Reeling from the removal of the reels



A couple of days ago, Apple updated its Podcasts app for iOS to version 1.2. Here’s the App Store summary of the new features:

Introducing Podcasts 1.2

  • Create custom stations of your favorite podcasts that update automatically with new episodes
  • Choose whether your stations begin playing with the newest or oldest unplayed episode
  • Your stations are stored in iCloud and kept up-to-date on all of your devices
  • Create an On-The-Go playlist with your own list of episodes
  • Playlists synced from iTunes now appear in the Podcasts app
  • The Now Playing view has been redesigned with easier to use playback controls
  • Addressed an issue with resuming playback when returning to the app
  • Additional performance and stability improvements

And this is all fine and dandy, but what it’s not openly mentioned is that the interface you see above, the one simulating a reel-to-reel tape recorder, is gone. I believe it’s been an unnecessary move, that feels more like a removal of the skeuomorphism just for the sake of removing it, rather than a true design improvement. As a result, in my opinion, the whole app has lost a bit of character.

I already expressed my views on skeuomorphism here before, so I’ll just quote a relevant excerpt from an older article:

In my opinion, the real problem, the problem that really concerns the final user, is one of expectations and usability. People don’t mind skeuomorphic designs. They often prefer them over designs which might be more efficient but look bland. What irks a user is a design that sets some expectations and then doesn’t fulfil them. A calendar app that emulates a paper calendar, but with pages that don’t turn or can’t be ripped away. What’s the point of presenting a beautifully rendered replica of a paper calendar, if you have to touch a Delete button to remove a page? True paper calendars don’t have Delete buttons. This is a dangerous mix of analogue and digital, a misleading mismatch of expectations and ultimately a small usability nightmare.

The skeuomorphism present in the Podcasts app until version 1.2 did not constitute a problem, did not mislead the user, did not set interaction expectations it couldn’t fulfil. It wasn’t even imposing towards the users: people who didn’t like the interface (or didn’t get the metaphor) were free to ignore the emulated tape recorder and just leave the ‘lid’ closed. And for those like me who, instead, loved to look at the tape interface while listening to a podcast, the reel-to-reel simulation was also a fun touch to let you see the progress in a podcast: you could look at the position of the playhead and the time elapsed/time remaining counters, but also at the reels themselves, emulating the passing of the tape from one reel to another, just like it happens in a real tape recorder.

Now the Podcasts app looks like this (on the iPhone):


Back to the list of new features: The Now Playing view has been redesigned with easier to use playback controls. Their position and functions are basically the same of the old Podcasts app, by the way, and now the app just looks like any other ‘minimal’ media playing app. For comparison, here’s the Music app:

IMG 5658

And the Now Playing view in Spotify:

IMG 5659

And the Now Playing view in Apple’s Remote app:

IMG 5660

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate their practicality and functionality. I appreciate the choice of placing buttons and controls in predictable positions, etc., as it helps usability a lot. But — you will agree — they all look the same and share a rather bland design. Nothing memorable here, nothing that stands out.

Instead, as a counterexample, take a look at the Now Playing view of T3 Player by Eder Rengifo, definitely more distinctive (and easy to use despite the abundance of skeuomorphism):

T3 Player

To reiterate: not all skeuomorphic interfaces are bad per se; and not all clean, minimal, abstract and non-skeuomorphic interfaces are good per se. I can’t help but think that the removal of all skeuomorphic elements in the Podcasts 1.2 update is, above all, a statement to let people know that now someone else at Apple is calling the shots in the software design department; that the unnecessary UI embellishments are on their way out, and so on and so forth. Because considering how the Podcasts app is designed, the emulated reel-to-reel tape could have remained exactly where it was (in the background), and could have very well survived the slight redesign of the playback controls and the addition of all the features that have been introduced, since it was never really in the way, and helped give the Podcasts app a unique (if a bit quirky) look. Find My Friends and Game Centre are two apps where the removal of skeuomorphic elements would have made more sense, if you ask me.

It’s a pity that you can’t ‘mute’ updates in the App Store app, because for now I’m certainly not updating the Podcasts app on my iPad.

The Author

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