Tablet app design is hard

2013 03 20 19.47.56 - for some reason we don't have an alt tag here

While I’m not a proper developer, I have made fully functional apps for both Android and iOS, phones and tablets. Sure, the Android apps are made in Tasker, and the iOS app is a web app, but at the end of the day, they’re still apps. I have to say that there’s one thing I really wasn’t expecting, and that’s that tablet app design is really hard.

There are two things I find particularly difficult about tablet app design: having to design with orientation changes in mind, and having so much screen real-estate. The first one comes down to how it’s perfectly acceptable to have a phone app that only works in portrait, but that’s not really the case with a tablet app. I very rarely use my phone in landscape mode, but I constantly switch between portrait and landscape on tablets, especially when using peripherals like a keyboard or mouse.

The problem I’ve found with designing with orientation changes in mind is that the screen ratio is different, meaning that you often need completely different layouts in portrait and landscape. This is particularly an issue on Android, where most tablets are widescreen, meaning that you essentially move between a widescreen and a highscreen layout when you rotate the device. A device in landscape mode is perfect for a split screen approach with a sidebar for navigation and a main content area for whatever the current option needs to display, but the problem is that when you then rotate the screen, you can quickly end up with less horizontal space for both sections than you otherwise had for just the content.

This is a problem that I see in many apps, and I’ve yet to see any truly good solutions to the problem. Some apps simply resize the two areas, which often leaves you with a very awkward looking app. Others hide the sidebar somehow, either in a button, off the side of the screen so you can drag it into view, or something else like that. Either way you essentially have to change the way the app works from one orientation to the next, which isn’t ideal. Designing for a phone is much easier, since you can justify sticking to portrait mode all the time, and as such not worry about this issue.

Then you have issue of having so much screen real-estate. You’d think that would be a good thing, but it’s really hard to fit tiny pieces of information onto a huge screen without making it look weird in some way. When I make my phone apps in Tasker, I always use element and font sizes much smaller than normal phone apps, because I like fitting a lot of information on a small screen, and don’t have any trouble reading it. That just makes it even harder to make something for a tablet, however, because then I suddenly have a screen area big enough to fit five apps, if I were to follow the same recipe. That leaves you hunting for something to put in there, even if it’s not really necessary, which rarely ends well either.

That’s why I chose to simply emulate the homescreen with my web app, which isn’t a very elegant solution, but does have the benefit of working well in both portrait and landscape. I want to create a new app that looks a bit better, but honestly don’t look forward to the task of trying to create something that looks good and works well.

There is one solution to this that is currently built into Windows 8, and that’s the ability to run apps side by side in a mode that lets one app run in tablet mode, and another in something closer to phone mode. The purpose of this on Windows is to give you access to two apps at the same time, but I think that this would be more useful if combined with the jailbreak tweak MountainCenter. In other words, I wish tablets had a drag-in sidebar that could be invoked from anywhere in the OS, that would then allow you to run phone apps in it. Instead of trying to force phone apps to be something they’re not, this could then be used to house any app that really only needs a phone layout.

Outside of apps, I also find it difficult to design my own home screen setups on tablets, because of the same problems. I recently tried to use some jailbreak tweaks to create a split screen iPad home screen layout with widgets on one side and icons on the other (yes, that’s actually possible on a jailbroken iPad), but gave up because it’s just hard making something look good in both portrait and landscape, especially without the ability to specify completely separate layouts for both. I had the same issue when I used an Android tablet, and kept switching between portrait-only and landscape-only layouts, never being fully satisfied. At the same time, I’ve had the same phone layout for a year, still like it, and find it both good looking and highly functional- because I never feel there’s an issue with locking it to portrait.

Other, more experienced app designers and -developers might disagree with me with what I’ve said here, but in that case I envy them. Personally I just find designing for a tablet really hard, and I think that’s part of the reason why so many apps still have no tablet equivalent.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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2 thoughts on “Tablet app design is hard

  • Well, what I do mostly as for orientation.

    1) In landscape, ~1/4 is a sidebar with a single option per line, 3/4 is real content

    2) In portrait, the top 3/4 are real content, the bottom 1/4 is “sidebar”, but with 2 options per line and keyboard input is overlaying it when in use

    It’s simple, but for me it always worked out good enough.

    • Avatar of Andreas Ødegård

      Yeah that’s an approach I’ve considered too. I like the minimalistic sidebar style that’s used for e.g. Google+ (in the browser) and the new Audible app, where the sidebar takes up much less space and is more icon based. That would both be easier to fit in portrait, and easier to reconfigure to a bottom bar.


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