Thursday, September 10, 2020

A Step Back

Nick Heer:

I see these back buttons as a sort of cop-out — an easy way of covering for a lack of deeper consideration. You can see this most clearly in iTunes running on Mojave, in which there are two very different implementations of every view: the Apple Music way, and the local library way. If you open an album from the Recently Added view, it expands to reveal the track list below. If you open an album from Apple Music, you get sent to a new page, presumably because it is not possible to implement the local library style in a way that is performative or works across different platforms. It reveals the web-based underpinnings of Apple Music, it is slow, and it necessitates a back button.

In Catalina’s Music app, the two different implementations of an album view were dropped in favour of the Apple Music style. Now, it always opens an album in a separate view. As in every one of the apps I listed above, this decision makes Music feel like a semi-native wrapper around a collection of webpages, even when many parts of the app are still entirely native.

I do not think it is always wrong for an app to have a back button; it is a mechanism that works just fine in a web browser and in file managers. But I think that this new breed of apps that try to bridge the gap between MacOS and iOS use this specific implementation of the back button as a crutch. It is an inelegant way of dealing with inelegant and unique design problems. Its pervasion is a big flashing CAUTION sign that Apple’s Mac apps are not being lavished with the design attention they once were and still deserve. What bothers me more than what the button is is what it represents: it is, uncharacteristically for Apple, lazy.


Update (2020-09-14): Nick Heer:

Are there any guidelines on when a search field should be in an app’s sidebar in MacOS instead of the toolbar? I don’t see anything in the HIG and it seems to be the case primarily in Catalyst or Catalyst-adjacent apps (e.g. Music). I don’t like it!

3 Comments RSS · Twitter

This critique is spot on. The back button is easy to miss, behaves unpredictably, and corresponds with a creeping increase of janky UX design across Apple's core apps.

@Nigel - "macOS Janky" has a certain ring to it.

The old iTunes Music Store used to have a breadcrumb bar.

It also only had one sidebar section for the Store. I still don’t really understand how “For You”, “Browse” and “Radio” differ; apparently, “For You” is more custom-tailored, and “Radio” is a shortcut to a section within “Browse”. But then the Music app on my iPhone instead has “Listen Now”, “Browse” and “Radio”, and maybe that’s just a rename of the same things, or maybe it’s not. Who knows.

But anyway, you click on such a section, and it actually preserves the navigational state it had the previous time you went there. I’m sure that’s well-intentioned, but without a breadcrumb bar, it’s confusing as hell; it takes me a few seconds each time to realize that I’m not at the root.

It also had (gasp) sortable column headers. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to find anything in an Apple Music playlist. They’re not sorted, which kind of makes sense since they’re curated, but also you can’t sort yourself, nor does there seem to be any filtering UI. So if you’re wondering if a certain song is in a playlist of, like, 90 songs (this is the one I just picked), good luck with that. In contrast, in the olden days, you just clicked a column header and it got sorted! And if you wanted back to the playlist order, you just clicked on the very first column, which was the item number. Simple and intuitive.

Leave a Comment