What’s Wrong With iTunes 11: Visual Design Isn’t Information Architecture

I complain about Apple a lot. They’re fun to pick on: their products are generally well-designed, allowing me to critique individual details.

But that’s changing. Each version of iPhoto is buggier, slower, and more confusing than the last. iOS interactions like Launchpad get shoehorned into the Mac without real integration. Arcane checkboxes and popups proliferate. More and more details slip through the cracks.

iTunes 11 may be the most prominent evidence of this yet. MG Siegler and Walt Mossberg have written about superbly-executed details; but the fundamental information architecture of the product is flawed.


iTunes debuted in 2001 as a music player. In the intervening decade it pioneered the podcast; added movies, music, movie trailers, and online education; introduced the iTunes Store for purchase, download, and streaming; became the center of a digital hub for devices that extend far beyond playing media; and further expanded the Store to include apps. (Oddly, the Mac App Store is separate: on your Mac, you buy iPhone apps in iTunes and Mac apps in the App Store; on your iPhone you buy iPhone apps in the App Store and don’t buy Mac apps at all.)

The result is a giant, bloated product. I don’t necessarily blame Apple for that: each individual addition made sense on its own. But it also made sense to step back, look at what iTunes had become eleven years after its launch, and find a way to simplify.

Navigation, the Old Way

Sidebars in the Finder and iPhoto.

Broadly speaking, iTunes’ functionality falls into three categories: media player, store, and device manager. Each has subcategories: for instance, the media player includes several types of media as well as playlists and Genius recommendations. Prior to version 11, you navigated these categories and subcategories via a sidebar. Such sidebars are straightforward and ubiquitous; Mac users encounter them in the Finder, Mail, iPhoto, and other Apple apps. Third-party developers have copied Apple, further reinforcing the pattern.

But sidebars have limitations. As the number of items grows, it becomes more and more difficult to find what you’re looking for. Apple’s visual design makes this worse: dimming the category labels and drawing them in capital letters makes the top-level category far less prominent — and thus easier to miss in a quick scan — than its subcategories. An earlier attempt to simplify by desaturating the icons eliminated the ability to scan by color, arguably doing more harm than good.

New and Broken

Upon upgrading to iTunes 11, I was greeted with this welcome/hint screen:

iTunes 11’s welcome screen: hints for three big tabs.

Uh-oh. Hints and tutorials have their place — explaining novel interactions and concepts — but when Apple feels the need to display one for what are effectively three big tabs it can’t be good. But OK, now I know where my top-level navigation is: media on the left, devices and store on the right. (I still don’t know what that little cloud next to the media popup is, but it is cute.)

So let’s open the iTunes Store. Everything changes:

iTunes 11 in Store mode — where did my navigation go?

The tutorial has already failed us. Our media is gone, our devices are gone, and the Back button is disabled. Eventually we discover that the new Library button is a toggle that takes us back to media. Oddly, Apple missed the opportunity to borrow its iOS convention for this sort of thing, wherein a flip animation preserves context by making each mode the back side of the other.

Having created a toggle convention for Library and iTunes Store, Apple breaks it for device management. Clicking the device button (only accessible from the media side) yields the following:

Device management: No navigation at all, just a Done button.

There’s no Library, no iTunes Store. You’re in a modal view, akin to a dialog box — though that modality is not visually distinguished as such, making it difficult to recognize. You’re also forced to commit any changes before leaving this view, meaning you can’t monkey with your playlists in the midst of managing a device. The buttons at the bottom change to reflect unsaved changes but the Done button at the top does not — and if you do click it with your choices don’t include the ability to cancel.

The result of all this? An iTunes that looks simpler, but is actually confusing to use. Its inconsistency with other Mac apps misses the opportunity to reinforce behavior patterns and to generate expectations that are predictably met; and its internal inconsistency is especially problematic, because it results in a situation where the app itself is creating expectations that are almost immediately broken again.

But come on, you ask. Is this really a big deal, or is this the kind of overanalysis that prevents designers from getting any work done? You’re right: it’s not a big deal. Users will adjust. They’ll figure it out, or they won’t and they’ll find workarounds that get the job done. But these little annoyances and complexities add up. And the more central they are to the app, the faster they accumulate.

Every moment of hesitation is a delay, a distraction from the task at hand. And at some point, a great product with a few rough edges becomes a rough product with a few great details that, perhaps, no longer make up for the overall pain of using it. Historically, Apple has known this, sweated the details, and created products that “just work.” Lately, though, they seem to be confusing products that look simple and polished with those that actually are. Great UX and information architecture can’t overcome ugly design, but neither can great visual design overcome sloppy UX and IA. Apple’s strength was never in removing buttons, but in including only the buttons that mattered.

The baffling thing with iTunes is how easy it would’ve been to create a simple, easily-understood top-level navigation that avoided the sidebar and didn’t require a tutorial:

Tabbed navigation for iTunes.

I can only assume that in their attempt to combine traditional Mac conventions with newer iOS ones, Apple ended up with the worst of both worlds.

Digging Deeper

Great design starts with a search for the most fundamental question, and all this discussion of navigation begs the question: should these three areas be in an app together at all? Apple themselves have answered this with a resounding no on iOS, where you buy media in iTunes and apps in the App Store, manage podcasts in Podcasts, and consume music, videos, and educational videos in Music, Videos, and iTunes U respectively. Arguably they’ve gone too far; but building single-purpose, focused apps allows Apple to avoid bloat and keep things simple.

By pursuing such different strategies on its two platforms Apple is also punishing its multi-device users. Every device switch requires a moment of adjustment: wait, I’m on my iPad? OK, right: here iTunes is a media store, I listen to stuff in Music, and if I want to buy apps I open App Store.

Desktop apps can handle a bit more complexity than mobile ones, so duplicating every detail of the iOS approach might not make sense. But iTunes functions could be split into 2–3 apps:

  1. A media app named iTunes, with store and player serving as flip sides of each other. (Or, this could be further split into two apps: iTunes the store, and Music & Videos the player.)
  2. A device management tool, probably not named Pods ’n’ Stuff. If Apple had delivered on the promise of iCloud, this could be an infrequently-accessed preference pane, but as it is iDevice management is too labor-intensive, finicky, and sync-centric for that.
  3. iOS apps would join their Mac brethren in the existing App Store. This might be better from a marketing standpoint too: wading through iPhone apps while trying to find an album is irritating; discovering my favorite Mac software has an iPad version would be nice.

One could argue iTunes’ features are too interdependent to separate: why shouldn’t I buy, listen to, and sync my music and other content in one place? But Apple crossed that bridge a long time ago with photos: you manage your photos in iPhoto, but sync them in iTunes. Photo sharing options are split between iTunes’ and iPhoto’s preferences. Splitting iTunes up could clarify this situation and create a consistent pattern.

Epilogue: Bringing Back the Sidebar

All that complaining aside, there is good news: you can re-enable the sidebar by selecting Show Sidebar from in iTunes’ View menu. What’s more, Apple has restored the sidebar’s colorful icons, making it easier to distinguish different types of item at a glance.

Did I say good news? I meant bad news. If there’s one thing worse than making a bold but misguided UX change, it’s giving everyone the ability to roll it back. Because any change upsets users. Show Sidebar is a page straight out of Microsoft’s old playbook. Most users who find it will use and cling to it (myself included). So now Apple has to support it. That means more to test, more bugs to find, more edge cases to understand.

It’s also disturbing for its un-Apple-like quality; after all, this is the company that omitted cut-and-paste from the first iPhone, that unilaterally flipped our scrollbars, and whose aggressively conservative attitude toward backward compatibility has carried it through three chip architectures and two operating systems in fifteen years.

Of course, most of my music consumption happens via Spotify anyway. But that’s a product strategy discussion for a different day…

Originally published at operationproject.com on January 25, 2013.

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