Tablets in their modern form are quite a new concept. While we have been familiar with touch-enabled PCs for a good decade, post-iPad tablets are different. What’s interesting here is that nobody knows what to do with them yet.

Switching to the touch-enabled user interface (UI), the native user interface (NUI) is a drastically new paradigm. It wouldn’t be unfair to compare this situation to the early 1990s, when the industry switched to graphical UI from alphanumeric terminals.

You may recall how painful the switch was at the time and how much criticism the new approach to human-machine interaction took. MS Windows often was called an unnecessary resource hog, and power users considered the mouse an indication of a low level of computer education.

The situation with tablets is similar. While the new interface is more natural for people in general, in certain situations it is even more productive (e.g., in document management systems).

Tablets are still widely perceived as a toy and a fad. They require a totally different approach to UI, and the techniques transferred from the desktop simply don’t work. While these new approaches are still in the early development stages, the public is failing to recognize the potential of this new platform.

The Productivity Potential

Tablet producers are partially to blame. They could have provided users the patterns on how to use tablets for work with reference productivity apps. Apple offered some good examples of how powerful the tablet can be. In particular, Garage Band for iPad was very convincing and immediately generated interest for the new product from musicians.

However, using iWork to showcase how an iPad may be used in a business context wasn’t the best choice. If there’s one aspect where tablets aren’t ideal for use, it’s the creation or use of large documents.

More recently, Research in Motion claimed it would demonstrate how the tablet could be used in the office via its Playbook. When the product was launched, it was clear the company hadn’t considered its particular usage situations.

Today, iPad’s are gaining traction in business circles since they’re convenient for working with e-mail and Web applications. These scenarios are more general, so Apple gives them more consideration.

As the number of iPads in the corporate environment grows, companies want more from the device. What’s interesting to see is that firms have started (with baby steps) to port their corporate software over to the new platform.

The transition to tablets is far from straightforward, though. Difficulties lie in the fact that there are no design patterns to base the UI on. Most of our clients start with the more obvious use cases and try to move to the slates with either document management or customer relation management/human resource management (CRM/HRM) systems.

This type of software is ideal for tablets since it doesn’t require a lot of keyboard input. However, it needs a larger screen so users can view the documents and the data stored in the system. Clients often try to replicate the interface used on the desktop, leading to limited success.

As a vendor, we try to give usability advice in these contexts, but it’s harder to do compared to developing traditional desktop or Web-based software. There are no conventions or hard patterns to be reused. Therefore, our usability experts have to sit down and work out the UI almost from scratch each time.

Building A Solution

When building a solution, work would normally start with the review of existing solutions on the market. By doing this, we can understand the particular elements to consider for inspiration. This often can be useful to find the particular layouts or controls for a future solution.

In most cases, though, we need to build the interface from the ground up. The biggest problem in most systems is centered on displaying large amounts of information on a relatively small screen. A series of research and development interviews with end-users is needed to understand what information should be immediately available and what can be accessed after a click or two.

After the initial research and development, the UI team prepares mockups and scoreboards explaining system functionality, design, and process. Once evaluated and approved by the customer, a small prototype is produced and distributed among a small group of users. This step is necessary to evaluate whether the interface is suitable and to determine if adjustments are needed.

For most of the modern desktop-based or Web-based enterprise solutions, these steps aren’t a necessity since there’s already a good existing stereotype stipulating how the system should behave. For the tablet, however, software described research is almost unavoidable, and not undertaking this step may result in a product that doesn’t meet market needs.

This situation will change over the next couple of years, as more business-oriented software is released and the UI templates are formed. As an example, we’ll see the Microsoft CRM client released shortly, and this will influence future CRM clients for tablets extensively.

Later this year, Microsoft plans to release its own tablets based on the Windows 8 operating system. That’s another point where we may hope to see better examples of business-oriented touch UI. Sooner or later, the market will work out all the necessary patterns.