Mobility

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...

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