly designed user interface and provides no clear way to quit, or maybe just stuck in a communication problem that makes an app freeze—pressing the Home Button gets you into safe, known territory. A very smart idea indeed, and one that gives the iOS devices a clear advantage over the competition.

Not surprisingly, Apple patented this discovery. As a result, no Android device can have a physical Home button without infringing on Apple’s patent. So? Well, Android has a Home button, too – but it is part of the user interface of the operating system, and therefore is not always present. This results in numerous occurrences of UXF, because the Home icon may simply not be available in the app you are using, or it may show inconsistent behavior.

There are many other examples of UXF: any kind of unexpected behavior can produce friction. If you are used for every application to work in both portrait and landscape mode, an application that only works in one mode and forces you to physically turn the device in order to use it produces friction. Other examples can simply be the result of confusing UI design: the Samsung implementation of Android currently found on its GalaxyTab 2 tablets displays an icon for capturing the content of the screen right next to the Home and Back icon. Why? Do we really need to make screen grabs as often as we hit the back icon? To make matters worse, the icon design resembles the design some application use to trigger a Zoom function – which means that an unexperienced user will simply hit this icon to view a bigger version of what is on the screen—and wind up with a screen capture that needs to be manually deleted.

The really important question, of course, is: can we quantify UXF? Is there a way of measuring the friction different devices impose on the user? Can we rate devices according to their user experience, the way we rate their processors or screen resolution? Fortunately there is.

Understanding User Experience Friction

So how can you go about measuring something as evasive as UXF? The first step is to look at the context. Using a tablet is not at all the same thing as using a personal computer. Nobody expects to learn how to use a PC without some explanations and help. Somebody has to show you the basics, the general UI principles, the menu system, how folders work, what applications are, how to save a file and so on.

A tablet is completely different: a tablet (and a smartphone for that matter) are intended to be consumer devices. Their use is meant to be intuitive, their user interface should not require learning. There is a distinct need for immediacy. The user experience of smartphones and tablets is much more physical than with a PC. Just as in the real world, you touch the objects represented on the tablet, interact with them directly. And while using a PC is in our mind often associated with working, or at least with doing something for a prolonged period of time, a tablet is intended for very casual use: it has to be on immediately—you certainly don’t want having to type a log-in and password each time you want to use it.

It is important to remind ourselves of these differences because they define the user experience we expect from a tablet. In other words, aspects that are completely acceptable on a personal computer are experienced as UXF when you use a tablet or a smartphone. Having to type a log-in or password is one example, but there are many others. On a PC, applications can take seconds or in some cases minutes to load. We don’t like it – but we have accepted that this can happen. After all, when we launch an application like Word, Excel or Photoshop, we don’t expect to quit it immediately: we are going to do something work-related, which is likely to take time.

Tablet and Smartphone apps are quite different: having to wait for them to load is experienced as friction, we expect them to react immediately. But that is only one example of many others: swiping behavior, rotation-speed when we turn the tablet, inconsistent scrolling behavior, inconsistent user interface operation are all aspects that are much more annoying on a touch-device than when they occur on a computer.

In fact, when we look closely we realize that UXF is the sum or accumulation of a large number of minor aspects, which, taken individually may seem unimportant or inconsequential, but taken as a whole will make the difference between a device that is perceived as pleasant to use, and a device that is merely functional. Whether these differences are perceived as important is up to the individual user to decide. But they exist, can be observed, and, at least to some extent, quantified or measured.