Smartphones

Android vs. iOS usability: No clear answers, but a lot of fun arguing

Ken Hardin argues there will never be a consensus on whether usability is better in Android or iOS apps. App usability tests do indicate, however, that less is more.

A favorite, ultimately unanswerable question for mobile junkies is whether Google's Android or Apple's iOS platform has spawned applications that are more user-friendly. We should clarify that the question is only unanswerable in a collective sense; individual mobile users are bound to have very strong views on the matter, and aren't reluctant to share them with you.

ZDNet's mobile columnist James Kendrick has produced an image gallery that compares the design approach of similar (sometimes, identical) applications in the Android and iOS platforms for popular tablet devices. It's an interesting look at what, at least in Kendrick's view, is the typically more polished design approach to be found in iOS apps.

Of course, polished is an eye-of the-beholder assessment. In his comparison of Gmail for Android and the Mail app for iPad (image 4), Kendrick's conclusion is that the iPad app is more polished, but as far as we can tell the variances are primarily in font treatment and background contrast. Not that these are insubstantial concerns, but such evaluations often boil down to what you are used to seeing. Other side-by-sides, such as the decision by the developers of the Skitch imaging tool (image 7) to split controls on both sides of the Android releases screen, clearly argue for the usability of iOS applications.

But, as we said, everybody has an opinion on this issue. One of the more interesting pieces we've seen is a simple online A/B usability test published at spyrestudios.com. A usability specialist for IntuitionHQ created the test (which is still open). It basically presents users with snapshots of Android and iOS versions of the same third-party app and asks them, "If you wanted to accomplish a specific task, what would you click?" At the time he wrote his post summarizing the test's results, Android versions had the slightly higher rating. The results of any test like this rely a lot on the sample apps selected, and as the author notes, the fact that Android can be found on some pretty dicey hardware may taint its reputation for usability a bit.

Rest assured, there's just never going to be a consensus on this topic. About a year ago, columnist Rene Ritchie contended in a post at iMore that "usability" is often an issue of consistency across apps and the platform, and certainly iOS has that in spades over Android. Kendrick makes much the same point in his ZDNet gallery, saying that Android developers tend to try to jam as much information as possible into their UIs, which can seem a little cluttered and "unpolished." For the developer, this may well be the main point to keep in mind: Less is often more.

Ritchie also says that his two-year-godson can use the iPhone. Not as scientific as a usability survey, but an interesting anecdote -- which is often where this debate ends up.

Note: ZDNet and TechRepublic are CBS Interactive sites.

About

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...

13 comments
camcost
camcost

But I must say for me iOS is by far the most intuitive of the two. I can normally locate information and settings within seconds, whereas on my Android it's always a question of "where did they put that thing?" Sometimes I never can locate a setting which I had changed at one point. Even when killing time at Best Buys a few days ago, playing with all the many, many tablets they have there, the iPad was far easier for me to maneuver around on than were the Android tablets. Even the cumbersome Windows tablets seemed easier to operate than Android. It just doesn't make sense why forums are filled with folks who feel like defending the Google OS.

centerbe
centerbe

So let his son use the iphone along with all of the other simpletons

galebRijecki
galebRijecki

In my personal opinion, it is BlackBerry that is more user friendly, with a lot more options at hand than any of the two platforms. I'm sure my statement will raise a lot of comments (negatives, may I predict), but I have used and worked with all three platforms, but it is BlackBerry that (in the end) comes to me most natural. (before getting BlackBerry in my hand, I was a loyal Nokia user. and no, I'm not Canadian... :-) )

TNT
TNT

iOS is designed for the older 4:3 aspect ratio, as a result some design feels more natural in this space especially if a toolbar is in use. On the other hand, for video especially but other media forms as well, 16:9 is the perspective of choice. I honestly think this plays more into people's opinion about the apps they use than they realize.

edewey
edewey

Interesting topic. The topic was well-handled in the article and you guys have fleshed out more issues relevant to the experience.

technomom_z
technomom_z

For me, there's just too much that an iPhone CAN'T or WON'T do that just makes it a non-starter for me. By the time I get to asking usability questions, the iPhone is long gone from consideration.

jfuller05
jfuller05

Apple and Android smartphones are cluttered, which is just one reason I like Windows Phone 7 better than Apple and Android phones.

ljgibson
ljgibson

I don't agree, mainly as I'm a happy android user (I tried apple devices and have owned a few but really hate the deep menus), but I know plenty of frustrated blackberry users where I work, some of whom have bought Android devices for their personal phones instead.

rhonin
rhonin

Owning both with generally the same apps or similar apps I have to say I find more and more that Android is more usable. Especially with iOS5.x, the constraints on what/where/when/how aligning you more and more toward the iCloud is severely limiting app functionality. So they may look similar, they may function similar, but the under the hood and options are not equal. Good example: on my iPad I used to create / change / display work docs using iWorks with Dropbox and Skydrive as my "cloud". iOS5 came along and while some functionality remains, the flexibility has been removed and steered toward the iCloud. On my Transformer, using Polaris or QOPro (QO is also on my iPad) I still have full flexibility. Controlled vs. Options I'll take options any day.

jeb.hoge
jeb.hoge

One of the great strengths of Android is how much you can do to change up the interface (including changing it to mimic WinPhone7 or iOS). Sites like Lifehacker often spotlight particularly clever/innovative/attractive Android layouts, and there is some honest-to-God artistry there. The Windows Phone 7 interface is striking, sure, but it's also a little too bold for my tastes...I try to have at least some open space on my Android's home screens (which have a great landscape photo I took as the background). And iOS is just old.

karan1070
karan1070

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