iTunes 11 - A UI Design Review

Earlier this year, during their product launch event, Apple announced a new version iTunes was going to be released. It was initially billed as a 'ground up redesign'. To me this sounded like good news. This piece of software is a keystone in the iOS ecosystem and it's long been in need of an update. Since it's release (11 years ago) it has steadily built on top of the SoundJam software it acquired to manage iPod content. But it soon went past it's initial intention and became bloated.

After the announcement the rumour mill started talking of a streaming service, much like Spotify or Rdio, which utilised the iCloud services. This seemed a logical step in customer behaviour, but would of course pull apart Apple's Music Store business.

In recent months more attention (than usual) has turned to Apple's software design, following the public ousting of Scott Forstall and the widening of Jonathan Ive's remit in to HCI. Whilst I'm sure this release was signed and sealed before the internal team changes it seems like a good time to take a close look at where the UI design for iTunes has reached with this new version.

iTunes v10

The Visual Layer
The shine is gone. All traces of the old OSX design language have been removed in favor of a more metallic finish, as per the most recent OSX design. Colour is restricted to just greys, with a muted blue for highlights. Strangely it doesn't include the orange which has been introduced to the iPhone version and it doesn't have the heavy black areas seen in the iPad version.

The approach to visual design is certainly not as clean as Rdio and there seems to be some very crowded areas in the interface, even when it's in fullscreen mode. These feel a little fussy and awkward when trying to learn the system.

Switching between the media library and store inverts the main navigation bar and changes the switching button. This completely stumped me. After i moved to the store I felt stuck and found myself really searching for a route out.

Like the iPad, each route to media (Songs, Artists, Genres, Playlists etc) uses a different layout. I can't say I agree with this principle. To my mind Spotify's singular media layout is far more graceful and focussed. The layout for Albums is the same as the iPad version, offering only a scroll bar to find your way round. Where as the layout for Artists is a graceful split between an alphabetical list and second level of detail. For me this is the best designed view in the new version. It's focussed, simple and in keeping with the elegance we've come to expect from Apple.

Unlike the layout used for Songs, which is frankly a mess.

 It's hard to imagine how the iTunes team arrived at the design of the Songs section. Visually it hops from side to side and up & down at the same time. It doesn't seem that it can be customised, unlike version 10. I'm not wholly convinced this filter adds anything to the software at all.

The Structure
By pushing the TV and Film content in to a distinct category the focus now on back on music. Surprisingly the software launches initially with a very un-Apple intro welcome message.
Not only is this counter to Apple's usual approach of simplicity that requires no explanation, but it's also not click-able, so you can't jump right in.

There is now a more seamless connection from media in to the Store and the integration of iCloud is far more subtle and dare I say it enticing. But iTunes Match has far too much prominence.

The Store
With every release the iTunes Store is getting better. Strangely there are still big differences across devices, but overall it's a far more confident design. The approach to cross selling and overloading options at every step has been hugely toned down, to make the browsing and buying process significantly calmer.

iTunes Store v10

iTunes Store v11

Ultimately it's a bit of a grubby update. The software is improving and the overall structure is mostly better, but the UI design is fussy where surplus features have been left in. It shows signs of intelligent software design, but it's still lacking the 'insanely simple' design principles that makes us love Apple.