iOS Music: Your Design is Bringing Me Down

I have a relatively large music collection, all stored locally on all of my devices — no streaming services for me (at least not yet). It’s nowhere near the size of some other collections, but by far, my music takes up the greatest chunk of space on my iOS hardware. When Apple released iOS 8.4 with a redesigned Music app at the end of June 2015, I was definitely intrigued. App redesigns are always interesting, especially when it’s something I use daily.

The new Music app is more visually appealing and it’s a lot easier to manage upcoming songs. Yet, six months and several iOS releases later (up to iOS 9.2 as I write), I still find myself fighting the app nearly daily. I tap the wrong things because of very similar icons, the controls don’t always work as expected, and there are some odd default choices that can only be undone by finding an obscure toggle.

Let’s take a look at some of the places where the app design has gone awry.

All of Your Music in One Place (Except Playlists)

The very first screen presented when the app launches is the My Music tab. At the top center is a toggle between Library and Playlists. Below this is Recently Added with cover art thumbnails, followed by a heading that when tapped brings up several grouping options.

The initial My Music screen, then with grouping options displayed

Apple is making a distinction between Playlists and other content in My Music, which is… odd. The display of Playlists isn’t different from how Artists, Albums, or most of the other options are displayed — a thumbnail on the left and a label with the title. Some options don’t have the thumbnail and some have some secondary text to give additional information, but the general template is the same. Since they are so similar, I can’t help but question what caused Apple to create this separation.

By the way, there’s a third control on the My Music screen that leads to another screen that follows the template — the Recently Added label.

Instead of littering the screen with separate controls that virtually do the same thing, the Library/Playlists control could be replaced by a single heading that would provide access to the grouping options plus Playlists. (Recently Added is already covered since it’s a special playlist that iTunes auto-updates, but can be included in this menu for quick access.) This sacrifices some visual appeal with less images, but reduces the number of controls and groups items that behave similarly together:

Revised My Music tab

When is a Setting a Setting?

Before we leave the My Music tab, there is one more odd thing to point out when grouping by albums. Under the “A” heading in the screenshot, there’s Hunting High and Low, Skyfall — Single, 21, and The Essential Aerosmith. None of which start with “A”.

What’s going on here? Apple, in its infinite wisdom, decided when grouping by albums means the sort should be by artist. For my collection, that means a-ha, two Adele albums, and Aerosmith. This is counterintuitive — if someone is grouping by albums, he/she likely knows what album they are looking for. (On a more personal level, it’s especially painful since my favorite album and its artist are on opposite ends of the alphabet — Achtung Baby by U2.) Additionally, this view is redundant. Grouping by artists and tapping a name brings up a list of songs, organized by albums.

Months after the release of iOS 8.4, I still struggled with this and tried to understand the rationale. Then I stumbled on something in the midst of other options:

Music settings with sort option highlighted

It is possible to sort by album titles. But the option is not in the Music app; it’s buried in the Settings app. Apple failed to meet expectations on both the default choice and where to change the choice.

This also points out problems with the Settings app. Apple wants developers to put user preferences under Settings, but many apps have preferences within the app itself. Many people may not remember to look in Settings, so they may never know what adjustments they can make. If they do remember, they know they may have to poke around two separate apps to find options. Even Apple seems to have a split personality on this. As seen earlier, the grouping options has a “Only Downloaded Music” toggle.

Isn’t this toggle a setting? What’s the distinction that puts one option in the app and another in Settings? Whatever it is, I doubt many users can figure it out. Apple needs to come up with a clear philosophy on how they place these options. “Clear” here means from users’ perspective.

Three Dots (Times Two)

Once a song starts playing, the Now Playing screen is accessed by tapping a small tile at the bottom of any screen. This gives users a screen with large album art and playback controls, which uses standard iconography: play/pause, previous and next track, shuffle, and repeat.

Now Playing screen with icons highlighted

But what are the things I’ve put a red box around? They both feature a set of three dots, one arranged horizontally and the other vertically (this one has lines extending from the dots). Here’s what they do:

  • Vertical (with the lines): shows the Up Next screen, which despite its name, also includes a list of songs that have been played and the current song playing.
Up Next
  • Horizontal: displays a pop-up menu. Tapping on its header leads to a list of songs on the album. (Also includes controls that didn’t fit on the screen, such as adding the song to a playlist or deleting it.)
Album Listing

So there’s two icons that both include three dots and are paths to a list of songs. Users have to remember if they want a timeline of songs, they should tap the three dots with the lines. If they want the album’s track listing, tap the three dots without the lines and then the header. Simply put, they are not distinct enough from each other.

This can be easily resolved: use the album title that’s already on the Now Playing screen as a link to the track list.

The color makes it clear that the album title is distinct from the rest of the text, and seeing the track listing when tapping is an easily remembered behavior for the user. The album name is now logically associated with viewing its contents. Even though there are still two icons with three dots, only one goes to a list of songs — the one that looks like a bullet list. The other looks like an ellipsis, which is a standard icon for controls that don’t fit on the screen.

The drawback is this reinforces one of iOS’s biggest complaints since iOS 7 debuted. Namely, that the text label acts as a borderless button, so users don’t know it’s tappable. But it does fit the iOS aesthetic, the album text is distinct from the others, and after 2+ years of these conventions, users are likely acclimated to it.

The Mystery of Going Back and Forth Between Albums

The last thing I’d like to bring up is how the Music app handles albums. Let’s say I’m listening to the song “Slow Hands” by Interpol and want to hear Spoon’s album They Want My Soul next. I set this up which results in the Up Next screen looking like:

After “Slow Hands” finishes, Spoon’s “Rent I Pay” plays and then “Inside Out” starts. So far, so good. Everything is tracked in my history:

Now I want to relisten to “Rent I Pay”. I hit the previous track button on the Now Playing screen, and I get…

“Slow Hands” starts again. It doesn’t matter if I’m on the second or last track of an album. Tapping back will always take me to the song before the album starting playing. This breaks the standard meaning of the control: going to the previous song.

I’ve also lost two Spoon tracks in the process. “Rent I Pay” is no longer in the queue (but exists in History) and “Inside Out” is nowhere to be found — not in History and not in what’s upcoming.

It bears noting that the next button works as expected. It doesn’t jump to the end of the album and just plays the next track. This is another case where Apple has a split personality. It seems that the app considers an album a single entity when going back through the song list — tapping back jumps to the song before the album started. But tapping forward treats the album as a list of individual songs instead of jumping past the last song of the album. This is a maddening inconsistency that really disrupts users’ control of what gets played.

Speculation

It’s clear that some of the details of iOS’s Music app don’t really behave the way people would expect. I have no insight into how Apple structures its work, but this could be a case of “can’t see the trees for the forest.” Determined to do a complete overhaul of a core iOS app, Apple may have focused too much energy on big sweeping changes and inadvertently neglected some of the smaller aspects of the app. I understand this completely. When conceptualizing something completely new or revamping an existing capability, it’s easy to lose sight of how microinteractions should work. This is especially true when deadlines are quickly approaching.

I run into this myself from time-to-time. The trick is to solidify the overall vision as quickly as possible. With any app that’s more than trivially complex, the vast majority of work is addressing smaller use cases. The quicker the overarching principles are put into place, the more time can be spent on details. The end result is a more refined and polished experience.

As for me, I’ll continue to use the app. And I’ll continue to mumble and grumble about its quirks.

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