I ruddy love podcasts. Since getting into them last year they’ve become a staple in my day-to-day routine. I put on Lore while cooking, Reply All while designing and I fall asleep to Melvyn Bragg’s excellent In Our Time. They’re brilliant!
I also have an iPhone, and for all its wonders I’m confounded at the awkward and ill-designed UI of the Apple Podcasts app. Prior to iOS 11 it was maddening. Since the update…it’s not much better. Here’s where the Podcasts app goes wrong and, more importantly, how Apple could improve it in future updates.
Podcast App Problem #1: Basic Use Of Space
No matter how hard Apple try to widen the iPhone screen, it’s still small. People rub their hands in glee at the prospect of “edge to edge” displays but let’s be honest, we’re still talking fractions of centimetres.
With that in mind, iOS 11 Podcasts has no consideration towards the limited space on your display. With dozens and dozens of subscribed shows, the app fits just three choices in the screen. Three. Imagine if Spotify bloated their song tabs so that you could only see half an album’s track list at once. It wouldn’t wash well, would it?
And what’s taking up this precious space? Nothing much, really. Artwork has the best real estate here, and last I checked nobody was winning awards for best thumbnail. Besides this we have an unhelpful 4-5 word extract, plus the number of other episodes available. More on that later.
How To Solve It: Tighter User Interface
See below, before and after. Here we increase the amount of visible podcasts from 3 to 12 while preserving the essential info: podcast title, thumbnail and last updated.
Podcast App Problem #2: Unclear Definitions
There are so many vague, interchangeable terms in the Apple Podcasts app. In fact, it’s giving me a headache thinking about how to unpack them. You can subscribe to a podcast, download an episode, save it to your library, delete an episode (but also mark it as unplayed), mark it as played but keep the download. These are denoted by both words and icons, like a nondescript cross that transforms into a download icon when you tap it, leaving you unsure as to what just happened. What a nightmare!
How To Solve It: Cleaner, Legible Layout
Scrap all of the above. Select a podcast, see one neat column. A “download” icon is lit up when the episode is stored on your device, and a circular wheel indicates how much of this episode you’ve heard.
Tap an episode and it expands like an accordion, revealing the full description, size and current progress.
When an episode has been played, it’s marked with a big fat checkmark and faded into the background. Perhaps there’ll be an option to “hide all played episodes” – out of sight, out of mind.
Podcast App Problem #3: “Unplayed”
i.e. the assumption that you are a completist with 24 hours of free time per day to catch up with everything you’re missing.
If, like me, you like to keep phone notifications tidy, then the podcast app will bring about shudders. Everything you’re subscribed to but haven’t heard (i.e. hours of material per week) is marked as unplayed. Further to that, each podcast is accompanied by vague numbers denoting how many episodes I might have missed.
Why do I need to know this? Current affairs podcasts are transient. If I missed The Economist’s weekly roundup from the 8th July 2016, it’s unlikely I have a pressing need to hear it.
Similarly, I don’t need to be reminded that History Extra’s new episode on Richard III hasn’t been heard. Richard’s been dead a long time, he can wait. There’s also no benefit to me knowing that I have 78 unplayed episodes in my “science” station. Gah. See below.
What I’m trying to say is that with dozens of subscribed podcasts, everything stacks up and you’ve no way to prioritise your listening. Apple Podcasts just feeds you a growing column of unplayed episodes on a miscellany of topics that you can’t properly categorise. It’s taking the paradox of choice to annoying new heights.
How To Solve It: Trust Users To Organise Themselves
Scrap “Listen Now” altogether. Stick with one “Library” column, and let users order by date on their own initiative. Again, I’ll refer you to my mockup above, whereby new uploads are subtly marked by a change in colour, perhaps with the option to choose the timeframe when something is marked as recent.
And Finally…Where Did The Sleep Timer Go?!
I loved that little sleep timer! Drifting off to 15 minutes of Melvyn Bragg was a joy. Now, seconds before succumbing to sleep, you should jolt yourself up to pause the episode, making the last thing you see a disorderly, space-flouting UI lighting up your face.
…or maybe the sleep timer lurks, undiscovered in the labyrinth of settings, swipe options and subpages. If you find it, let me know.
Update: The sleep timer is there, and unsurprisingly it is harder to access than before. When you are playing a podcast, swipe up, then swipe up once more to reveal extra settings, including the sleep timer.
Above left: Needlessly telling users how many episodes are “unplayed” in a given topic.
Above centre: I almost wrote a bit about no a “downloads” section, a feature sorely lacking in iOS10. It’s actually there in iOS11, but tucked away in the settings.
Above right: Being able to save an already downloaded episode. What does it all mean? Can we go further and doublesave episodes? Guild them and have monuments built in our library?
So that’s my two cents on the current state of the iPhone Podcast app. Ultimately, once I’m plugged in and enjoying an episode of Velocities In Music, I’m happy. It’s just that the steps to get there seem needlessly tedious, especially when you consider Apple’s other successes with user experience.