Apple are known for their beautiful design and their “it just works” mentality. It’s one of the things I love about my own Apple products. My parents, on the other hand, are known for not being me.

The only computers my parents have ever used are Windows machines. They call viruses “bugs”. My father still complains about the purchase of a seemingly unnecessary maths co-processor in 1990. My mother writes down all the instructions I give her and follows them one by one. These are not people to whom computer technology naturally presents itself as being in any way obvious to use.

Add to that the fact that my parents both have English as a third language and the need for clear and obvious instructions or steps is even more understandable.

So it was important to me to see how they attacked the problem of setting up a new iPad armed with only the box it came in. I filmed them as they went through the process trying as much as possible to be an independent observer. I wanted to uncover answers to two main questions:

  1. Are the things we consider to be user-friendly really that obvious?
  2. What are the barriers to entry for someone who wants to use technology but regards it with suspicion?

They opened the iPad box to reveal the following 5 separate pieces:

  • the iPad itself
  • a USB cord
  • a power supply
  • an Australian power plug adaptor
  • an envelope which itself features:
    • a pin clipped to the outside
    • a card with a picture of an ipad on one side
    • warranty information
    • apple stickers

That was it. No instructions that they could see.

They shuffled through all of the documentation in the envelope and couldn’t find any instructions. There are instructions on the back of the card with the iPad on one side but it took a while to notice them.

In all the “unboxing” videos and photo collections I’ve seen, nobody ever looks at the back of that card.

The first instruction is to download iTunes.

Dad didn’t want iTunes. He wanted to use his iPad. He had no intention of using it to play music.

For someone suspicious of technology this is enough of a barrier. There is no explanation of iTunes being the software that will prime the iPad. iTunes is a music player.

All my parents needed was a preceding line that said “You will need iTunes to set up your iPad” and their suspicion would have been subdued. The assumption Apple made, however, is that people will follow instructions without explanation.

When building websites we often assume that what we have designed is obvious. It might be obvious to someone who has used similar things before but what about someone who has never used it before?

We deal with usability every day. We hope that the things we create work for everybody who uses them. In the box for iPad 2, Apple provides the instruction for what to do next but not why it should be done. People should be suspicious when a corporation, website or person tries to force trust and faith.

There are other moments in the set up when this happens. It happens with accepting the iTunes EULA. Apple pretends to offer a choice but it’s really just dictation. Accept or don’t use the $900 device you just purchased. That’s the choice.

Of course, this sounds a lot more sinister than it probably is but it’s so easy for bad instruction to feel like being ordered rather than guided. That is something we need to keep in mind when designing for usability. Sometimes there is no choice but if we are given reason then lack of choice is so much easier to swallow.

Update: 9 June 2011

Apple are trying to improve this experience with a no-computer no-itunes set-up process with the impending release of iOS 5.

Engaget has screenshots of what the process will look like. Turn it on and get a set-up screen. Now that’s more like it.

(Thanks to @adnrw for pointing this out.)

About Josh Kinal

Josh makes things on the web easy to use and understand. Sounds simple, but it’s not. His understanding of developing engaging content comes from many years of writing for print and radio. You might have heard him on Boxcutters, his popular weekly podcast about TV or years of appearing on Triple J, Radio National and 3RRR. He also holds a science degree and in 2012 was one of Australia’s few panelists at SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas


  1. Bolden says:

    When I first got my iphone, I had no idea how to get the sim card in, didn’t even realise that the pretty picture was telling me what to do!
    Is that me, or bad UI?

  2. Michael says:

    As was with the case above, I am looking for clear, simple instructions to guide me in using an iPad that dose not presume any prior knowlege what to do, or indeed not to do!

  3. Michael says:

    With regard to getting clear understandable advice on using an iPad, can you suggest any sources of instruction?