A blog post on the topic of design problems with the IPod has been a long time in coming, and what better time than the new year to air out that dirty laundry! I’ve owned an IPod Photo for 6 months and I’m really starting to get sick of hearing people rave about the “excellence of the click wheel” or the “perfect design” and such nonsense.
Before I start into all the problems I should say that the IPod isn’t that
bad. If you want a basic music player with a big hard drive in a slim package, go buy one. However, we are designers, not the common consumer, and I’d like to think that we analyze our products a bit more thoroughly than that. And the IPod really could
be designed a lot better.
You also might be wondering what this has to do with mobile communities. Well it is a stretch… but it is about mobile device design, and I will argue that the IPod should be much more social than it currently is. I should warn readers that this is a detailed article about specific design and interaction issues, and it will help to have HCI experience to avoid getting excruciatingly bored.
The following discussion first covers the exterior, then the software interface, and lastly the important social system surrounding IPod usage. I conclude that the IPod is missing a lot of key design opportunities and isn’t particularly innovative. If Apple keeps its course, it is likely that mobile phone manufacturers will take the lead in personal media players.EXTERIORAppearance
The IPod looks pretty when you first look at it. It has nice curves, it’s slim and you wouldn’t mind setting it on your table in a café next to your phone, because you don’t look like a geek doing it. However, why are there so many third-party cases? Because it isn’t waterproof, isn’t engineered to be dropped, and scratches even when sticking it in your fluffy pants pocket. Has Apple marketing determined that the faster your IPod scratches the more you will lust after the new shiny ones and buy a replacement? Is there really no material known to science that doesn’t scratch as easily as this? How about the metal shells of the Powerbooks? What about some thin spongy padding on the corners?UPDATE Feb 14:
Apparently some other people
thought the cases aren't as durable as they should be as well.The Wheel
Enlightened designers often try to get away from the standard squares and lines typical of computer interfaces. And that is fine when we are concerned primarily with aesthetics, but it is not necessarily good when we are concerned with ergonomics. Doing many small circles with your thumb isn’t convenient - it’s tiring. Furthermore if you listen to long DJ sets, or have 60 gigs of songs, you find yourself circling and circling and circling and… What is wrong with a vertical scroll pad or wheel? Maybe we need radial scroll bars for all of our web pages and Word documents that we scroll through as well?
The other problem with the wheel is that it doesn’t provide any haptic feedback while scrolling. That means that if you are in the song list mode and want to select a song two songs down from your current location, how do you know how far to move the scroll wheel to get to the desired location? You don’t – unless you watch it. You will probably over shoot it, and have to go back a few items. This is because the circular scroll pad interface doesn’t give enough feedback, which produces errors.The Click
The IPod Photo has six buttons – and it should have more. Apple tends to go for a simple aesthetic, which isn’t a bad idea sometimes
. However the IPod is used regularly all day long by many people and simple aesthetics aren’t as important as decent usability. The number of buttons is a design tradeoff. Too many and it becomes confusing and complex, too few and it becomes confusing and simple. The IPod has too few buttons and it results in a slow, error prone, modal interface. Read any HCI textbook about modal interfaces – avoid them if you can
is the advice. The middle (unlabled) click-wheel button first brings you to a track-movement mode, then a rating mode, then back to the original track-progress mode, and if you leave it for 5 seconds it reverts back to the original mode by itself. Also note that the track-movement and track-progress modes look very similar and can easily be confused. Additionally, stroking the scroll-wheel enters a volume-changing mode (which times out after 2 seconds).
The result of all of this simplicity of design is overloaded buttons, with timeouts that require your attention and which hide useful functionality (it took me a week to figure out I could rate songs). The problem with the timeouts lies in the usage of the IPod. It is used in a complex environment with frequent interruptions. Thus, you can be rating a song, get distracted by a bus driver, (it then times out and goes back to normal mode unbeknownst to you) and then you stroke the dial only to find you moved the volume up (instead of increasing the song rating) and are now blaring Trance into your ears. This is what happens when you have too many modes and demand a lot of the user’s visual attention.Button Locations
The best way to avoid the modality is to put in more buttons. Fortunately there is lots of space for it. There is a reason the original Palm put in four buttons along the bottom – they provided rapid access to frequently used functions. If we optimized all the functions in the IPod which ones would come to top based on importance, frequency of use and satisfaction? Play a song, change volume, pause, next track and lock buttons would be high. Now, lock it, put it in your pocket and tell me how many of them you can access in one click. Answer: one, the lock button. Even after unlocking it, you still can’t access the other functions because they are inaccessible in the pocket.
The placement of the buttons makes the IPod a visually demanding device inducing high cognitive load. This is not good for a mobile device. The IPod interface should be multi-modal, with the other mode being haptic. This would also allow visually-impaired people to use it. A user should be able to stick a hand in their pocket and change the volume, track, pause, etc. without taking it out. Currently you have to drag it out of your pocket and risk dropping it, unlock it, look at it to figure out which of its many modes it is in, and then do your intended action. Wouldn’t an external wheel for volume (like every other walkman that has ever been invented) be better than a modal volume feature? Wouldn’t a shortcut button to ratings be better? One of the many problems with the wheel is that it gives continuous not discrete haptic feedback. You can’t move it a bit and know which of the 5 rating stars you’ve chosen without looking at the screen. Whereas a shortcut-rating button could be clicked once to get into the rating screen and another 4 times to get your 4 star rating – and you’ve never had to look at the screen.
Perhaps Apple marketing likes having you haul out your IPod to look at the screen all the time so that you inadvertently advertise the product to the rest of the room? The lock button is also in the wrong place and in a poor shape. It doesn’t permit an easy grip for the numerous times you need to use it, and it isn’t on the same surface as the rest of the buttons, which hides it and requires a shift of the hand. A better location would be on the left or right of the screen where it can be easily seen and flicked with a thumb.The Headphones
Admittedly the headphones are not the IPod, but they are part of the listening experience. They are white, groovy and have decent bass, but they don’t stay in your ears and they have wires. Any new IPod owner will tell you that they lost the padded coverings (and the replacements) for their headphones within two weeks of purchasing the IPod. This is because they are cheap and poorly designed. Why are
there coverings on the earbuds? Not all headphones have them. Griffin now makes snap-on coverings which funnel sound into the ear and make the earbuds stay in. Can’t Apple figure this out for themselves? Also, if we’re talking about visionary listening experiences, why do we still have wires? Are Bluetooth headphones that difficult to make? And if we are to suffer a leash to our music, can’t they build in a default clip to wind the wire around? Just watch your average IPod user unhappily untangling their headphone cord prior to most listening experiences. This isn’t rocket science folks.The Screen
The color IPods have a reasonable screen resolution. However, they are small and they aren’t touch screens. I-River and many other personal media player manufacturers have figured out that if you have a screen and a hard drive then you can watch movies. They have also figured out that you might want a large wide screen to do it on. Think Apple’s next surprise product might include a wide-screen (long after the competition)? If it were a large touch screen, it would allow more use of icons and lateral screen space. This would allow navigation hierarchies that are less deep and decrease navigation time.UPDATE Feb 11:
Surprise, surprise look what people think the next iPod will look like. A wide-touch-screen iPod
It isn’t that they shouldn’t be used – but that they should be used only when necessary. The section on buttons above discusses alternatives to so many modes on the IPod. But even in the software the excessive use of timeouts is troubling. Why would you want your addressbook entry to disappear after 6 seconds? Aren’t you trying to use it to write the address on your postcard or dial the international phone number? The device should be optimized for music listening, but it also shouldn’t force the user back to music interfaces whenever it sees fit.Batteries
Batteries do run out eventually and you don’t want to have to buy a new IPod as a result. Allowing batteries to be replaced isn’t that difficult. Also, manufacturers such as I-River manage to get 20+ hours out of their batteries and the IPod has a reasonable but not inspiring 10-12. Many people are away from power outlets while traveling. This clearly could use improvement.SOFTWARE INTERFACEThe Song-playing Screen
Look at how much screen real-estate is used on the standard ‘song playing’ screen. Simplicity is a good thing, but not providing useful information on a regularly used interface by expert users is not good design. Couldn’t it tell me which playlist I’m currently using? Couldn’t it tell me if I’ve already rated the song, and how much? How about the date or day in addition to the time, or the album I’m listening to? Apple has started putting album art in, but this probably isn’t the most important information users need. This interface could be doing more for the listener considering it is the one visible when music is playing.
Another problem is how it’s accessed after you’ve finished navigating menus. So for instance if you decide to go check your calendar and the current song changes and it is suddenly way
too loud, how do you go change the volume? You have to click back out of the calendar several times, scroll down and go to ‘Now Playing’ and then change the volume. You can also wait the six seconds for it to time out. Faster to take the headphones out. Wouldn’t it be nice to remove that timeout while you’re trying to read your calendar entry, and put in a shortcut button to ‘now playing’ which you can hit when you
(and not the system) want it?Hierarchy
You can usually identify a bad interface based on whether its primary navigation scheme is based on a tree hierarchy or not. If it does, it probably has not been structured around user task frequencies and it’s usually bad. The IPod is all about hierarchy. To get to a game you go to Extras>Games>Title (and often you need to reverse back out of some other part of the tree before you do it.) Small screens make it difficult to get away from tree structures, which is one of the reasons they need a larger screen.SOCIAL SYSTEMSListening to Music
We all know Apple didn’t do an ethnographic study of how people listen to music before they started. They had a “visionary” come in with the idea to make a mp3 walkman with a hard drive in it - that had already been on the market for years (see Nomad Jukebox). If they had taken the time to do their research first they would have found that people use Walkmans in complex social settings. Users are often distracted. They often use the devices to shield themselves from unwanted attention. They use it while doing other things (e.g. shopping, entering the bus, talking to people). They hold it primarily in a pocket or purse. They struggle with headphone wires. They make subtle changes to their music rapidly and then drop it back in their pocket. The IPod is not designed to support or improve on these things.
Music is a shared resource. Bands record their own music and then trade it. People lend CDs to other people to listen to for a while. People recommend music to other people. People make bootlegs and then buy the original if they like it. How does the IPod support this? It doesn’t. It puts barriers in the way of it. Ever try finding a song on your IPod using a standard Windows interface? All the music is obfuscated into meaningless numbered folders. Copying music between IPods via a cable (much less wirelessly) isn’t supported. You might say that this is because of copyright issues. Then what about the IPod Photo? I take my own pictures, save them, and then want to share them. I can’t even connect the IPod to a friend’s computer and easily give them a copy of my latest travel photos. It is completely unusable due to the folder structure being used. This isn’t about copyright, it’s about the designers not understanding the social nature of handheld devices that hold personal data. These devices are about social networks and sharing. While we're on the topic of legal music sharing: why can’t I send a snippet of a song to a friend, or a bookmark to purchase the song on the online music store, or download the song direct and wirelessly to the IPod? That
would be visionary.
IPod Photo made a big deal about being able to view pictures and now they are making a big deal out of being able to watch movies on a two inch screen. When you copy photos to the IPod it makes four
copies of the original image on your hard disk, and then copies all four of them to your IPod. Thus, your photo collection becomes much larger and it makes it impossible to store large photo collections on your IPod along with your music. Building the IPod processor to support real-time image sizing would allow you to upload only the highest resolution image once, saving a lot of space. Then if they were stored in reasonable directory names (such as the album name perhaps) you could plug it into your friends computer and copy off a photo album for them.Where is the Innovation?
The IPod is a pretty music player that has an annoying circular interface and comes in small package. Apple created it long after other companies had been producing similar (albeit uglier) products. Other personal media players already offer superior interfaces and battery life than the IPod. So why does the IPod do so well? Firstly, usability isn’t the only factor that makes products a success. Secondly, the innovation at Apple appears to happen in the marketing and sales departments and not in the mobile design department. It’s a shame, because the marketing and brand power of Apple could enable the IPod designers to deliver truly liberating music players into our pockets - if only they would design them.
There’s another factor in Apple’s favor, which has to do with memes, or the spread of product concepts if you will. Apple’s main markets are musicians, students and designers. If you were going to copy someone else to try and look cool, who better to mimic – particularly when the product looks fashionable from a distance. Thus, buying an IPod is a statement of social status which spreads further each time a fashionable person uses them in public.
Mobile phones are starting to introduce music player functionality. Apple is likely to be overtaken by these mobile phone companies because they have the wireless networking infrastructure to facilitate media sharing and they already own our other pocket. Will we carry two devices when we could carry one? Only if the IPod can deliver a sufficiently superior social media experience. Think different Apple.
Update 24 Mar 2006: rumors that Apple is creating an i-phone
Update 25 Oct 2006: also see the non-user-centered development process apple used