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Skype 5 for Mac: A Huge Step Backward

A while back, when Skype’s group video chat feature was still free, a friend of mine sent me a Skype message asking whether it was possible to do video chat with more than one person in Skype. “Sure,” I replied, “you can do that, but you need to install the new Skype 5 beta.” I sent her the link. A few minutes later, she went offline, and came back shortly thereafter, apparently having updated to Skype 5. The first message she sent was:

What the hell happened to Skype? Is this some kind of joke?

Apparently, it is not.

At work, we use Skype to communicate. A lot of the people here use Windows computers. More than once, a Windows user has walked by my Mac, seen my version of Skype, and said something to the effect of “Wow, this looks so much better than the horrible mess we have on Windows!” It seems Skype has noticed that there is a discrepancy in quality between the two versions, and has decided to make the two versions more similar. Unfortunately, instead of making the Windows version of Skype better, they’ve decided to fix the discrepancy by making the Mac version of Skype more like the Windows version.

Now, I have to point out that Skype undoubtedly has constraints I do not know about. Maybe Skype had to do this. Maybe there was some serious problem with the previous version of Skype. When Twitter initially added the quick bar to its iOS client, they didn’t do it because they wanted to mess with their users; they did it because they had to find a way to make money. Similarly, Skype probably has good reasons for why Skype 5 looks the way it does.

Having said that, I really don’t like Skype 5. [Editor’s note: And neither do we at TidBITS, which is why we’re republishing Lukas’s article. We were planning to write something very much along these lines, but he did such a good job that we didn’t see any reason to pile on independently. -Adam]

The previous version of Skype was a very good piece of user interface design. In its initial state, it was extremely basic. This is what Skype used to look like:


It had a simple window showing a search field, a counter for unread notifications, and a list of your friends, with the ones who were currently online at the top. It was easy to understand, didn’t take much space so I could always keep it visible, and it showed me all the information I needed to know. Who’s online? Did I miss something? Is it okay to contact a friend, or does he not want to be disturbed?

With an active chat, Skype used to look like this:

Again, simple and easy to understand, but still giving me everything I might need. I could add more people to the conversation, go back to earlier messages, or call people.

But the previous version of Skype wasn’t just simple; it was also flexible enough for advanced users. At work, my Skype needs are quite different from most people’s. I talk with eight people all the time. I often refer back to earlier conversations. I often chat with more than one person at the same time. To make all of this as efficient as possible, I’ve dedicated a full virtual desktop to Skype. Here’s what it looks like:

Merely by switching to this virtual desktop in Spaces, I can immediately contact the most important people, and at a single glance, I can see who has written to me, and what they have written (which is important: to avoid being constantly interrupted, I sometimes turn off notifications while I’m working).

This is a far cry from how most people use Skype, but my point is that Skype used to support both kinds of users. If you were a casual user, Skype was simple and easy to understand. If you had more demanding needs, Skype could grow with your needs.

Let’s fast-forward to Skype 5. This is what it looks like:

The sidebar on the left has a Contacts item and then a list of your chats. Clicking Contacts shows all your contacts in the main pane; clicking a past chat shows information about the chat (start and end time, and any text messages that went back and forth). Clicking a live chat shows the participants and any text or video associated with the chat.

Immediately, there are problems with this. And not just problems for advanced users, but also problems for casual users.

It’s Too Complicated for Casual Users — The window no longer looks simple. Instead, it’s overwhelming. On the plus side, it’s now easier to add a new contact (not something you do that often), and I can decide whether to call somebody or start a chat by hovering over a contact.

On the minus side… everything else. Since every Skype feature is crammed into a single window, that window feels overloaded. No longer do I see a simple list of contacts. Instead, I have a complex multi-paned window whose main pane shows entirely different things, depending on the application’s mode.

No longer can I easily see who’s online. Instead, I probably see only the people I’ve talked to most recently, regardless of whether they’re online. More than once, I’ve waited for a friend to show up in the sidebar, expecting it to work like the old buddy list. It doesn’t. Unless you switch to the Contacts screen, which then causes Skype to show two lists of contacts next to each other (the past chat contacts in the sidebar and the Address Book contacts in the main pane), you don’t actually see who’s online. And those two lists behave entirely differently.

There’s too much extraneous stuff in the main window. For example, right next to the important Add Contact button, there’s a button that allows you to see the pictures of the people in your address book in a Cover Flow view. What is this good for? Why would anyone ever want to do that? Making this view even more useless are both the inscrutable avatar pictures many people use and the generic icons Skype inserts for those who lack pictures.

Something I’ve noticed even casual Skype users do is to send URLs by text chat during a video chat. How do you do that in Skype 5? If a video call is active, it occupies the main pane, which is also where the text chat would be; so you can’t do both at the same time. Actually, there is a way, but it’s not obvious. During an active call, if you move your mouse over the main pane (but not the sidebar), you’ll see a bunch of tiny icons pop up at the bottom.

Clicking the second one splits the window horizontally, and adds a chat view below the call view. Which, on a modern screen with a wide aspect ratio, is usually not where you want it. So the feature is hidden, and poorly implemented, but at least Skype allows you to type chat messages during a call if you can figure out how.

Also troublesome is how Skype changed group calls. Before, you saw a list of people, one per line, with green equalizer-like lights that lit up when that person was talking. It was great for conference calls where you didn’t know each person’s voice, and it wasn’t distracting or obtrusive. Skype 5, in contrast, shows the avatars of two people enlarged in the upper part of the main pane, and then a horizontal list of the avatars of the rest of the people below. When someone is speaking, Skype moves that person’s avatar into one or the other of the top two spots, and pulses a gray outline in sync with the audio. The constant shuffling of avatars is distracting at best, and annoying at worst.

It’s Not Flexible Enough for Advanced Users — Skype 5 isn’t just harder to use for casual users, it’s also less flexible for advanced users. Earlier versions of Skype were simple to understand and easy to use, but they allowed users to grow. As users learned more, they were able to make use of Skype’s advanced features. Skype 5, on the other hand, is a shallow app that doesn’t give its users room to grow.

With Skype 5, I can’t see two chats at the same time. At first, I thought that I must be missing something. Surely, chatting with two people at the same time is a common use case. I can’t be the only person who does that, can I? Skype seems to think I am. There’s no way to see two or more chats next to each other.

The default window is too large, and it can’t be made small without destroying functionality. I like to keep Skype running all the time. The older version’s window was small enough that I could fit it at the edge of the screen; if I need to know if somebody is online, I can see that at a glance. Skype 5’s window is way too big. Even if I don’t hide the app intentionally, it eventually gets covered by other windows.

I can’t see who’s online when a chat is active, unless I open a second window with a list of users. Now I’m duplicating functionality across two windows; I end up with three different user lists in two different windows that all behave in slightly different ways. I guess it’s good to have the option, but why replace something that works perfectly well with something that doesn’t work particularly well, and then, to cover the fact that the new version of your feature doesn’t work well, also re-introduce the earlier version?

Public Response — When Skype launched the new user interface, response from users was overwhelmingly negative. Now, new software versions always get negative responses. People don’t like change, even if it’s for the better. But I can’t remember any other case where people responded negatively to a new software release in such numbers and with such consistency.

Maybe Skype made the Mac version look more like the Windows version because a lot of people use both; if the two look the same, users only have to learn how to use Skype once, and can then apply their knowledge to both platform versions. However, I don’t buy that explanation. The two versions look more similar, but they still behave differently. As a result, making them look similar is actually confusing, since it creates the expectation that they will behave the same when they don’t.

Skype is a tool used both by casual users and by experienced users who use it every day in a professional context. It’s incredibly hard to get this kind of user interface right. The old version did an admirable, elegant job serving both audiences. The new version, unfortunately, is a huge step backwards.

I have to repeat what I wrote earlier: Skype undoubtedly has constraints I do not know about. I’m sure there are good reasons Skype 5 works the way it does. Maybe Skype even plans to fix the issues I mentioned, but simply hasn’t gotten around to it yet (in fact, Skype 5.1 did a bit of that, bringing back active speaker focus, which had been lost entirely in the 5.0 release). Unfortunately, none of this makes Skype 5 work better for me. On the plus side, Skype 2.8 still works — at least for the time being — and you can still download it, if you need to downgrade from Skype 5.

Although I’m certainly not in a position to change Skype’s interface, I did want to offer some constructive suggestions; see “Skype 5 Ideas” on my blog, and check out Matthias Kampitsch’s design suggestions as well. Also, although it doesn’t address Skype 5’s overall interface, Skype is having a competition for how text chats are displayed in the application and has promised larger changes as well.

[Lukas Mathis studied Computer Science/Software Engineering and Ergonomics/Usability at ETH Zürich and works as a software engineer and user interface designer for a Swiss software company creating workflow management software. His first computer was a Performa 450, his first programming language was HyperTalk, his first electric guitar was a cheap Peavey, his first video game was a VCS 2600 and his current snowboard is from Lib Tech. He lives in a small cottage in a remote part of the Swiss Alps. You can follow him on Twitter.]

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