Designing Mobile Tablet Apps: First Step Outside The Mobile Box

The mobile tablet app market exploded in 2011, and tablet sales are only expected to grow in the foreseeable future. IHS data predicts that overall tablets sales will reach 126 million this year, an 85 percent increase over the 68.4 million units sold in 2011. By 2016, IHS expects sales to hit 360 million units.

Not only are tablet sales rising, but tablet owners are also using the devices all the time and in ways that should have business owners and marketers taking note.

  • In 2011, Jefferies found that 35 percent of tablet owners spend two or more hours a day using them, and an additional 30 percent spend one to two hours a day.
  • Last month, eMarketer reported that 80 percent of surveyed tablet owners claim to use their devices to research and buy products.
  • A recent Adobe survey concluded that tablets will eclipse smartphones and drive more Internet traffic by 2013, claiming 10 percent of all Internet traffic by 2014.

The rapid rise of tablets has businesses scrambling to mobilize their Web sites and create tablet versions of existing and planned mobile applications. But just what are the differences between the user interface of a mobile and tablet app, and how can these differences be highlighted in ways that maximize the tablet platform as one that’s truly special and unique?

The user experience of a tablet app is fundamentally different from a mobile app. Here are some ways your business can step outside the mobile box.

Screen real estate

To start with the obvious, the primary difference between the UI of a mobile and tablet app is screen real estate. Tablet apps often follow the same flow as their mobile cousins, but because a tablet is larger, developers need to create a design that maximizes the prime screen real estate of the platform.

This doesn’t have to mean adding features, which can clutter design and distract from the main point of the app. Instead, use graphics innovatively to effectively take up the extra space.

The WIRED magazine iPad app, for example, deconstructs the magazine’s physical reading experience to create a new experience and enriched learning process for consumers. The WIRED app uses pictures, sound and movement to its advantage, from a zoomed-out browse mode, to embedded 360-degree object viewers and expanded advertisements that include animation and embedded video.

Placement and scrolling

With a phone, designers don’t have many decisions to make about the placement of an app’s features. The UI is set with navigation either at the top or bottom, and users hold the device in one hand, typically without interfering with the sides of the device. With a tablet, users hold the device in two hands, grasping the sides of the screen. Designers need to be careful to not situate functions too close to the edge of the device, where users can accidentally hit buttons.

Whereas phones have one user, tablets are often shared devices within an office or home. Designers have two options when dealing with multiple users and accounts on one device. Users can be forced to sign out of the app entirely, and sign back in as a different user, which is time-consuming and requires users to first find the logout function, and second, type in their information.

With multiple users, tablet apps that make it easy to switch between users, like Flipboard, are much more convenient and user-friendly.

When in the Flipboard app, users can tap the red ribbon in the right corner and a menu pops up. From the menu, users can select ‘Accounts’ and find the appropriate account. Any social network app or app where users have personal preferences and content saved would definitely benefit from this functionality.

Flipboard also takes advantage of scrolling differences between mobile and tablet apps. When scrolling through content-like photos on a phone, users see one image at a time, or one row at a time. On a tablet, users scroll in batches. This means that customers can consume much more information in a shorter time period, which is good for businesses with pages of content to share.

The sidebar

One feature that is unique to tablets is the sidebar. The sidebar primarily kicks in during landscape mode, and instead of having buttons at the top of the device, functions are placed on the left.

Email applications routinely take advantage of the sidebar to get away from the dreaded back button. Users, for example, can open different email folders and views by tapping the sidebar. Content loads on the right of the screen and because the sidebar is always open, users never have to go back. Careful consideration sidebar integration can greatly increase the usability of your tablet app.


Since most tablets are still Wi-Fi-only devices, developers need to take connectivity into consideration when designing tablet apps. During the first quarter of 2012, iPad sales represented 68 percent of the total tablet market, according to market research firm NPD. With less than half of iPads being sold with 3G or 4G capabilities, businesses should build in offline modes and maximize the usability of their apps when users are not connected to the Internet.

Spotify does a good job carrying the appeal of its music streaming app offline. Users can decide which playlists they would like to make available when offline, and Spotify downloads and syncs these songs to users’ tablets.

Whether you take advantage of a tablet’s screen real estate, exclusive features and layout options, or build in connectivity resources, it’s important to treat your tablet app as a unique entity rather than an iteration of your mobile app. With a little foresight and planning, the platform will help maximize your company’s interactions with an increasingly mobile consumer.


By Alicia Waters, Graphic Designer, Metova

This article originally appeared in MediaPost’s Mobile Marketing Daily.