Technology, UXPaul McAleer

On Apple Music

Technology, UXPaul McAleer

Many words have been spilled over the mess that is Apple Music, to the point that towards the end of July it felt like everyone just let their hair down and admitted that it's not all peaches and cream. Jim Dalrymple declared he was done with it, and then Apple directly helped him get some of his music back. (Will they help every person who has had this problem, or only prominent bloggers?) Khoi Vinh was so impressed with the power behind Spotify's new Discover Weekly playlists that he said, “More and more, Apple Music is looking like a disappointment.” 

After using Apple Music for a month, I agree. Apple Music suffers from a number of major problems and, worse, it's not a matter of just fixing one thing to make it all work. But, I can say that it certainly appears that the underlying information architecture of Apple's music offerings is the root cause, and the other issues we see – everything from syncing stupidity to poor experiences to UI weirdness – is the IA wonkiness manifest.

I'll talk about the underlying IA, followed by the modality Apple has enforced and how it impacts the UI and search, and then share a parting thought on Apple Music. 

How is this an IA problem?

So let's take a half-step back for a sec. When it comes to working with gobs and gobs of information, making sense of it is critical. And that requires the design of an underlying structure that matches the mental model of a user as much as reasonably possible. That structure drives the organization of the information or... yep... the information architecture. This is often expressed as a sitemap or navigation within an app or site but, those elements can exist independently of a broader IA. With Apple and its ecosystem, we need to look at a much higher level than just the Music app or just iTunes (but, god, iTunes has a terrible IA). We need to look at the product offerings and how they play with each other first.

Here, then, are Apple's major top-level categories in its music ecosystem:

Music (iOS)
iTunes (Mac/PC)
iTunes Store (iOS)

Notably, the iTunes Store is separate from Music on iOS. That's not gonna happen on Android which muddles things up. Otherwise, though, this top tier looks pretty good. Three big buckets.

Let's go down a level with Music on iOS.

Music (iOS)

Apple Music

For You

New

Radio

Connect

My Music

Search

Apple Music

Top Results

Albums

Songs

Playlists

Artists

Music Videos

Stations

My Music

Albums

Songs

Playlists

Artists

Music Videos

Now Playing

Up Next

There is something very important here: the split between My Music (which I'm going to call "your music" because that's a model problem too) and Apple Music. That split, as it turns out, is quite critical to the conceptual model of Apple Music.

When I first saw the unveiling, I was excited by the idea of one search box just finding everything whether it was in my music, Apple Music, or the iTunes Store. That was my mental model based on a seemingly-ubiquitous search box throughout the app. Essentially: I'll pay you $10, just let me have access to music.

That is not the case. Apple has a strong wall between these three camps: where your music is, where streaming music is, and where music for sale is. From Apple's perspective, they have three distinct information blobs out there and there is no overlap.

On top of that, your music itself consists of purchased tracks, burned/ripped tracks, and tracks downloaded from Apple Music. These are roughly speaking the types of music you may have.

But wait there's more! Any or all of these types of music can exist in multiple places at the same time, giving them another dimension. They can be in the iCloud Music Library, they can be on your iPhone, they can be on your Mac/PC, they can be on your iPod, they can be on your iPad, they can be in your purchase history, or they can be in "the cloud".

If you subscribe to iTunes Match, all of your tracks are duplicated in the cloud (allegedly). If you use iTunes Music Library, it does this across multiple Macs/PCs too.

Do you see how this is getting muddled? So if we look at the structure of just Your Music, it's really:

Your Music

Purchased Tracks (from iTunes Store)

On device

In purchase history (not "anywhere", just a record in a database)

Burned/Ripped Tracks (from CDs, other stores)

On device

Downloaded Tracks (from Apple Music)

On device

Cloud-only Tracks (flagged as "yours" in Apple Music)

You can see that the complexity is ratcheting up here. This is, interestingly, a throwback to the old "syncing is hard" problem. Syncing is hard. Because if I add, say, “We're Gonna Make It” by the Orange Peels to My Music, there's a lot of questions going on there. Did I burn it? Is it an MP3 on my computer? Did I buy it from iTunes? If I remove it from iTunes, where does it go? If I buy it and get a copy from Apple Music, which one wins? What happens if I have the MP3 on my Mac, use iTunes Match and Apple Music, and get a copy from Apple Music on my iPhone? Which one is my file? If I cancel those services, do I have anything?

Right.

This is why a single box search that spews out multiple possible types of returned searches can be messy (although, for me, ideal!) When I search for "Janelle Monae", the modality of the interaction now matters. So, Apple generally forces you to enter a mode in order to search. On iOS Music, search is conspicuously absent from the main navigation (I personally think this is a huge flaw). But when I search, I get a split tab right up top: Apple Music and My Music. The iTunes Store is gone because that's in a separate app, so my mental model doesn't even think about buying music here (and, cheers for that.)

How it Manifests

Here's an example of that modality and weird IA problem. One of the things I really enjoyed on Beats 1 was the show Time Crisis with Ezra Koenig, lead singer of Vampire Weekend. Let's say I want to find that show.

I head over to iTunes on the Mac and jump into the "online" side of the search box. I type in "time crisis". And I get... store results.

Not the Time Crisis I was searching for.

Not the Time Crisis I was searching for.

Remember, these are my main uppermost level options within iTunes:

Your iTunes Store/Apple Music menu. Which is for which service? You just have to know.

Your iTunes Store/Apple Music menu. Which is for which service? You just have to know.

So where would you go?

Right. I think, “Ah, okay. It was a radio thing. I'll go into Radio and search.” That way I can maybe tell iTunes that this is the mode I want to search in. Guess what? Nope:

I guess I'm not “in” Apple Music...?

I guess I'm not “in” Apple Music...?

Here is the wall between the store and Apple Music enforced, big time. Turns out, I have to go into an option of Apple Music in that topmost nav: either “For You”, “New”, or “Connect.” In other words, that simple-looking navigation is indeed modal, as I thought... it just isn't the same model I was thinking of.

Once I'm “in” Apple Music by clicking “For You”, I can search Apple Music.

Once I'm “in” Apple Music by clicking “For You”, I can search Apple Music.

Note that the wall is back here. I can no longer search the iTunes Store!

Forcing a mode of working upon people is not an inherently bad decision. As noted above, Apple has chosen to structure this in a complex way. But there are ramifications to the modality that go unaddressed in the UI and UX, and we're worse off for it.

And this is why I won't choose Apple Music

This is a fucking mess. I have to do too much thinking in order to understand where my music is, what constitutes “my” music, and on top of that, I need to deal with the “oops! it's gone!” problems all streaming services have.

No streaming service is perfect. And I like a number of the radio shows on Beats 1. But, remember, they're free anyway; you don't need to subscribe to get them. Given that, I suspect I'm going to edge back to rdio in the next month or so and reconsider using streaming as a primary music method altogether.

Apple Music exemplifies the worst of Apple at this moment in time: it looks great, but from an overall IA and UX perspective, it's really, stupefyingly bad. I question whether Apple has the focus to see this product through, as it seems to be an also-ran that will tick the “Hey! We've got a streaming service!” checkbox and not much more (although I wrote about bigger things coming). A disappointing mess.