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iTunes 11 Interface Innovations: Good and Bad, but Not Ugly

What I’m finding the most interesting about iTunes 11 is not its features, which are almost entirely the same as in previous versions, but the way that it thinks about interface in a rather different way from the previous versions. iTunes is sufficiently central to the user experience of most Apple users that its interface changes could give a sense of where Apple might take OS X’s interface. That may be good or bad, depending on your perspective, but it’s certainly something you should keep an eye on.

The Sidebar Returns to Oz — The last few versions of iTunes (and the Finder, and Mail) rinsed all color from their sidebars, relying solely on tiny icons and text to help users differentiate among the items. This was widely decried when it first happened, but most of the critics lapsed into sullen silence when subsequent releases maintained the monochromatic look.

Although iTunes 11 deprecates the sidebar in general, when you do show it with View → Show Sidebar, it now appears with color icons throughout. The color is still relatively understated, but works well as a visual cue when attempting to distinguish between the different icons. The screenshot compares the sidebars in iTunes 10 and 11.


I hope to see color return to other parts of the Macintosh experience. Most of us live in a world full of color, and while taking it out of our computing environment may have made a design statement, it was a step backwards in usability.

Fonts Get Bolder, with More Leading — Notable for anyone who pays attention to fonts is the switch in iTunes 11 to Helvetica, from Lucida Grande. But Apple didn’t stop there, and iTunes 11 features a significantly different approach to application typography that’s more in line with the Web or with iOS apps than with traditional Mac apps. The fonts are larger, and there’s more leading (space between lines), which renders the screens more readable, although at the cost of information density.

As you can see in the comparison windows below, iTunes 11 uses 8 percent more vertical space to display the same information as iTunes 10 did, largely thanks to the added spacing between text. The sidebar comparison screenshot above is even more indicative of this, showing a roughly 15 percent increase in height. That will mean more scrolling, especially on small MacBook screens, but overall, I think it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

I could easily see this sort of typography come to the Finder and Mail in future versions of OS X, where it would likely have the same effect of reducing the amount of information showing on screen at any one time, in favor of making it less crowded and more readable.

Modal Screen Displays — One of Apple’s notable interface trends with Mac OS X has been the move from multi-window apps to those that incorporate most of their interface into a single window with panes and sidebars. iTunes was in many ways the poster child for this move, offering multiple sidebars and radically changing the contents of the main window based on the selection in a sidebar.

iTunes 11 continues this trend, seeming ever more like an iOS app running in constrained screen space. The loss of the default sidebar plays into this screen-based approach, since there is no longer a ubiquitous sidebar that clearly identifies the top level of the selection, as in iTunes 10. Without the sidebar showing, various menus and buttons at the top of the iTunes 11 window, just under the toolbar, control what shows underneath. The problem is that this navigation bar packs a lot of these controls in, and because they occupy only a single horizontal row, it may be clear what is selected, but it’s not clear what is available to be selected.

To be more specific, the pop-up menu on the far left of the window lets you select among media types (music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, iTunes U, books, apps, and ringtones; fortunately, these can also be accessed by pressing Command and a number matching their place in the list, such as Command-1 for Music and Command-2 for Movies). That’s just like the items in the sidebar, and again, while you can see what is selected, you must open the menu to see the other options. Then, the lozenge-like buttons in the middle let you either refine what appears below (such as by limiting the view to only iPad apps or audiobooks), or offer an entirely different view of the contents (such as playlists or genres). A popover toward the right side of that top bar lets you access your iOS devices, changing the screen yet again, and the final button gives the entire window over to the iTunes Store.

Using this interface isn’t terribly hard, but when you navigate around, leave the program for a while, and then come back, it can be hard to get your bearings. This is made all the more confusing by the many different types of views that iTunes 11 supports. I count at least the following seven types:

  • List, with an optional three-pane column browser (Songs)
  • List, with a sidebar and an optional column browser (Playlists)
  • Detail list, with one (Podcasts) or two (Playlists) sidebars
  • Thumbnail (Albums)
  • Thumbnail with sidebar (Genres)
  • iOS device screens (which vary significantly, and add the On This iPhone and Add To screens)
  • iTunes Store (which at least has a white-on-black bar at the top to differentiate it).

That’s a lot of different screens, especially given that many of the iOS device screens differ from one another while being named similarly to the media screens.

Three additional facts make this approach all the more troubling. First, unlike a Web site’s breadcrumb trail, there’s little in the way of locational cues. For any given screen, you must look at the left side of the top navigation bar to determine what type of media you’re looking at, and then at the lozenge buttons in the center of that bar to figure out what view or refinement to the listed contents is showing.

Second, at least when you are viewing an iOS device, it’s possible to shrink the window horizontally so that some of the 12 center buttons disappear entirely with no indication of where they’ve gone. Imagine trying to help someone click the On This iPhone button when the window is too small to display it.

Third, working with an iOS device not only takes over the entire screen, it requires that you click a Done button to escape back out to the media screens. If you use the Add To function to put media on your iOS device, you go down to another level that looks like the media screens in every way, except for the addition of a right sidebar and yet another Done button.

Frankly, I think Apple has rather gone off the rails here. You can quibble with the old sidebar interface, but it was always clear where you were, and what you were working on. This new approach is undeniably more attractive and probably easier to use when you are within a screen, but moving between screens with so few locational and navigational clues is going to be a major problem for less-sophisticated users. I sincerely hope that this doesn’t become a model for other Mac applications, and the fact that Apple lets you bring the sidebar back says to me that they’re not entirely comfortable that this new approach is better — it’s unlike Apple to allow users to revert to older ways of working.

There’s another aspect of this push to a single window. Missing in iTunes 11 is the capability to open a playlist in a separate window or, more to the point, multiple playlists in multiple windows. For those, like our own Matt Neuburg, who use iTunes as a music database, the loss of that functionality is seriously problematic. But more to the point of this article, the Finder is a perfect example of an application that needs multiple windows for file manipulation. Should Apple attempt to shoehorn the Finder into a single window interface, significant power and flexibility would be lost.

Multiple Menu Types — Lastly, I find myself perturbed by some of the ways Apple has started concealing what are effectively menus underneath buttons, with no indication that the button is in fact a menu — the FaceTime button in Messages is particularly glaring. In iTunes 11, Apple has four types of these controls (ignoring the traditional pop-up menus you’ll find in all of iTunes 11’s dialogs, which haven’t changed at all from iTunes 10, oddly enough).

First is the custom pop-up menu used for choosing among media types. It’s good, because it includes a pair of arrows to indicate that it’s a menu and it responds to a click-and-hold action like a menu should, along with responding to individual clicks to open the menu and choose an item within it. It always has a required state — some media type must always be selected.


The second type of menu is a graphical button with a name beneath, much like a Finder icon. The main instances of this that I can find are the View button in the Playlists screen and the Options button in the CD import screen. These are also a good approach, since they combine text and graphics, have a downward-pointing triangle to indicate that they’re menus and not normal buttons, and respond both to a single click and to a click-and-hold. That said, these two are quite different in what they contain: the View menu affects the display of the Playlists screen, remembers its selection, and even changes its button to match, whereas the Options menu holds commands that perform other tasks.

Third, we have a button/menu combination, where clicking once on the button has one effect, and clicking and holding on it reveals a drop-down menu that provides additional options — the buttons in the iTunes Store nav bar are good examples of this type. There’s no indication that these buttons also have associated menus until you hover over them, at which point a small downward-pointing triangle appears. (Usually, at least. The iTunes account button containing your email address is actually only a menu, and doesn’t get that arrow.) They do respond properly to click-and-hold, and to individual clicks, though the latter must be precisely on the triangle to reveal the menu rather than invoking the button. Also, these menus don’t have a required state or change to indicate the selection — clicking the Podcasts button takes you to the Podcasts section of the iTunes Store, for instance, but that button’s menu just lets you dive into particular categories of podcasts and doesn’t reflect what you’re viewing.


Fourth and finally, is the popover, which appeared in iOS relatively recently. Popovers are called forth by a single click on a button; there’s no indication like the downward-pointing triangle that the button will generate a popover ahead of time, and a click-and-hold won’t work. Popovers also aren’t exactly menus — what’s in them is entirely unpredictable, and may involve additional interface elements. Look at the AirPlay popover, which lets you select between one and multiple destinations, adjust the volume for each independently, and control a master volume. The iOS device button also generates a popover showing the available iOS devices and the memory usage on each; the Up Next button (the three stacked horizontal lines) has yet another popover interface; and selecting or hovering over a particular piece of media shows a right-pointing triangle that reveals another menu-like popover.

I see what Apple is trying to do here — traditional pop-up menus are much more limiting than popovers, with their unique interfaces, and the button/menu combos are more like Web-based navigation menus. But I know that many people — including myself — find some of these buttons, particularly the obscure graphical ones that invoke popovers, utterly inscrutable, and the fact that they have become the only ways to access certain features like AirPlay worries me. Back when button bars started to become popular, it became clear that some people simply don’t do well with arbitrary graphical images, and far prefer words. We as a people don’t share a common graphical language, and no matter how popular Apple products get, a graphical language will always be obscure and poor in vocabulary.

Because there’s no way to know what the graphical buttons do, users are forced to play iTunes like a video game, clicking everything in sight and trying to remember the sequence of clicks that reveal necessary controls. At least some of the buttons have text on them, even if they act in different ways: the iOS devices button reveals a popover whereas the otherwise identical-looking iTunes Store button next to it switches to the iTunes Store interface.

There is one aspect in which these button menus are good thing, and that’s when they bring forth functionality that was previously hidden only under contextual menus. Contextual menus are good when they provide an additional or faster way of accessing commands or options, but since they’re even less discoverable than these buttons (how would you know to Control-click something in the iTunes sidebar?), it’s a major problem when they’re the only way certain commands or options are exposed. That’s always been bad interface design.

In the end, it’s good to see Apple trying to extend interface concepts with all these new approaches in iTunes 11 and some, like the use of color and the new approach to application typography, are welcome. But there’s a distinct lack of consistency and attention to discoverability that renders the single-window model and multifarious button menus less successful than they might be. I cringe at the thought of trying to help someone use iTunes 11 over the phone — it will be nearly impossible to describe the screen successfully and to walk someone through different actions if you can’t do so in person. And that will happen, since while iTunes 11 is attractive and certain actions are simple, plenty of other actions are made all the more difficult by some of these new interface conceits. Let’s hope Apple puts more thought in before extending these concepts to other parts of OS X.

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