Free Advice for the iPod Interface

Posted on September 5, 2008. Filed under: Apple, Uncategorized | Tags: |

With the iPod Touch out (and due to be updated next week), the doors have opened for a paradigm-shift in portable music playing.

The original portable music devices were centered squarely around albums, be that delivered in the form of a cassette or in the form of a CD. They strongly favored putting the album in, hitting the play button, and listening to it straight through. Whle CDs are obviously “digital music”, I don’t include them as such, as they are a digital equivalent to the analog forms which were three decades old at the time (LP, cassette).

The first digital players (MP3 CDs and Digital Rios, etc) broke through the album-orientation of portable music, allowing us to carry as many as ten albums with us and listen to them all mixed together. For the first time we could shuffle the entirety of our Pink Floyd collection!

The next wave of digital players brought a huge chunk of our libraries along: the Creative Nomads of the world. The interface, though, was still centered on two major use cases: navigate to a specific playlist to play, or put your entire library on random shuffle.

The third wave of digital music players came when Apple unveiled the iPod. Now, we could easily navigate to any of the artists or albums on our device, shuffle based on artist or album or entire music collection. We also had, importantly, desktop integration with iTunes. The “scroll wheel” metaphor was intuitively obvious for people seeing it the first time. Gone were the banks of buttons with indecipherable icons. The basic form underwent some serious tweaks and streamlining through the early 2000’s, but the main mechanism and interactions remained the same throughout.

I contend that the iPod Touch and iPhone constitute the fourth wave of digital music players. With this new device model, Apple (or someone else) has the chance to reinvent the basic interaction model.

Why would they want to do this? Primarily, because our digital music collections have, in general, far outgrown the bounds of the original iPod control scheme. I would go so far as saying that the iPod control and navigation scheme on an 80GB iPod Classic borders on unusable if you actually have even half that filled with music.

So, smarty-pants, what should we do about that? I’m glad you asked.

Ratings Filtering

Sample Filter / Sort screen for album

Sample Filter / Sort screen for album

One of the great things about Aperture is the filter drop-down. The same controls that can be used to create a “smart album” are also available in the filter drop-down. For instance, with two clicks on the filter control (or one keyboard shortcut), I can quickly filter the view to only include the photos I’ve given one or more stars.

I often miss this functionality when listening to my iPod. There are albums that I love, start to finish: those I always just want to listen straight through. But there are many more albums where I’d much rather just listen to “my picks” from that album. You could arbitrarily say that’s everything 3-stars and above, but it’d be much nicer if I could also at times look at just the 4-star songs, etc.

Sort Order

In iTunes, I can sort by just about everything, including secondary fields (like “Album by Year” which sorts by year, then within that by album name, then within that by track number).

What do I get on the iPod? Generally, just sorted by Album. When coming in by Artist, the albums are sorted alphabetically, and the tracks beneath them in album order; the “All” pseudo-album has each track sorted alphabetically by album then by track order, making it useless to scan the artist’s discography (unless they released their albums alphabetically) as well as to find a specific song (unless you know all songs’ albums and track numbers).

The sort order need not be “hard coded” on the iPod Touch. The same “Filter” screen above could include a drop-down selection of various “Sort” options. I’m sure Apple can figure out the five most absolutely necessary ways to sort each of the screens on the iPod.

Major Artists

The “Artists” list on my iPod is next to useless. Why? Because every artist who ever sang one song which I liked is listed there. There’s no ability for me to scan through the artist list to find an artist I like as an artist (rather than as a one-hit-wonder).

I’d love to be able to filter the “Artist” list by “Only with at least this many songs [of a specific rating or higher]”.

I’d also love to be able to turn off/on the “Compilation Only” artists in the Artists list. Most of the time, I don’t need that artist who only exists in my library because I ripped my “The Good Crap from 2006” CD a few years back. I want to keep the song around (a one-hit-wonder category song), but I don’t need the artist showing up in my Artists list. Except, of course, for when I do: I sometimes hear a song on the radio and know the artist, or someone asks me if I have that song by that guy, and it’s nice to be able to look the artist up, compilation-only or not.

Best Albums

Similar to “Major Artists”, there are albums then there are albums. It’d be nice to be able to filter or otherwise highlight (highlighting would be really cool) a handful of different “album” types:

  1. “Albums” with only 1-2 songs in them. These are “one-hit-wonder” albums, regardless if the artist is a one-hit-wonder. If “of #” information is in the track numbers, then replace this with “less than 50% of the album”.
  2. Albums with fewer songs than the full album. This requires the “of #” track information to work, and would include all albums not in the above category and not full.
  3. Full/Overfull albums. Albums where all tracks are present and accounted for.

In addition, an indication of “average rating” would be nice. It shouldn’t be hard to pick up my iPod and find the ten most loved albums!

Navigation

I live and die by my playlists. I have a “smart playlist” which automatically picks a certain percentage of 3-star songs, a higher percentage of 4-star songs, and all 5-star songs. I put that on “Shuffle” and it’s almost always a very Good Thing.

Invariably, though, ten or so songs in it’ll hit a song and I’ll say “Oh! I haven’t listened to that album in a long time!” Or, I’ll say, “Oh, that’s a good song by that group, now I want to listen to (some other specific song by them).” I then have to stop the playlist shuffle, go out to the Artists list, find the artist, find the album, and start playing.

There should be a shortcut while any song is playing: go to the artist for the song, go to the album for the song, list all playlists containing the song.

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2 Responses to “Free Advice for the iPod Interface”

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Thanks for the information. Your blog is added to your bookmarks. Develop.
Your reader.

I too have rendered my sort by artist list useless for the same reasons. On the ipod touch I know that the artists are at least searchable by first letter. Even that would be useful. To have all my A artists in a single folder (A.F.I to Azure), my B artists in another folder (Bad Company to Bystanders) and so on.


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