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Designing for the iPad: How it's different from the iPhone and what you need to consider

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Posted Apr 28 2010 05:01 AM

Translating iPhone design to the iPad isn't as simple as it initially appears. The larger screen size presents one obvious difference. But developers/designers must also consider new use cases and the width/height/weight of the device, too.

I got in touch with Josh Clark, author of "Best iPhone Apps" and the upcoming "Tapworthy," to get his thoughts on the quirks and opportunities of iPad design.

Q: What are the key design differences between the iPhone and iPad?

iPad CoverageJosh Clark: The iPhone is great for quick sprints of activity and micro-tasks that are squeezed into the cracks between activities. It's a great device for capturing lost time: add something to your to-do list, read a book, check mail, play a game. The best iPhone apps are optimized for these bits of activity.

The iPad is something that, because it doesn't fit in your pocket, is not so great at capturing very short activities. But it is great for longer sessions, including analyzing the information that you might be gathering with your iPhone. So if you use the iPhone to record your workout info, the iPad is great for wallowing in the stats you gather.

With the iPhone, Apple made it pretty easy for non-designers to create pretty good interfaces. The UI kit and the iPhone SDK provide lots of great built-in controls that you can use to make basic productivity apps that look appropriate. But on the iPad side, I think that relying exclusively on those standard controls and built-in tools is going to create an awful experience.

There are exceptions, Instapaper being one of them. If you look at Instapaper creator Marco Arment's blog post where he previews the iPad app, he basically aped the iPad's mail interface. For productivity apps, where efficiency is the personality of the app, that's going to work. But in a lot of cases, you need to have a little more design flare to make iPad apps work well and create personal experiences.

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Q: Very few iPad developers/designers actually held the device before it was released. How will that affect early iPad apps?

Josh Clark: One of the things that is incredibly unusual about the iPhone platform is how consistent the third-party apps are. There are a couple of reasons for that:

  • There was an entire year between the first generation iPhone's release and the opening of the App Store, so designers got used to the conventions and metaphors that Apple established with its own iPhone apps.
  • Apple is an extremely controlling organization that does a great job of detailing exactly how stuff should work. Its Human Interface Guidelines are detailed and easy to read. Apple's clarity, both in example and in documentation, helped create a consistent interface.

With the iPad, it's unprecedented to have so many people scrambling to create software for a device few held before launch. And with touch devices, it's extremely important to actually test on the device to see how it feels and reacts. It's as much an industrial design challenge as it is a graphic design challenge.

It's a bit like trying to develop games for the Wii without having a Wii. How would you know how it works until you actually start waving your arms around? Or, consider how you swipe photos on the iPhone. It's like dealing a deck of cards one-handed. It's the same thumb flick, but that only becomes evident when you're holding it in your hand.

For what it's worth, I also think developers and designers are not going to be well-served by Apple's encouragement to create universal apps -- the apps that contain both the iPhone and iPad versions. That's great from a consumer perspective, but looking at the iPhone and iPad as one interface does not encourage the leap to, "I'm actually creating an entirely new kind of app." And that's really necessary.

Q: Some iPhone/iPad apps copy established forms. Digital books use "page turns," for example. Will these types of interfaces hold up long-term?

Josh Clark: It's important to do this sort of thing in the first generation of a device as we explore how it's going to be used. But it's limiting. What does an iPad-native newspaper or book or magazine look like? We're not there yet, but we'll eventually see content that's designed from the ground-up to be used, manipulated and experienced on a device like this, rather than imported from another format.

Q: What should designers take from the Apple-designed iPad apps?

Josh Clark: The thing that I'm most excited about is to see how some of the best developers are going to adapt their iPhone apps or their desktop apps to the iPad's real estate. It's not as simple as blowing it up and filling the space with different interface elements.

When you look at the iWork apps (iTunes link) carefully, you'll see that the toolbars change depending on what you've selected. There's only a handful of icons on the screen for something as complex as a spreadsheet or a presentation or a document. Everything is just a couple of tabs away behind doors or sliding panels. It's all hidden. These are entirely new kinds of interfaces; entirely new apps.

The mistake to avoid is cramming too much stuff into your interface. Clarity over density -- that's really the most important design decision for mobile devices, iPhone and iPad alike.


Learn more about this topic from Tapworthy.

So you've got an idea for an iPhone app -- along with everyone else on the planet. Set your app apart with elegant design, efficient usability, and a healthy dollop of personality. Tapworthy takes you from concept to polished interface design with plain-spoken principles and a rich collection of visual examples for designing exceptional interfaces for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

See what you'll learn

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