A critical look at the iPad’s Music App

The iPad Music app – what happened?

When iOS 5 was announced there’s was lots of talk of all the exciting shiny new features but very little mention of any update to the iPad Music app – which was OK by me because it seemed to do pretty much everything I expected of it anyway. Then I spotted a few screens here and there and saw that it had had a graphical UI overhaul and caught some people moaning about the skeuomorphic UI design that Apple were busily slapping all over everything with iOS 5.

I’m not a huge fan of the fake leather and wood trim myself but at the end of the day, that’s just eye candy – what really matters is the UX, the user experience, and that’s something that Apple always excel at, isn’t it? So what the hell went wrong with the iPad Music app?

Apple haven’t just changed the look of the app they’ve made numerous changes to the way the app works, pretty much all of which have actually been a step backwards – some have removed existing functionality for no reason and others are just poor UI choices relating to button size, placement etc. Let’s have a look at some of them in more detail…

Problem: Viewing Playlists

I use smart playlists as a way of managing what music iTunes syncs to my iPad – I’m sure many others do as well. In the screengrabs below you can see that one of my playlists is called 2 This week which, unsurprisingly enough, contains all the music I’ve added to my library this week. It’s an easy way to get to my newest music and automatically updates itself every day.

In the old version of the iPad Music app this playlist looked like this – notice that although it only lists the song title and artist, the tracks are arranged by album (the seemingly different artists towards the bottom of the list are all on the same compilation album).

I could also choose different views of the same playlist – being a designer and primarily visual person, I preferred to use the album view as seen below:

Now compare this to the way the new iPad Music app displays the playlist:

Now admittedly, it looks nicer that old version of the text list above, the font is smaller and the album title is listed as well, so there’s no denying it packs in more information in but…

The order of the tracks seems completely random – it’s not organised by artist, album or song title – and the option to view by album cover has gone completely. If you select the ‘Album’ button at the bottom of the screen you’ll see all the album covers on your iPad, not just the ones in the current playlist. Not what I want is to be able to view the covers of just my new music rather than a meaningless, random list of tracks…

The point is not that I need to be able to do it, it’s that I used to be able to do it – so it’s functionality that’s been removed. Now I’m pretty certain that nobody at Apple actually sat down and said ‘right let’s remove some features from the Music app’ so the more likely scenario is a lack of understanding on Apple’s part as to how some customers use their apps. Which is worrying…

For some reason Apple chose to handle the way the data is displayed within the different lists differently – so Playlists and Songs are handled as text lists, whereas Artists and Albums are treated visually – why? Apart from making no sense, it’s also not consistent with the way the Music App on the iPhone & iPod touch works.

Now I don’t want to just moan about these things without proposing some solutions. In this instance the obvious solution is to treat all the lists the same and have a toggle switch somewhere else on the screen to switch the view from list to visual – just like they do in iTunes. That way each list could be viewed in the way the user prefers, in fact the App should remember the user’s preference for each list. Sorted.

Full screen view

The app has two different views – the light view and the dark full screen view but I wouldn’t mind betting that many newer users have never seen the dark full-screen view as Apple seem to have decided to all but hide it in the latest version of the app.

Look at the screen below and try and guess how you might get to the full screen album cover view… No, don’t tap on the large picture of the album cover on the left, that would be too obvious. Instead you have to tap on the tiny version of the cover in the top pane of the screen. Obvious really…

If you figure it out or tap on it accidentally you’ll be rewarded with the darker version of the app and the large version of the album cover artwork. On a side note, Apple are going to have to start upping the resolution of the artwork they embed in the tracks you buy from iTunes. Currently they use 600 x 600 pixel cover artwork which obviously has to be scaled up slightly to fill the 724 pixel wide screen of the iPad creating a slightly blurry effect on some covers. If, as rumoured, they switch to a double resolution retina display for the iPad 3 those 600 pixel covers are going to look pretty awful stretched to 1,448 pixels…

Anyway, either double tapping on the full screen artwork or single tapping on the new ‘track listing’ button that’s appeared in the bottom right, will flip you into the track listing view – see below.

Strangely enough, to get back to the cover view you click on the track listing button again – which is inconsistent with the way the app works on the iPhone where it changes to a miniature version of the album cover in this view which makes much more sense…
Rating Songs

As I mentioned earlier I use smart playlists to make sure all my recent music is synched to my iPad & iPhone. Then I try and find the time to rate the tracks so that further smart playlists can organise them in iTunes and on the Apple TV – best of 2011 etc. And that’s why I’m so unhappy with the way the iPad app handles ratings now…

Once you know how to find the ratings view (see above) it should be an easy matter to skip through the tracks on an album to see which have already been rated, however, using this view (above) makes the whole process more frustrating than it need be because it continually defaults back to the cover artwork view. So every time you tap on a track the cover appears before you get a chance to rate it (or even see if it’s already been rated) and you have to double tap to get back to the track listing – again and again and again… All I want is for this view to behave like the other list view i.e. stay in list view until I’ve finished with it.

The simple solution here is that the app should just stay in whichever view it’s in until the user asks it to change. Sorted.

 

Button Placement

There’s also a few instances of inconsistent button placement – the most glaring of which is the ‘< Back’ button which jumps from the bottom left of the screen (see screengrab below)…

…to the top left (see screengrab below)…

Even more infuriating is that it’s replaced with the ‘Store’ button – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been navigating back through the app only to accidentally launch the iTunes Store app. Cynics might say this was deliberate behaviour on behalf of Apple to trick users into visiting the store and hoping they make an impulse purchase, but this isn’t how Apple thinks so I’m afraid I’m just going to put it down to sloppy beta testing or a rushed release…

 

Lyrics

For some reason, they’ve just gone. You used to be able to see them by tapping on the screen in album cover mode (see below) but now nothing… It’s not a huge big deal but because it used to be there, I miss it…

There’s a very simple solution to this one: bring them back and give users an option to switch them off in the Settings app (just like it was before).

Inconsistencies/bugs

There’s also plenty of annoying little bugs and/or inconsistencies – very often the app will display a blank screen or empty library after an iTunes sync forcing the user to manually quit the app and re-launch to get their tracks to appear.

The AirPlay icon has no visual indicator of whether it’s active or not (it’s standard across all other apps for it to be coloured blue if it’s in use…)

The scrubbing indictor also doesn’t highlight when it’s selected and there’s no on-screen feedback as to what speed you’re scrubbing at (like the iPhone version which despite its smaller screen seems to work much better).

I often get tracks appearing in smart playlists that shouldn’t be there ie. songs that were added months ago will be in my Today playlist and even songs that are determined to be on my iPad even though they’re not in any of my playlists – I can manually delete them from the iPad but they just go straight back on with the next sync…

I think I’ll leave it there but before I go I’ll just sum up by saying that the iPad Music App is in no way a terrible app – in fact I use it every day – it just feels like a step backwards in functionality for no good reason. Now that Steve Jobs with his infamous attention to detail has gone I just hope there’s somebody at Apple that still cares enough to fix the App and that this isn’t the start of a horrible trend…

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