The iPad is a multi-user device according to industry reports. But you wouldn't know it from picking up even the latest generation iPad, especially if you are a physician or business user handling sensitive data. The design approach of designing for lone users misses out on a fundamental nature of mobile devices: they are social. To design for the multi-user is to recognize this need for delivering a rich social user experience.   

Work-arounds to accommodate the multi-user usage scenario have been created: For example Hedonic Software has created an account management app; Switch has a multi-user web browser app; and the Jailbreak community has it's own work-around.

Image above showing iPad multi-user concept. Hat-tip to Matt Jones.

Apple has said since 2010 that is is working on the "known issue", but it seems the ongoing delay is driven by sales, not engineering goals. At any rate, doctors offices across the country (from our recent healthcare UX studies at usability consulting firm Experience Dynamics) are complaining of obstacles to adoption caused by regulatory compliance (read: privacy and permission issues) indicating a screaming need for multi-user support.

Apple needs to get with the program: 

After all, if Microsoft Surface can launch with built-in multi-user support, then surely Apple can too, don't you think?

Who else is holding back on good multi-user experience?

It's not just Apple that has failed to accommodate a multi-user social user experience. All web applications and mobile apps need to think beyond the idea of a single user.

In my personal experience, there are two users of my iPhone and desktop accounts: myself and my daughter. For example, I often find Google, Twitter, Skype, Dropbox and Facebook logged into my daughter's account both on desktop and mobile. And as I've found, account switching can be problematic on these services, especially if you need to switch quickly.

Note: If you have children, you inherit the multi-user issue and if you are alone, you probably maintain various accounts which makes multi-user/ multi-account a default, not an edge case.

FYI: There's a work-around for multiple Gmail accounts called Mailboxes by Lilliput Lads that MacLife endorses, designed to handle fast app switching. See image below (from MacLife):



Letting users log in and out in a flash

Another instance of the lack of awareness of designing for the multi-user is the iPhone Twitter app. In this case, sharing is enabled in the iOS share menu in Safari. This opens the Twitter app attaching the link you want to share. But which account are you sharing to? Did your kid log-in to her Twitter account when you were not watching? To be sure you have to navigate back to the main Twitter app, check your account, go back to Safari where the article was, and re-share again. See image left.



The solution: a small line of text or the avatar image to let you quickly know which account you are posting to. I love this example because it illustrates the need we have tothink multi-user work flows. A couple more examples...

Bad example: Google desktop/mobile apps log-in is particularly brutal- requiring users to reset passwords with two-step SMS authentication. Extra hassle that could have been resolved with better design.

Good example: Facebook's iPhone app on the other hand, eases the burden by remembering the primary account holder-- not requiring password entry-- but instead offering a simpleContinue button to log-in.

Designing with an awareness of multi-user usage can help users save additional wasted navigation (running-around) or worse getting stuck with the forgetting password process. It can give users a quick way in and out of an app, a profile or an account.

Where Windows failed in this area (compared to the elegance of Fast-Switching profiles on the Mac), the new mobile era has warranted a real need for this feature. The need is driven by the social nature of 'anywhere' Web access: in a family context, a doctor's office, in business scenarios or on the playground.

While we wait for the iPad to catch up, app designers and developers ought to be thinking of the ease of switching users and offering a way to decrease the pain, improve control and add that extra touch of social user experience to your workflow. We can't ignore the problem as the rest of the planet gets connected, and as shared device usage dominates in emerging markets, and across many areas of the continent of Africa, for example.

Best wishes,

Frank Spillers, MS