Thoughts on Apple Music’s iOS Design

I’ve read a lot recently about Apple Music, including the continuing complaints that it’s hard to use, deletes the music you own, and will sport a new design to be previewed at WWDC in June. I have to admit that I’m a very casual user of Apple Music, as music is a much smaller part of my life than it once was. Since we moved last June and got a new family iMac, I haven’t even synced my moderately sized music library. It just sits on a disconnected hard drive in a closet.

I access Apple Music via iTunes on that iMac from time-to-time, and typically stream Apple’s curated playlists on evenings and weekends. I occasionally stream chill or downtempo from my iPhone or iPad to a Bose Soundlink when we have dinner guests. My daughter streams pop music to her iPod Touch (actually, an old iPhone 4s with no carrier account), and we’ve subscribed to Apple Music as a family (I used to spend $15/CD, buying several per week, making $15/month for every song on Apple Music a bargain).

All of which is to say that perhaps I’m not the best person to try to solve some of the major design issues with Apple Music, but I’m a UX designer by background, and trying to solve problems like these is in my DNA. I’m also fully bought into the Apple ecosystem, so I’ve taken a stab. Here’s a screenshot of some proposed Apple Music design changes, with notes to follow.

First, let me state very clearly that I’m not a visual designer, which will explain the lack of polish to this concept. This is only a high-fidelity design because I didn’t want to start from scratch with a wholesale redesign, and I used a free design template for Sketch 3 that I found on Sketch App Resources (hat tip to Philip Amour).

Based on everything I’ve read, and my own experience when I relooked at the UI, there are three main problems with Apple Music on iOS:

  1. The user interface is difficult to use. Labels can be confusing, content groupings don’t make sense, and generally the app is stuffed with features in an attempt to be the Swiss Army Knife of music to Apple device owners.
  2. It’s impossible to know what I have stored on my device versus what is only stored in the cloud, whether I own it or not.
  3. It is completely unclear whether I own the music or not, and if so, whether it’s on my device or delivered by iTunes Match. BTW: with Apple Music, iTunes Match should probably go away to reduce confusion, something that I think is solved by my design concept.

In this design revision, I’ve attempted to achieve several key objectives.

  1. Put the music, and therefore the fans, front and center. The main screen after launch is simple and straightforward. It’s a list of music available to me. At the highest level, I can switch between Library (which means everything available to me; more on that in a minute) and Playlists, automatically or manually curated collections of songs. My sense is that this is a very solid foundation for a mental model for how people think about accessing music: everything I can listen to from A-Z, or only what I want, organized how I want it.
  2. I moved the Search functionality out of the main menu and into the main content cell, directly above that list of music. Regardless of whether I’m looking at the Library or Playlists, I am very likely to want to search for something specific. And if I’m subscribed to Apple Music, have a large library, or many playlists, Search becomes key. I have misgivings about this placement, but I think the benefits of the new “hamburger” menu outweigh the downsides of placing Search in the upper right corner.
  3. Immediately under the new Search input, I’ve modified the existing search operators (or filters) to include an “All Music” option in addition to “Apple Music” and “My Music.” I expect many subscribers, when simply in listening mode, don’t care where the music is stored or whether they own it. They just want to listen, so the default is “All Music.” But users have the ability to easily filter to just Apple Music or My Music when they need to. These operators, by the way, would work regardless of whether criteria has been entered into the search field, not only after doing so.
  4. It seems important that users know whether the music is stored on the device or in the cloud. Personally, I’ve jumped on flights before and fired up Apple Music only to discover that the songs I wanted to hear were stored in the cloud. This is solved with the reintroduction (? — I recall seeing it previously but its not in my app today) of the cloud icon with a download symbol. If this symbol is present, I can stream it by clicking the playhead icon in the album art. But if I know I’ll be offline for an extended period, I can click the cloud icon to download the song to my device. If the icon is not present, it means the music is on my device. Now, this would be true whether I’m an Apple Music subscriber who has never owned that music, or I had previously made it cloud-accessible through iTunes Match. The device v. cloud issue needs to be treated as separate and apart from the ownership issue (see my next point).
  5. The green check icon (an example of where my visual design skills are severely lacking) simply indicates ownership. I own music that has the green check, and I don’t own music that doesn’t have the green check. Simple and clear (though I’m certain there are better icons to denote ownership). In this example, I own “A Ghost is Born” but its stored in the cloud and I would need to download it to the device if I wanted to access it on a plane or another situation where I don’t have Internet access or don’t want to incur data fees. I own “A.M.”, and its on the device. I don’t own “Down with Wilco,” but I can stream it or download it for as long as I keep my Apple Music Subscription current.
  6. I dramatically reshaped the bottom tabs. I removed the current tabs, and replaced them only with play, pause, and shuffle controls, plus the ellipsis icon to represent additional functionality (which I haven’t spent any time on). The Now Playing info appears directly above the the basic music playback functionality. So this area of the screen is intended to inform the user what is currently playing and how much time is left, and give them basic playback controls. This seems a simpler, more intuitive use for the bottom of the screen, as it plays a similar role to Music that the home button plays to the iPhone and iOS (if you agree that play/pause is the quintessential function for music playback as return to home is for iOS).
  7. The new hamburger menu in the upper right combines several features from the current design. For example, Recommendations (as opposed to “For You,” which isn’t a great companion to “My Music”… you versus my), New Music, and Radio. Another opportunity to streamline the UI is to collapse Recently Added and New Music into a single New Music. It’s new, whether the user added it or its new to Apple Music. The solutions described above (filters, location (cloud or device) and ownership will by default clarify this meaning and usage.

In this thought experiment, I’ve attempted to solve a few specific problems with tweaks to the current Apple Music user experience. I’m just as certain that there are better solutions as I am that a wholesale rethinking would generate a better result. Hopefully, the buzz is true and Apple will indeed announce a revised version of Apple Music that makes it easier and more enjoyable to use. And oh, yeah, fixes the bug that deletes gigabytes of users’ music without their intent or knowledge. Perhaps they’ll even fix iTunes as a whole. But that’s another story (coming soon).

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