iPod Usability

After several weeks of using my new iPod (yes, I'm going to continue rubbing it in for those who don't have one), I've come to realize that there are a few things that are *gasp* not perfect about the iPod. A common theme on this blog has always been the tradeoffs inherent in technological advance: we don't so much solve problems as we trade one set of disadvantages for another, in the hopes that the new set is more favorable than the old.

Don't get me wrong, I love the iPod. It represents a gigantic step forward in my portable media capability, but it's not perfect. It seems that some of the iPod's greatest strengths are also it's greatest weaknesses. Let's look at some considerations:
  • The Click Wheel - Simultaneously the best and worst feature of the iPod. How can this be? Well the good things the click wheel brings to the picture far outweigh the bad. What's so bad about the click wheel? I think the worst thing about it is the lack of precision. The click wheel is very sensitive and it is thus very easy to overshoot your desired selection. If you're sitting still at a desk, this isn't that much of a problem, but if you're exercising or driving, it can be a bit touchy. It's especially tricky with volume, as I sometimes want to increase the volume just a tick, but often overshoot and need to readjust. However, Apple does attempt to mitigate some of that with the "clicks," the little sounds generated as you scroll through your menu options. As I say, the good things about the click wheel far outweigh this issue. More on the good things in a bit.
  • The "clean" design - As Gerry Gaffney observed in a recent article for The Age:
    When products are not differentiated primarily by features and prices are already competitive, factors such as ease-of-use and emotional response can provide a real edge. The Apple iPod is often cited as an example; a little gadget that combines relative ease of use with a strong emotional response. This helps separate the iPod from the swathe of other portable players that are comparable in terms of features and price.
    There are two main pieces to the design of the iPod in my mind, one is the seamless construction and the other is the simplicity of the design. The seamlessness of the device and it's simple white or black monochrome appearance defintely provides the sort of emotional response that Gaffney cites. But it might be even more than that - some people believe that the design is so universally accepted as "Clean" because the materials it uses evoke a subconscious feeling of cleanliness:
    Of course, we were aware of the obvious cues such as minimalist design; the simple, intuitive interface; the neutral white color. But these attributes alone inadequately explain this seemingly universal perception. It had to be referencing a deeper convention in the social consciousness… so, if a designer claimed that he had the answer—we were all ears.

    “So… as I was sitting on the toilet this morning” (this is of course where most good ideas come from), “I noticed the shiny white porcelain of the bathtub and the reflective chrome of the faucet on the wash basin… and then it hit me! Everybody perceives the iPod as ‘clean’ because it references bathroom materials!”
    The author also noticed that seamless design and a lack of moving parts is often used in science-fiction to indicate advanced technology (think "Monolith" from 2001). Obviously, a "Clean" design doesn't necessarily make it better or more usable, but good design often bundles clean with easy-to-use, and in the iPod, the two are inseparable. The click wheel's lack of precision notwithstanding, it's actually quite easy to use for the most common tasks. It's also ambidexterous and easy to use whether you are left or right-handed. Some devices have lots of buttons and controls, which can be useful at times, but the iPod covers the absolutely necessary features extremely well with a minimum of actual physical controls. What's more, this economy of physical buttons does not detract from the usability, it actually increases it because the controls are so simple and intuitive. In the end, it looks great and is easy to use. What more can you ask for?
  • One thing I enjoy about the iPod is using it's shuffle songs feature. Now that I've got most of my library in one device, I enjoy hearing random songs, one after the other. Sometimes it makes for great listening, sometimes appalling, but always interesting. However, there is one feature I'd like to see: if I'm listening to one song, and I want to "break out" of the shuffle (and listen to the next song on that particular album), there's no way to do so short of navigating to that album and then playing the next song manually (at least, I don't know of a way to do so - perhaps there is a not-so-intuitive way to do it, which wouldn't be surprising, as I imagine this is a somewhat obscure request). Perhaps it's just that I like to listen to albums that have tracks that seamlessly run into one another, the prototypical example being Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon - the last 4 songs have a seamless quality that I really like to listen to as a whole, but which can be jarring if I only hear one of them.
  • This usability critique of the iPod makes mention of several of the above points, as well as some other good and bad features of the iPod:
    In Rob Walker’s New York Times Magazine article, "The Guts of a New Machine", Steve Jobs stated. "Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,...That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."
    He mentions the same lack of precision issue I mentioned above, and also something about the blacklight being difficult to turn on or off (which is something that I imagine is only a probem for the non-color screens).
In many ways, the iPod is very similar to it's competing players. It has comparable features and price, and I'm quite sure that, even though the iPod's usability is excellent, its competitors probably aren't that far off. But there is definitely something more to the iPod and it's design, and it's difficult to place. There seems to be a large contingency of people who are extremely hostile towards the iPod (probably for this very reason), insisting that people who like the iPod are some sort of brainwashed morons who are paying extra only for the privelege of having a player with a piece of fruit engraved on it. Perhaps, but even with the issues I cited above, the iPod has exceeded my expectations rather well.