Apple's iOS 7 is best for mobile -- but Android is a threat: Pfeiffer

Apple [AAPL] stands above the competition when it comes to delivering mass market mobile user experiences, and the latest Pfeiffer Consulting survey shows it hasn't lost its touch with iOS 7.

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[ABOVE: How the operating system's stack up, according to Pfeiffer Consulting.]

It's all about the user

The researchers compared iOS 7, iOS 6, Android, Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10 operating systems, assessing these within the context of the day-to-day experience of an average, non-technical user. They compared cognitive load, efficiency, customization and user experience friction of smartphone use.

"The arrival of iOS 7 on the market signals a new phase in mobile operating systems. We are definitely entering
a world of maturity in
terms of features and interaction patterns.
A world where smartphones are like cars: when you can drive one you can drive them all -- but also a world where finishing and usability may be more important for the user than the latest killer feature," Pfeiffer observes.

The conclusion seems to indicate that while Apple doesn't walk on water, it does succeed in floating above the competition, and suggests the improvements within iOS 7 set a higher bar than iOS 6, which previously held the user experience goal posts.

“The combined results of the four different benchmarks and evaluations give iOS 7 a clear advantage in terms of of overall user experience, taking into account the context defined for these benchmarks: 
day-to-day user experience of an average, non-technical user," the researchers said.

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Cognitive Load

Looking at some of the individual benchmarks is interesting. Cognitive Load -- what you have to understand in order to use an OS intuitively -- shows a marked difference between operating systems: Android appears the most challenging OS for an average user to get to grips with, while iOS 6 (and not 7) appears the most comprehensible -- Windows Phone 8 is also seen as fairly intuitive, leaving BlackBerry in fourth position in this category.

That's not to say Android doesn't have some advantages: when it comes to easy and efficient integration of different key features and services, Android (or to be specific, Samsung's Android) leads the pack, side-by-side with iOS 7. Windows Phone 8 scores low here. Android also leads when it comes to customization options (as many of that platform's champions would expect).

Then we come to User Experience Friction, the capacity to make devices that do what you ask them to do:

"UXF is the bad stuff, the aspects of a device that can annoy you in a niggling way, or, in extreme cases, drive you crazy. Basically, UXF occurs whenever a device does not do what you expect it to do - or lacks a key feature that should be available. For this survey we took only the most obvious UXF factors into account, and rated them."

The researchers conclude that while iOS 6 "is still the simplest mobile operating system, especially for very inexperienced users, that simplicity comes at the price of efficiency and integration features the OS lacks."

iOS7 is "pleasant and more fluid to use than other mobile operating systems -- and it does not look like any competing system on the market." They also note that the new OS is likely to deploy across the market "significantly faster than that of any other new mobile operating system."

What about the others?

Android doesn't do too badly, it could "easily become an iOS killer," the analysts say, assuming Google and Samsung can get to grips with the differences between iOS and Android user experience, however: "As it stands, Samsung’s Android is very usable - but undermines the overall user experience through odd design decisions, disproportionate cognitive load and half-baked innovations that are a distraction rather than a help," Pfeiffer said.

The analysts believe Android needs to act against "feature-bloat| and "sloppy user interface design". They also note that platform's problem with fragmentation -- its users update their devices before they update the software on their devices. "This is a problem that will be almost impossible to overcome, and can only get worse over time," they warn.

Windows is praised for its slick design, but slammed for its "disregard for key usability", making the OS "not very competitive in terms of overall user experience." BlackBerry is seen as having "promise", but being let down by inconsistencies which make it sometimes "frustrating" to use.

"It is sad to say, but in terms of overall user experience, neither Blackberry 10 nor Windows Phone 8 are currently in a position to challenge the two market leaders," the analysts conclude.

You can download the complete report here (PDF).

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