iPod Usability Critique

Photo: iPod.com

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.” (1) With Jobs’s statement in mind and reviewing Bruce “Tog” Tognazzi’s “First Principles of Interaction Design”, the power of the iPod’s design is not solely in how it appears, but how the user experiences the product.

The strength of the iPod user experience is that a lot of data is easily accessible at any time with just a few short touches of a button or with the slight petting of a finger on the iPod scroll wheel. The actions fall correctly in line with Tognazzi’s principle that states “effective interfaces do not concern the user with the inner workings of the system. Work is carefully and continuously saved, with the full option for the user to undo any activity at any time.” (2) At any time with the slight movement of a finger or a touch of a button, the iPod user can ‘browse’ or access a personal library of MP3s, documents, photos, or playlists in a device that holds a large amount of storage in a device that fits in the palm of your hand.

With a slight touch, the user may also easily correct a previous action or mistake with the touch of his finger to the device. The speed, and the ease of use of the iPod software follows Tognazzi’s rule of “Always allow a way out”. That usability strength follows Tognazzi’s rule of “Always allow a way out.”, but it also violates Tognazzi’s rule of “However, make it easier to stay in.” (3)

With my iPod user experience, I have often found that toggling between menu options of various sections can be very touchy due to the amount of speed and a lack of control generated by the iPod scrolling wheel. With the touchiness of the iPod button controls, it is often difficult to quickly navigate the system while walking or running because your finger has to stop the icon at the right menu option, which results in the scrolling wheel overrunning your selection. In fact, I often find myself on jogs stopping to ensure that the icon meets my selected option on the menu list before I can access new ‘playlists’, ‘albums’, or new ‘selections’. I often find myself stopping to ensure that I am centered on the right ‘Menu’ option before I institute an action with the press of my finger on a compressed iPod button.

A difficulty is also found when the iPod is used in a dark lighted area. To find the ‘Backlight’ feature or to toggle through ‘Menu’ options in a dark setting is very difficult. Although Apple nailed Tognozzi’s principle of “Use large objects for important functions (Big Buttons are faster), the LCD screen and choices are difficult to find. For example, if a novice user wants to find the “Backlight” option to illuminate the iPod in the dark, from the main menu option, it is very difficult to ensure that your finger is on the right selection or that your choice is on the right path toward the step of illuminating the device without interrupting the current actions of the iPod. Along with the touchiness of buttons and the overdrive speed of the toggling action, the navigation experience for the iPod user can be harrowing.

These user interface weaknesses are small when considering the overall user iPod user experience. The iPod has not only changed listening behaviors around the world because of it’s portability and storage, but also the iPod’s physical design has caught the imagination of the world. From the West Village in Manhattan to Southern Village in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a glace at white headphones attached to a device is the sure-fire signal for iPod user. However, as Tognozzi states in his principles, “The great efficiency breakthroughs in software are to be found in the fundamental architecture of the system, not in the surface design of the interface.”, (4) with the touch of a finger in mind, iPod has instituted a major breakthrough in the principles of ease of use for the user experience.


December, 2004

1 Walker, Rob. “The Guts of a New Machine.” New York Times Magazine November 30, 2003 pg. 78. Lexis Nexis Academic Database. UNC Chapel Hill. UNC-CH Library. November 25, 2004 <http://web.lexis-nexis/universe/document?_m=a3393b99d818a>

2 Tognazzi, “Tog” Bruce. “Ask Tog: First Principles of Interaction Design”. Neilsen Norman Group. Ed. Bruce Tognazzi. 23 Nov. 2004 <http://www.asktog.com/basics/first/Principles.html>
3 Tognazzi, “Tog” Bruce. “Ask Tog: First Principles of Interaction Design”. Neilsen Norman Group. Ed. Bruce Tognazzi. 23 Nov. 2004 <http://www.asktog.com/basics/first/Principles.html

4 Tognazzi, “Tog” Bruce. “Ask Tog: First Principles of Interaction Design”. Neilsen Norman Group. Ed. Bruce Tognazzi. 23 Nov. 2004 <http://www.asktog.com/basics/first/Principles.html>