Our 2-year-olds can use it. It's a brilliant entertainment device. But what sort of business potential does the iPad offer? Several companies have shown interest in mobile payment systems from startups like Square to mega-corporations like Visa. But what is the iPad's user experience in a real-world, business environment?

By now, one thing we know is that the iPad is not simply a larger iPhone, nor is it a smaller computer. Developers have been quick to port their apps from the iPhone to the iPad to ensure they don't miss out on this trend, but there are big differences in the underlying specs and form factor of the iPad that make this a fundamentally different user experience.

Lucky for us, Bolt | Peters likes researching UX, and we thought this topic deserved a little investigation. So we conducted an observation of 14 customers over three months at our neighborhood coffee shop, Sightglass, that just happened to be an early user of Square on both the iPhone and the iPad. We observed and recorded those customers' mobile payment interactions with the Square app, and interviewed select customers. Our first study was in December 2009 (with the iPhone) with a follow-up in April 2010 (with the iPad).

Two important business considerations came from our studies: (1) speed kills (in a good way), and (2) shared is the new private. If you're thinking that nothing statistically valid can come from observing such a small sample of interactions, the Internet is chock full of data supporting that behavior repeats over a very small sample, and that we can safely extract patterns to much larger audiences, as long as we're not talking about opinions. We were definitely not observing people's opinions about the iPad or iPhone; we are strictly interested in how they accomplish the simple task of paying for coffee.

Speed Kills

In our observations of mobile payment transactions at Sightglass, the time it took to complete a purchase using Square on the iPad was more than twice as fast as using Square on the iPhone. In one direct comparison, it took 20.5 seconds to complete a purchase with the iPad, but 44.1 seconds on an iPhone 3G.

As slaves to our digital devices, we find that the physical world is constantly competing for our attention. Seconds matter here. This hasn't been an issue with computing until very recently; usability scientists in the 90‘s claimed 8 to 15 seconds was the maximum time someone would wait for an interaction using a desktop computer (see Shackel's Acceptability Paradigm). But with any kind of portable device, seconds mean the difference between a seamless user experience and pocketing the device to pay with cash or talk to a stranger.

Watch video of our study:

A 100% increase in speed is a huge deal. It means the merchant was effortlessly ringing up customers one after another with fewer clicks and less down time on the iPad. There was more time to prepare other customers' drinks and less time spent hunched over a handheld device waiting for the transaction to complete. Keep in mind that for Sightglass, a boutique coffee kiosk, the iPhone as a point-of-sale system was still superior to accepting cash only; they had no other cash register.

We all have heard by now that the iPad's 1GHz processor is light years ahead of the current iPhone, although this has changed now that Apple has gotten back all its "stolen" 4G iPhones and released them to the public. And while it seems obvious, this speed in the iPad makes for more than just a casually better user experiences and positive outcomes for business prospects. It's the first time that seconds are a fundamental part of user experience in almost a decade of personal computing.

Shared is the New Private

The form factor and physical affordances of the iPad also change the nature of the game. The iPad is not pocket sized, it has a large screen (1024 x 768 at 132ppi), and it naturally lays flat on the table as opposed to resting upright or being tucked away in your hand. All of these factors place the iPad squarely in the realm of a shareable computing device.

iPad Viewing Angle

Notice how easy it is to view content on iPad. The screen can easily be viewed by 3-4 users sitting around in a circle or gazing over the shoulder. An iPhone with its 480x320 screen would be squinted at by neighbors, or would simply be passed around and handled individually.

And as a shared device, the iPad invites social interaction.

This actually proves to be somewhat of a pain point in the user experience of Square on the iPad, as customers are drawn to interacting with (or at least observing) their payment transactions. Yet iPad users today are now largely removed from the transaction, apart from providing their credit card as a form of payment.

After that, the merchant drives the interaction. Since the iPad Square app doesn't require customer signatures anymore, we observed merchants skipping over the (optional) tipping screen time and again. When asked about this, merchants said it was too awkward to ask aloud, "And would you like to add a tip to that?" One time the transaction proceeded so quickly that a customer commented at the end, "This is great! But where do I tip?"

Part of the reason for this shift in experience is that Sightglass' iPad is more like a cash register than a hand-held mobile device. This is made possible, in part, by a custom wooden holder that was specially designed for Sightglass. The holder keeps the iPad upright and angled in such a way that it's readable and easy to interact with by people standing at the counter. Plus it swivels and hides all the ugly cords and stuff.

Take a look at the side-by-side comparison of a mobile payment transaction on the iPhone versus the iPad, paying attention to all the open space surrounding the iPad.

Side-by-side comparison of iPhone and iPad use

It's interesting that customers want to engage with merchants during payment, but don't quite know what their role is supposed to be. Around normal cash registers, customers would never step behind the table and complete their own transaction. With the iPhone Square app, customers were required to complete their own transaction. And now with the iPad, do the customers step up and add their own tip—entering the private space of the merchant and cash register—or stay clear of the transaction altogether?

We observed one telling interaction that illustrated how the affordances of the iPad-cum-cash-register can lead to some awkwardness. In this case, the merchant swiped the customer's card (per usual) but immediately stepped away from the iPad to prepare another customer's drink. This left the payment process in limbo, and made the paying customer wonder what would happens next.

After a moment or two, the customer glanced down at the iPad and noticed that the transaction had paused on the screen asking for a tip. He looked around, hesitated, and then gingerly reached over and pressed the $1 tip button. He did the same on the next screen, where he entered an email address for a receipt, only stepping closer to use the iPad keyboard. Throughout this episode, his body language spoke of his social curiosity for the iPad mixed with the social taboo of entering the domain of the merchant.

Now, this is just one example of how the physical affordances and social invitation of the iPad can lead to awkward user experiences, especially for customers involved in mobile payment transactions. At the same time, customers were not involved in most of the transactions at Sightglass, making the user experience for the merchant quick, painless, and efficient.

Article No. 894 | October 31, 2012
Article No. 892 | October 25, 2012
Article No. 891 | October 24, 2012


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It's amazing how time has proven most of your points true! IPad and iPhone have been two landmark achievements in the mobile UI industry. They have truly revolutionised how users interact with touch technology. It's been close to 3 years since this article was published , and many of the points made have been truly visionary. Kudos to the authors!

hi.gyus...think what is the need of i pad ? already u hve a i phone and laptops then we will get a answer only difference is a big screen...so this thing is totaly dependent on a concept of a big screen and a clear touch.......so this is a time of a technoogy so don't waste your time and devlop a new device which contain all the feature....thanku samsung

I see that today (in the UK) the new iPad2 has just been released - you have got to feel sorry for people whom now have the aged original iPad (me!) the rate at which technology evolves these days is staggering and only a few months after buying goods seem to be obsolete!

iPad does not include the customer keying in his email address for the e-receipt, but in the case of the iPhone it does, thanks !

slides concerning iPhone/iPad UX:

One interesting thing to note:

In the video, the time for the iPad does not include the customer keying in his email address for the e-receipt, but in the case of the iPhone it does. Isn't this unfair?

I feel there's a place for both. The key is really how long a person is involved in a transaction (as you pointed out the iPad has the speed advantage.) But if you are in a hurry and only have the iPhone, then it's going to be this device. Bottom line: we;re just going mobile. Mobile bohemians actually. Mobos. As more apps are brought to market, laptops will be on their way down and mobile devices on the way up. Also see the recent Pew research, interesting.

Anyway, great review. Nice how you compared them side-by-side.


Seconds do matter. Mostly because it took too many to load the video you posted here.

Interesting study.
I think you should have compared to a 3rd place where a simple card-reader and computer is used.

Very interesting study.


Love how you point how that Seligman's big lesson watching the shift from negative to a positive psychology maps to a similar shift in design. We are moving from usability (reducing misery) to something we call at best 'experience' (maximizing happiness). We need different techniques to make this happen for people.

A note building on your Netflix example of flow: we had Bill Scott (formerly lead UI engineer of Netflix) in for a talk recently and he shared how the original implementation of that rating system did delight people in the short term, but diverted them from actions that put movies in their queue. They'd lose themselves in the moment, then lunchtime would end and they'd close their browser.

Bill went on to share that over the long term Netflix benefited more from the halo effect of people watching rented movies they liked and projected those warm fuzzy feelings back onto Netflix (who didn't exactly make the movie). They kept the rating flow, but relocated it to its current home without interrupting movie rentals.

Glad to see another TED talks junky out there!


I tend to judge companies by their website. I think, If they've taking their time to make my experience on their site a great one, then I will loyal and share the love forever.

Jetblue is this case. I have preferred at times to fly into one city and drive to another instead of taking a direct flight with another airline (when time is not an issue of course). My happiness is more important than saving money too (thanks Apple).

Recently I launched a site where my end goal was to wow people by creating something useful, intuitive and made them happy. People love food and I myself have often times not known where to eat and I hate deciding that.


Shows people pics of food and then gets out of your way. No ads, no upsells, signups, extra features (not even reviews or ratings). I'm so HAPPY how it came out and would love some feedback from other U/X lovers :)

On the topic of speed, there is actually a much greater performance disparity between the iPad and the iPhone 3G. The "S" in 3GS wasn't just for "speed of the network," as it was a major step up from the iPhone 3G in terms of sheer hardware performance: The iPhone 3G has a 417MHz CPU, and a weaker graphics chip than the iPhone 3GS and the iPad. The iPhone 3GS got a 600 MHz CPU and a big graphics bump. I'd like to see this Square experience compared between an iPad and an iPhone 3GS. Perhaps a comparison with the upcoming iPhone 4 would be the most interesting, because it gets the same A4 1GHz CPU that's in the iPad.

I have a solution - how about a stand where after the person behind the counter has punched in stuff, she/he just flips the iPad over like a teeter-totter allowing the customer to do his/her part. The iPad's accelerometer ensures that the screen flips over too so the customer sees the screen right side up. Strategically placed rubber bumpers on the stand (or affixed to the ends of the iPad) ensure that the iPad doesn't get dinged.

This is a good example of a real use for an ipad.

I have to say though I am still underwhelmed by it.

It's too heavy, you can't touch type realistically on it, you can't carry in your pocket, it's annoying to hold for prolonged periods, it's not extendable... I could go on.

Sure it has it's niche, but v2.0 needs to be a whole lot better for this to really become something other then a expensive digital photo frame and video playback device.

Ben -

Shit you're totally right. I was thinking in terms of hardware about the seconds issue. Namely that since the days of upgrading from a 286 to a Pentium, the difference in processor speed in desktop hardware has not yielded significant improvements in user experience. GPUs, sure, and tons of software improvements, but not core processing speed. But of course we all work in terms of seconds for interaction design and development - web apps, sites, software, etc.

It just struck me that the substantial processing power increase from the iPhone to the iPad yields a fundamental shift in the experience. For example, where an iPhone user might just say "screw it," looking something up in a browser, because it will simply take too long, they could actually execute that task 2-3x faster on the iPad, and as a result new use-case scenarios for rapid computing could open up.

Thanks for the good point.

"It's the first time that seconds are a fundamental part of user experience in almost a decade of personal computing."

I think this is an interesting article, and the iPad, iPhone are interesting devices, but really? I mean I've been a web designer for a long time now and not once have I thought speed was not a fundamental part of the user experience I was designing.

Regardless of the increase in internet connection speeds across the world, we are constantly designing for sites, apps, whatever to work quickly across a large audience. This includes optimizing images, html, javascript, all sorts of things.

It seems arrogant, or fanboy-ish at least to think that only the iPad brings this point into relevancy in the discussion again.

I think it would be better to leave comments like that out and just examine the experience as it is at face value.


Arald I'm so glad you bring up this skepticism. We were all in the same camp before performing this study. The results were pretty clear that the shared experience of a laptop or phone is simply horrific compared to the shared use of a tablet - or the iPad specifically. Neither of those categories afford sharing - a laptop is awkward to pass back and forth and a phone is too small. Only time well tell I suppose, but we're convinced there are both clear business and consumer uses for the iPad.

So far I am not impressed by what I have seen from the iPad. The social interaction issue is not something new that came with the iPad. It has been around since computers exist and it entered the mobile world with the introduction of the laptop. Personally I think it's a bit silly to use an iPad in a store as some sort of replacement for cash registers. It's a mobile device and I don't see a waiting coming to your table with something as huge as an iPad so you can make the payment. The large letters leave very little privacy as well.

Personally I think the iPad is a gadget which is hip but with not too many really practical or handy uses. It's simply too large for a light weight mobile device (in fact it's quite heavy) and can do too little for it's price and compared to Netbooks.

So if the iPad dimensions were say, 5" x 7" you'd be fine with it?

Thanks Samriddhi and Steve. 

Rich - you must be a reddit and youtube commenter. But that's fair. I guess it's a pretty obvious observation, but in our experience most mobile app developers don't consider the shared social interaction possibilities of their apps.

Great article Nate.

The more I use the iPad, the more I think that the OS is simply not suited to the small form factor, even though it has revolutionised mobile phones for years. Scenarios like this will be far more common with the proliforation of tablet/slate devices

Interesting article and great findings. After using iPad for quiet some time, I could no less agree with the fact that iPad definitely invites social interaction. Its really an interesting and engaging platform!

Rightly said: "The social interaction is definitely another factor we should think about when designing an experience". Otherwise it may land end users in awkward situations...

"The social interaction is definitely another factor we should think about when designing an experience."

Really? What a blindingly incisive insight!

Wow, that's seriously profound.. Now I come to think of it the requirement for oxygen is definitely a factor we should take into account when planning on breathing too..

Thanks Jiri. That was one of the most interesting parts of the study.

Love the stand they have for the iPad!

Thanks for that article, I thing your findings are really interesting and inspiring. The social interaction is definitely another factor we should think about when designing an experience.