Thursday, September 27, 2007

iPod's Surprising Lack of Usability

I'll keep a running list here of what I perceive to be shocking lapses of usability in the iPod. I find these on a weekly if not daily basis. Of all devices I've recently purchased, this has been such a disappointment, and frankly, a complete surprise given it's commercial success. Feel free to comment away.

1. Lack of a true shuffle.
  • It has TWO shuffle settings in two different menus. One setting can be set to "Shuffle OFF" and the second can be used to override it and start shuffle mode. But the first setting will still display "Shuffle OFF"
  • Shuffle doesn't truly shuffle randomly. Instead it hits every song once in the set. And if you put it on repeat, it repeats the exact same set again instead of reshuffling. It's the most simplistic shuffling algorithm possible.

2. No purpose-built tagging facility. Oft-mentioned on the web but still a huge pain point.
  • From iTunes desktop app, one needs to overload an existing field in order to tag.
  • Can't tag from the iPod player where most are likely to listen from.

3. Can't continue listening to music while browsing for new music.
  • When listening to music in the iTunes app, if you browse in the music store to an album or artist page, the player will stop, even though you haven't selected a sample track.
4. Can't move songs from iPod to desktop iTunes app.
  • I don't buy the piracy argument. There are ways of making this non-batchable that it would limit wholescale transportation of music. Besides, keep the precious DRM on the tracks and allow me to move them. I'm (grudgingly) willing to authorize another desktop to play the music if you'll just let me move my songs between my two laptops.
5. Can't sync iPod to two computers.
  • Palm has done a wonderful job of allowing sync between multiple computers, figuring out how to just Do The Right Thing. Apple can't? Not so hard to set a dirty bit, figure out which copy is most recent, etc.
  • There is increasingly a need for this. How many of you have different personal and work computers where you wish you could maintain not just your music but your meta information (smart playlists, play counts, unfortunately-ghetto tagging, etc.)
More to come, but for an audience who are passionately in love with music, iPod has sadly fallen short on so many opportunities.


CKL said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your last three points, but I'll debate the first two.

"1... Shuffle doesn't truly shuffle randomly"

What you're describing is a random play feature, which is different from shuffle and actually a simpler algorithm because it doesn't need to remember what's been played already.

Think of it this way: if you shuffle a deck of cards, then deal them out, you can only deal each card once. But if you roll a die, getting a random number, then roll it a second time, you might immediately get the same number again--the original set of inputs is preserved.

IIRC, some Sony devices included separate "random" and "shuffle" functions. You could argue that one is more desirable than the other, but that's really a personal preference.

"2... Can't tag from the iPod"

Personally, I think tagging is overrated. I know some people swear by it, but I feel like my music has enough meta-data already.

And adding a text entry interface to the iPod itself would require more complicated controls, which I really don't want. Anyone who played the Justice Unlimited Game can tell you how much of a pain it was to enter text on the DRUID by literally dialing it in.

I don't think the iPod is perfect, but I like that Apple is doing the "Zen of Palm" thing--i.e., focusing on the most important features of a portable device while leaving out things that might be nice for power users, but will just encumber the vast majority and increase overall hardware (manufacturing, maintenance, repair) complexity.

As everyone knows, the more complicated you make the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain. :)

LC said...

Concede the first point (though I would argue that existing models trump technical descriptions -- if most CD players use shuffle to mean what you describe as random play, Apple should have followed the same).

Regarding the second point though, tagging does NOT have to be difficult for the iPod. I can think of a thoroughly simplistic way to do it: The screen after giving stars, you list a bunch of existing tags in the system and allow people to flip through them using their scroll wheel. It's the same way you select a song right now. And click or right button to tag. After a short startup period, the tags themselves don't change so that's for the most part a fixed set. And I've only given this 20 seconds of thoughts -- I can only think of what Apple and its interface designers could think up given some thought. This seems almost like Prod Mgmt was not figuring out the need for this feature.

(While we're at it, allowing "Play music with tag X" functionality, again zen-ified, would be good also instead of forcing me to create a smart playlist.)

I completely agree with the zen of things. But products need to be extensible. If you create a great product, people will push the limits of it and make it even greater. Palm struck the perfect balance -- zen in their core product and open sourced the rest for those more avid users to add doo-dads. And those doo-dads have locked a generation of PDA users in.

I'm not saying Apple needs to open-source but it should have thought of some of these needs and designed them in a non-Outlook, pile-crap-on-crap way that maintained a streamlined user flow. Totally and completely possible.

I mourn the Palm by the way. One of the best products ever in balancing a core product and add-on's. I'd venture to say even better than Facebook which has gotten quite a bit cluttered. The FRAMEWORK Palm set up was genius.

CKL said...

Yeah, that's one thing Apple hasn't learned yet--don't treat your users like criminals. They need to stop it with the DRM crap, and start opening up their hardware and software platforms to developers.

That was one of the things that kept Palm afloat for so long: everything that the company itself couldn't do, the developers did. It's too bad the company never figured out how to take full advantage of all the brainpower in that community.

Apple does some great things with its products, but as you point out, they don't think of everything, and technology is never a "one size fits all" proposition. Extensibility and customization can make any software better, and I hope they figure that out soon.