Like many other people, I signed up for Apple Music yesterday because it was intriguing and free. Having skipped earlier subscription music services, I didn’t have Spotify playlists to worry about losing or importing, and I hadn’t experienced truly unlimited access to a giant music selection before. Apple Music’s sign-up process turned out to be great: attractive, simple, and just personal enough to learn my tastes without feeling creepy. It’s also likely to win long-term customers: sign up your family, and after 3 months, someone’s going to insist on keeping Apple Music (or just forget to cancel it).
But once the sign-up process is over, Apple Music repeats a mistake that Apple made earlier this year with the Apple Watch: throwing users into the deep end of a big new pool without adequate guidance. Despite all the talk of importantly human-curated content, Apple Music is oddly and robotically silent when it should be actively guiding new customers through a brand new service. In prior years, Apple held back products until they were polished enough that anyone could use them immediately. These days, Apple releases major products with enough rough software edges that customers and reviewers are (rightfully) complaining about learning curves and unintuitive interfaces.
As of today, Apple has a new VP of User Interface Design, Alan Dye, who is taking over software-side responsibilities from Apple’s vaunted design chief Jony Ive. In light of the Apple Watch and Apple Music launches, both of which were criticized for unnecessarily complex user interfaces, I’d respectfully suggest to Mr. Dye that fixing this problem should be a top priority…
Although a handful of people have claimed — often obnoxiously — that only idiots will struggle through the first two days of using an Apple Watch, the wearable device was justifiably dinged for clunky initial performance and a sub-par setup process by reviewers and users. Even if you put aside the Home screen’s clutter of tiny, unlabeled circular icons, you still have glances and notifications to sort through, prune down, and figure out. Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times said it best: there’s a big learning curve for the first couple of days with an Apple Watch, then something clicks, and you’ll start to like or love it. It goes without saying that this wasn’t Apple’s style; when asked, I’ve explained to the (many) holdouts I know that the Apple Watch makes a bad first impression, but rapidly becomes something you don’t want to take off despite its obvious limitations. Waiting for a second- or third-generation version is, in my view, as much for improved software as hardware at this point.
It’s tempting to write off the rough first couple of days and focus on how good the experience later becomes, but that’s not the way Apple products are supposed to work. Regardless of whether you characterize the learning curve as “steep” (like Manjoo) or “shallow” (like some others), the very existence of a learning curve is the barrier between mainstream success and failure. It’s also the major historic difference between Apple products and dozens if not hundreds of alternatives. Early adopters are a small group of people who are willing to suffer through rough patches, but the large mass of mainstream users people get frustrated with unpolished products and often won’t come back. That’s why Apple always used to err on the side of shipping fully usable products minus desired features rather than ones that compromised intuitive usability. Steve Jobs’ Apple was literally defined by the philosophy that it was better for a product to do a few things wonderfully than a lot of things poorly.
Apple Music suffers from the same lack of polish as the Apple Watch, except here, the major issue is sprawl. For some reason, pieces of the new service are scattered across four separate tabs. On the iPhone, I was initially dropped into the least important tab, Connect, a timeline of tweet-caliber posts from artists. Beats One, Apple’s new and much-discussed global radio station, is nestled within the Radio tab. A section called “For You” houses personalized (but seemingly not particularly deep) music recommendations. And the one thing I really wanted to see, a catalog-like view of the 30-million-song Apple Music collection I’d signed up for, appeared to be hidden inside a tab called “New.” But if you really want to find individual songs in the catalog, it turns out that the easiest way to do it is… a search.
Apple Music’s features feel even less conspicuous in iTunes 12.2, which already has so many icons and tabs that the new features just blend in. Unfortunately, they don’t blend in a desirable way. It goes without saying that Apple Music could have just dropped you into the iTunes Store and let you go to town downloading tracks, but instead, Apple built a parallel interface that looks and acts just different enough from the Store to be confusing. For instance, it’s easy to see just how popular an artist’s individual tracks are within the iTunes Store. But in Apple Music, you can’t. A team of people went through the trouble to build this second UI to browse largely identical content, but it barely adds anything. And for some reason, my MacBook Pro’s fans start spinning whenever Apple Music features load.
There are a lot of nits to pick with the way Apple integrated Beats Music into iTunes and iOS, but the bigger picture issues are more important. First, someone at Apple was OK adding a bunch of new tabs into iTunes and the Music app without giving customers even a brief first-use explanation of how they worked. Second, no one stopped a minor feature such as Connect — a retread of a previously highly unpopular feature, Ping — from getting one full tab within the iOS Music app when the old iOS Music app was getting uncomfortably shoehorned into another tab. And iTunes, an app that has long been criticized for bloat, now has actually gotten to the point where it’s employing two user interfaces to browse largely similar content. Given Apple’s supposed list of “a thousand no’s for every yes,” it’s hard to see how these items wound up in the “yes” column.
Today’s top-level user interface leadership changes at Apple present a fresh opportunity for the company to return to the user-friendly software releases that made it famous. A little extra UI polish — particularly when thinking about what both first-time users and experienced users of brand new software will be thinking — will go a long way towards making major new Apple releases as magical as their predecessors.