The Evolving Interface of the MP3 player.
The iPod’s interface is iconic — but it didn’t come out of nowhere. MP3 player interface design has been evolving for decades.
Interfaces are how users communicate with a device. Buttons, screen, text fields or scrolling bars… these are all part of interface design. Good interface design uses these elements to create direct relationships between user intent and output. Its allows complex functionality to used in a very simple way.
This is something the iPod has become famous for. With five main menu options and a single switch, its incredibly easy to use.
But making something simple is not a simple process. The MP3 player interface of today is a result of years of iteration and incremental change.
Building on the Walkman.
The first portable media player, the MPMan F10, was made by Diamond Multimedia Systems in September 1998.
The interface was based on the most familiar point of reference for the user of the day—Sony’s Walkman.
Controls on the MPMan allow the user to skip tracks forward and backward in the same way as a Walkman.
The separate “backward” and “forward” buttons are a striking difference from the iPod, which came a few years later. The iPod merged these buttons with the scroll wheel, but on the MPMan, they’re still separate interactions.
An Interface for Portability
The Rio PMP300 was the next development in MP3 players. The Rio’s major innovation was an interface designed specifically for portability.
The Rio made it possible to navigate using the same hand holding the device.
The MPMan was portable, but it did not have an interface adapted for it. Splitting buttons between the top and side of the device meant that navigation was a two-hands job.
On the Rio, All buttons were grouped in a circle on the front (sound familiar? the iPod’s already on its way). Users could reach each button with their thumb, following the line of the circle without having to look down.
The Intel Pocket Concert introduced a hugely simplified interface for the MP3 player. People loved that the device’s main functions were reduced to three buttons on the front. You could use the device from inside your pocket.
However, the Pocket Concert also introduced a big problem. The added space capacity for songs meant that Back/Forward buttons were no longer effective. With hundreds (let alone thousands) of songs, users needed a new way to navigate.
Enter... the iPod.
In 2001, Apple released an MP3 player that would dominate the market for years to come. The iPod’s biggest innovation was simple rectangular interface and the iconic scroll wheel.
Inspiration for the iPod’s aesthetic from German industrial designer Dieter Rams. The design methodology used in Rams’ T3 Transistor radio is clearly reflected in the iPod.
Rams has an analytical, highly rational approach to design. His priority is to communicate the product’s function very clearly. To accomplish this, he maintains absolute purity of form.
Like Rams’ radio, the iPod neutral white. It has no battery door, no on/off switch, no screws — all extra elements vying for a user’s attention have been removed or made invisible.
As for the scrolling wheel, apparently Apple got the idea not from Rams but from a Bang & Olufsen phone.
The phone used “an intuitive navigation wheel to give speedy access to practical features like a phone book.”
Turning the wheel was accompanied by an audio component, so that users had a better sense of how fast they were turning.
Apple built this feature right into the iPod. The first release included a mechanical wheel that turned with the user’s fingertip and scrolled through songs. Because speed of scrolling accelerates the longer the wheel is turned, thousands of songs could be easily navigated.
Content as an Interface
Microsoft created the Zune MP3 player to compete with iPod.
The foundational design principle of Zune is that it focuses on content, not graphics. This was a significant change from the icon-based interfaces of many other MP3 players.
Microsoft created a whole new design language to service this approach. Inspired by signs used for public transit, the language was called “Metro”.
“Metro is our design language. We call it Metro because it’s modern and clean. It’s fast and in motion. It’s about content and typography. And it’s entirely authentic.”
Unnecessary graphics and menu bars are eliminated. Content becomes the main UI, the thing that users are most directly connected with.
Another characteristic of Metro design is animations that are triggered by user actions (clicks, swipes) and screen transitions. The intent is to add a “sense of depth” the UI — to make it feel more alive and responsive.
Changes to the iPod
The iPod has gone through four generations since its initial release in 2001.
The most significant change is the removal of solid state options. The mechanical scrolling wheel became a touch-sensitive wheel. Control buttons were flattened and incorporated into the wheel as icons. The 4th generation iPod is even sleeker and simpler than the original.
Minimalism isn’t always more usable. But the iPod’s simplicity hides an incredibly comprehensive understanding of their user.
Of course, a lot of changes in MP3 player design are due to changes in technology. Players today are lighter, slimmer and more compact because innovations in hardware have made it possible. The evolution of interface design cannot be completely separated from these technical developments.
But even holding the functionality of MP3 players constant, the way we interact with these devices has still been completely overhauled. Building better interfaces is more a struggle to understand the user than to build better technology. Interfaces are designed not by asking “what technically possible?” but “what is easiest to use? what is most familiar? what is the user expecting?”.
Its a revolution in empathy and aesthetics more than hardware.