The dearth of iPad app innovation

There’s something paradoxical about the current state of the iPad that I find both thrilling and disturbing. On one hand, the iPad is clearly a commercial success: Sales are very high and the device has been almost universally praised by the tech press for its hardware. Yet what about the software? While the iPad app market has increased exponentially, I find the often conservative design and nature of what’s out there a bit disheartening.

Too many purchases are simply an upscaled version of an existing iPhone app with the surface area quadrupled, an “HD” slapped on the title and a doubling (or more) of the price. The UI can often be slower, more cumbersome and at times flat out boring compared to a similar iPhone counterpart.

It wasn’t always this way back when apps first hit the iPhone over two years ago. Maybe the excitement and hype was higher at the time, but I felt there were plenty of creative ideas early on: The popular Twitter client Tweetie’s use of swipe to reply or a pull down action to refresh the timeline. Trism’s support of device orientation to rethink the popular Bejeweled/Match-3 game genre. A shake of the iPhone for random restaurant recommendations presented in a slot machine from Urbanspoon (a bit gimmicky in retrospect, but at the time it was clever.)

Almost nothing as groundbreaking in UI design has come with the iPad, but some are moving in that direction: Twitter throws a more unusual, layered like UI that maximizes real estate, and Pulse and Flipboard repackage RSS and Twitter feeds with a focus on an “everything goes” approach to swiping and pagination. All three apps have received attention because, like them or hate them, they are out there taking risks, shaking up our conception of what a tablet UI should be. Where’s everyone else?

A few recommendations moving forward

  • Just because the extra real estate on the iPad exists, don’t fill it with pretty nothingness or whitespace that few care about.
    (e.g. iPod app’s explosion of cover art on album view, Air Sharing’s focus on what appears to be 90% empty lists with 10% or less space remaining for valid navigation.)
  • Don’t just push UI elements to the corners and call it a day. Do something useful with what you have, and it starts by making UI elements that were hard to tap on the iPhone a more reasonable size for such a larger device (Reeder is an excellent app overall but I could see a bit of work in this department.)
  • A user’s hands are not in always the same place on the iPad, unlike the omnipresent “one finger to tap anything” that is the norm on the iPhone. Design around this, not against this. For example, don’t place two elements that likely will be used together necessarily far apart (e.g. iPad’s forward/back/pause and the track listing call to action.) Otherwise the whole hand often has to shift, causing the app to be more cumbersome than a simple thumb tap.
  • People aren’t suckers. Just because it’s on the iPad doesn’t mean you can just double the screen resolution, add no new functionality, slap “HD” on the title and buyers will line up for often double the cost.
  • If you’re not willing to really add anything new, make the app Universal and call it a day.
  • Take a chance. The iPad gives so much more room for designers to experiment and play with, and the extra real estate gives the hands a lot more space for new multi figure gestures and pinches.