Critiquing the Apple TV User Experience

Background

After an interesting episode of the podcast Mac Power Users (‘#528: The Merlin Awakens’) with David Sparks, Stephen Hackett and special guest Merlin Mann, I was inspired to write my own piece about the experience of using Apple’s tvOS. I have been a fan of the Apple TV (as a device) since its very first version, when it was essentially an iPod for your television that ran a beefier version of (then) Mac OS X’s Front Row. When it was updated in the second and third generations as a little, black hockey puck, it took the whole experience and made it easier without the need for synchronisation with iTunes on the Mac. There were fewer channels but the UI design was exceptionally consistent and easy to understand.

These days, Apple’s long-standing ‘hobby’ product is slightly more controversial (albeit much more powerful and fully featured), as the HD and 4K versions come with the infamous Siri Remote. The remote is quite fragile and sensitive to some, leading to a higher package price in contrast with other TV boxes and products. Apple has been more committed to the platform than in the past, if not a bit lighter with feature additions, as tvOS has received updates each year with things like single sign-on, multiple users, support for third-party controllers, beautiful scenic screensavers and more. While the future of TV has not necessarily turned out to be apps, there are apps and games with genuine utility and the platform has been extended with Apple’s addition of the TV app, the Apple TV+ service and Apple Arcade for gaming. I’m pleased to have the device as my main way of watching television and movies.

All of this being said and the remote aside—which I actually like, although it could be less fragile and more ergonomic—I see the greatest potential for improvement in the tvOS Home screen itself and in the introduction of more consistent user interfaces. My greatest complaint, focusing on the Home screen, is that it is not easy or quick enough to jump straight into content that I’m already watching. At the top level, it’s super-easy to find recommendations—they’ll almost always show you those—but finding current content is slower than it should be. Yes, one can use Siri to ask for shows, but the fact remains that it should be easy to see visually what you want to start watching.

Moreover, although Apple has attempted to remedy this by pushing the TV app as the central repository for all programmes, even suggesting that it be the default user experience over the app Home screen. The problem is that I’m not a huge fan of the TV app as it stands, even if it displays the programmes that I’m watching in a top row. The app itself is too messy and unfortunately isn’t supported by all third-party services (Netflix, ahem). It’s a noble idea but I find myself wanting to go there only to access my own library of iTunes content. That’s the nice part.

Going back to the tvOS Home screen, this doesn’t all fall on Apple, however, as I believe that third-party providers and TV services need to be a lot better about how they reveal their programmes for easy access. In the tiled app-icon view of the Home screen, this takes place in the shelf above the top row of apps. In the following sections, I’m going to show you how useless each of the apps in my top row are at showing what I’m currently watching, thereby necessitating numerous clicks down levels of menus to get to what I want.

While this may seem like a list of first-world problems in the midst of a crisis, more people of varying technical abilities and interests are interacting with media at home (in isolation) perhaps than ever before. It’s an issue of ease and accessibility.

App Examples

(See the later gallery for corresponding images.)

TV

As I mentioned already, Apple’s TV app is intended to make it easier to see all the things that you’re watching and may want to watch next. While this design philosophy supposedly applies to the interface within the app itself, it does not apply to the top shelf on the Home screen. Instead, you receive a full-screen view of what Apple deems to be the most important items to promote. While beautiful, the utility is low for anything other than exploring new stuff. This space should be for more than simply advertising.

Deutsche Welle (DW)

I regularly watch the programme EuroMaxx on DW, for example, and while the app offers quick links to certain programmes, the tiles are not dynamic… they always remain the same. Why not show the latest episode of the show that I want to watch, rather than displaying huge singular rectangles?

Stan

My wife Natasha and I frequently enjoy shows on Stan. For example, we regularly watch Seinfeld, we’ve just finished watching Showtime’s wonderful series Kidding and we’ve been revisiting the brilliant Breaking Bad. Do you think that any of these programmes ever appear to be continued? Nope, they do not. While Stan is better at displaying a range of shows at the top that can be scrolled left to right, the focus is still on suggested content.

ABC iView and SBS On Demand

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) offer two fantastic apps that offer live (free-to-air) streaming and a range of Australian and foreign-language content. While both apps present a similar top-row function to Stan of swiping through titles, the format of the thumbnails is different, so it’s impossible to see the title of each show unless it’s written within the title or you select it and the caption appears beneath the image.

Extra Annoying: YouTube, Netflix and Disney+

In the past, I have had YouTube, Netflix and Disney+ on my Home screen’s top row. I eventually became too frustrated to have them there, as unlike the services listed above, YouTube and Disney+ show absolutely nothing except for their own logos. That’s right: over half of my TV is taken up by nothing but useless decoration. These companies are swimming in money and are either unwilling or unable (or both) to provide a better user experience.

In addition, the apps themselves contain interfaces that are completely inconsistent with the rest of the system, with different layouts, menus and even speed/behaviour when it comes to swiping.

So, What’s Next?

I certainly don’t blame entirely Apple for this, even though its own TV app is a part of the problem. A major factor of running a platform like tvOS is working with different services and media companies; there are many people to keep happy.

Furthermore, I understand and am willing to reflect on my own bias as an Apple product user: in line with the general Apple ethos, I believe that services and applications should adapt their own interfaces to suit the platforms on which they run. This is problematic for apps such as YouTube, Disney+ and Netflix in particular, which implement user interfaces that are universal and adaptable across various smart TV platforms. Take the Apple Music app on Google Play, for example: it doesn’t show an iOS interface, it shows a layout that is adapted for Google’s system.

We’re left with a mess of different app experiences and layouts and inconsistent ways to find what we need—I didn’t even get to Amazon Prime Video, which I deleted as it is the worst of all. Not everyone wants to talk to their TV remote or submit entirely to an app like TV to find content; some people just want to navigate a clear and accessible menu between services.

To remedy this, Apple should ideally push third-parties to offer more customised, user-friendly interfaces that are consistent with their own design language. It’s also in third parties’ interest to do this, as it will lead to greater customer satisfaction and accessibility, and they should also put the same effort into others’ platforms, whether for a Roku box or a Samsung smart TV.

I really enjoy having Apple TV as my main portal to television content and believe that it is a worthwhile premium experience, with many redeeming features; it just needs a bit of extra polish and effort from third parties to achieve its full potential.

PhD Journal Entry 9: For the Rest of Us?

The most enjoyable aspect of my PhD research so far has been the discovery of myriad different perspectives on the history of technology, written by a range of media ecologists.

Occasionally, in such reading, I have discovered a study or views that challenge my preconceived ideas or in one particular recent case, have even challenged my identity. I experienced exactly this while reading a 2002 article titled The Development of Graphical User Interfaces and their Influence on the Future of Human-Computer Interaction, written by Susan Barnes.

In this journal article, Barnes (2002) explains that the realisation of the graphical user interface (GUI)—upon which all desktop computers (and subsequent mobile devices) are based—was the result of four distinct stages of development: (1) the ‘ideals-driven’ stage; (2) the ‘play-driven’ stage; (3) the ‘product-driven’ stage; and (4) the ‘market-driven’ stage. To explain this further, Barnes (2002, p. 81) outlines the history more specifically:

In the first stage, Douglas Engelbart conceived certain ideas about how people should ideally interact with computers and he developed computer systems that incorporated those ideals. The resulting technology was next expanded and elaborated, in the play-driven stage of development, by Alan Kay and his fellow researchers at Xerox PARC. In the third stage, the PARC prototypes were later turned into commercial products by Apple Computer. Finally, in the market-driven stage, Apple, IBM, and Microsoft started competing with each other in the development of GUI technology in hopes of dominating the enormous technology marketplace.

It is the product-driven stage to which many Apple fans would cling, as the narrative tells us that Apple refined and popularised this concept for accessible (indirect) computer interaction with a mouse.

As an Apple fan from early childhood—growing up with a Mac—the philosophy and brand of the company has long been a part of my identity. I accept and respect the advantages of other PC brands and vendors but much prefer what Apple offers. This quote from Barne’s (2002, p. 88) article seems to justify this achievement:

The Macintosh was the bridge into the fourth stage of development, the market-driven stage. Bill Gates took Macintosh’s Desktop Finder interface and with minor modifications marketed it as Microsoft Windows.

That is, until I read further into the article and discovered the following section, which explains how the development of the graphical interface and its grander purpose at Xerox PARC was cut short (Barnes, 2002, p. 90):

…the results of this study suggest that, a pivotal moment in the history of graphical interfaces was Jobs’s decision to apply the visual screen elements to Apple computers without the underlying programming language. Jobs’s intention was primarily to sell computers, and in the interest of that objective he largely ignored the social and cognitive ideals underlying the earlier designs. Today, Jobs’s decision can be viewed as a historical turning point that created paradoxical situations for the future development of GUI development.

When the original Macintosh was released in 1984, it was hailed as the computer ‘for the rest of us’. It was supposed to be intuitive and more accessible to a wider range of people than early command-line-driven computers were. For those who remember, IBM was the enemy at the time. With Barnes’s (2002) study and assessment of Apple’s role, she challenges this history (or myth, if you prefer), by saying that Apple essentially cut the development of the GUI short.

I was already aware of the story of Jobs’s visit to Xerox PARC and adoption of the GUI idea, however I was unaware of this approach to the story. I had always viewed the release of (then) Mac OS as the ultimate popularisation of accessible computing, rather than the inhibitor to a wondrous future of true digital and technological literacy.

Instead, Barnes (2002) essentially argues that by releasing a personal computer in the form of an easy all-in-one appliance, Apple completely closed the platform to investigation and comprehension by users through education about how to program properly, thus creating what Innis would call a ‘monopoly of knowledge’ with a business and profit-driven intention. In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, media ecologist Neil Postman (1993, p. 3) defines Innis’s term: ‘…those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence‘.

Ultimately, by making it easy to use, Apple stopped people (other than programmers/developers) from ever really learning how a computer works. As an enthusiastic user who isn’t a programmer, I would fall into this category and of course, I pay handsomely for Apple stuff.

This is quite the challenge to my entire idea of Apple’s role in modern computing. I have long acknowledged the company’s tendency to prefer more closed, all-in-one systems and consumer electronics, however I never saw Apple’s legacy as one that is negative or deliberately limiting. As Barnes (2002) puts it, Jobs (as more of a sales guy) was apparently unable to comprehend anything beyond the visual, hence the focus on iconography and desire to dumb things down for the average user.

While I am happy to remain open to this more complex idea of Apple’s role in the history of the GUI (along with Microsoft’s, which is also blamed), I do believe that there is a somewhat utopian—if not slightly elitist—element to Barnes’s (2002) argument. In his book The Story of Utopias, Mumford (1962, p. 1) defines the word utopia as the precursor to a discussion of broader society’s idealism and ideas of what it means to live a good life:

The word utopia stands in common usage for the ultimate in human folly or human hope—vain dreams of perfection in a Never-Never Land or rational efforts to remake man’s environment and his institutions and even his erring nature, so as to enrich the possibilities of the common life. Sir Thomas More, the coiner of the word, was aware of both implications… he explained that utopia might refer either to the Greek “eutopia,” which means the good place, or to “outopia,” which means no place.

I can’t help but feel that although Apple and Microsoft might have doomed the broader masses to never attaining the full knowledge of computer programming, the idea that the entire global community would be educated to the point of expert computer programming seems very hopeful and utopian. As we can see today, even with ‘dumbed-down’ GUIs and product designs, many from older generations who grew up alongside or worked during the development of computers and the Internet still struggle to navigate apps and operating systems. The view of modern computing as unnecessarily stripped back and made to be less intelligent sounds like a mildly elitist view of the entire way that people enjoy using computers today. One can be somewhat hands-off. Indeed, the way that Apple and Microsoft ended up designing such products empowered people who were most likely never going to be interested in programming the first place.

I believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sure, Apple took the idea of the GUI and potentially limited its development as a more powerful, mainstream programmer’s tool, however it also gave people the chance to work and create art without the need to become a programmer.

It is easy to criticise people’s and companies’ roles throughout history and as a massive influence on the global community, corporations like Apple should never be immune to scrutiny. As I delve deeper into my research on podcasting, which is a result of my Apple fandom, I need to remain open to views that challenge my preconceptions of how technology works, how it has been developed and how it affects people in ways both big and small. My views on what constitutes things like computing, media consumption and podcasting in general may not align with others’.

References

  • Barnes, S.B., 2002, ‘The Development of Graphical User Interfaces and their Influence on the Future of Human-Computer Interaction’, in Explorations in Media Ecology, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 81–95.
  • Image credit: MacRumors (2019)
  • Mumford, L., 1962, The Story of Utopias, Viking Press.
  • Postman, N., 1993, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Vintage Books, New York.

App Review: Front and Center + SwitchGlass

Every once in a while, a revolutionary app comes along that changes everything. Well this time, for me, it has been two different (and seemingly very simple) apps that work together in perfect harmony. Developed by John Siracusa of Accidental Tech Podcast (ATP), these two great apps are called Front and Center and SwitchGlass. To be clear, the text that follows is not a sponsored review; I only wish to share my honest personal experience and view of each app, as I’ve really come to enjoy both of them.

Revealed respectively on ATP episodes no. 360 and no. 365, each app restores a key feature of the now defunct 32-bit app DragThing, which functioned as an organisational tool and app switcher in earlier versions of Mac OS / Mac OS X / macOS and which went beyond the standard Dock. Siracusa shared that while he has been able to adapt many of his computer habits during DragThing’s absence, he has continued to miss two key features, namely: (1) the Classic Mac OS behaviour of clicking on a single window of an app and having all associated windows of that app come to the front as well; and (2) having a dedicated, on-screen app switcher that one can click with a mouse cursor, rather than relying on the command-tab app switcher or other navigational features.

Both of these functions may sound incredibly specific and obscure and Siracusa has even been so blunt as to discourage people from purchasing his apps from the Mac App Store, as they are particular to his computing preferences.

Listening to both ATP episodes, I was curious to try the apps to see if they would fit how I work. After purchasing both and trying them with normal daily use of my Mac, I’d like to share further details of my experience below.

Front and Center (AU$7.99)

As already stated, Front and Center’s entire purpose is to restore the classic behaviour of bringing all app windows to the front when clicking on only one of the windows belonging to that app, in instances when more than one window is open for that app. For example, if you are running an app like iA Writer with multiple document windows open (as I do) and you click on just one of those windows while it is behind another app, all iA Writer windows will leap to the front. This is the default behaviour, with the option of shift-clicking to match the usual setting of having only individual windows come to the front.

As far as running Front and Center goes, there is no main app window with which to interact; it is purely a clicking behaviour. Siracusa has, however, created a very thoughtful and well-designed preference window that enables the user to customise the function, switching between ‘Classic’ and ‘Modern’ options, as well as the choice to show or hide the app’s icon in the Dock. I love the attention to detail in this simple window and the option to hide the icon is fantastic, as there is no need to increase visual clutter on the screen. With the process essentially invisible, this behaviour becomes the new norm. You can view the preference window below, with my current options selected.

Indeed, having these settings activated I can now see why Siracusa was unable (or just unwilling) to adjust his behaviour. Clicking on a window and expecting all the others to come to the front just makes sense. If I’m editing a document and wishing to draw text from others that I have open, it seems right that everything should follow it, rather than having to fish around for the other windows, drag things around and just create further mess on the desktop.

SwitchGlass (AU$7.99)

The idea of SwitchGlass may seem odd; why on Earth would I need a visible app switcher when I already have the Dock and additional features such as command-tab and Mission Control to alternate between windows? It certainly didn’t click for me at first. Looking at the new app switcher that was sitting on my screen, it seemed to be further visual clutter, until I realised that it could rectify a long-standing issue that I had with launching and navigating between apps on my Mac. Stay with me here.

For many years, I have oscillated between having only very few apps in my Dock to having way too many there. Quite often, I’ve settled on only having a few so that I found it easier to identify and click on only my most crucial and frequently-used apps. The issue with this, however, is that I’ve had to go to Launchpad (which I’ve never really liked or wished to organise) or open Spotlight to search for an app that isn’t in my Dock. The Home Screen (on which Launchpad is based) makes sense on iPad and Spotlight is great for opening apps on iPhone, however I find them just a bit too much on the Mac, where we have so much more space. Furthermore, with these less crucial apps now open in a more minimalistic Dock, their icons sit at the end of the Dock and change in order depending on when I open them. This is poor for consistency and recognition of icons.

With SwitchGlass, I’ve realised that I can now include as many apps as I wish in my Dock permanently—even if they’re really small—and I can use Siracusa’s new app switcher on the opposite side of my screen with larger icons to swap between running apps in a more visible and quicker fashion.

To give you a better visual idea, see a screen shot of my desktop below, with a full Dock on the left and SwitchGlass running at the top-right of the screen.

I can still use Mission Control or the command-tab switcher if I wish, however now there is something that is always available and that rests roughly where I settle my mouse cursor. I can now use the Dock for launching apps with recognisable, unchanging positions and rely on SwitchGlass to swap quickly between those that are running.

Furthermore, as is the case with Front and Center, SwitchGlass includes an even more customisable preferences window that enables you to select a precise position, alter the menu bar icon and even change the margin, padding and other dimensions of the switcher and icons. See a screen shot of my own preferences below.

Conclusion

As Siracusa has stated repeatedly, these apps are not for everyone. I have certainly had to change my own long-held habits… but I’m glad that I did.

When it comes to Front and Center, it simply feels natural to have all windows spring to the front. As a kid, I used Classic Mac OS in the 1990s but did not remember this behaviour as the years went on, as my brain had been reset to the general defaults of the following Mac OS X design and user interface.

Regarding SwitchGlass, I’m simply excited to have a really useful tool permanently on my desktop that makes my computing experience quicker. I’m dragging windows around less and searching less for the apps that I want to launch.

Apple’s desktop operating system still offers a level of customisation that many users enjoy and I hope that the company pays attention to the efforts of devoted third-party developers, whether newer to the development game like Siracusa or veterans such as James Thomson, whose now defunct DragThing is obviously still missed by numerous users. I’m a very enthusiastic user of iOS, however the possibility and availability of tools like these are a testament to the continuing power and versatility of the Mac as a platform.

You can find Front and Center and SwitchGlass on the Mac App Store or learn more at Siracusa’s site, Hypercritical. Give them a try!

(As a final note, I recall that Siracusa enjoys star ratings, so both apps receive five stars.)

Image credit for icons: John Siracusa at Hypercritical

Restoring a Magical Piece of Glass

The year 2020 is the tenth anniversary of iPad and there have been many articles, podcasts and videos that all offer their own take on the success and influence of the device. Naturally, I thought that I should throw one in as well, albeit a bit later than the others.

Essentially, most commentators fall into one of either two camps: (1) iPad is a roaring sales success that has ushered in the ‘post-PC era’—see my earlier post or podcast on this general topic; or (2) it has fallen short of its original potential, with a confusing multitasking interface and a less-than-stellar range of iPad-specific apps.

There is merit to both of these views and on the first one, John Gruber and Ben Thompson spoke at length during a recent episode of The Talk Show about their disappointment with the platform. I agree with much of what they had to say; things could be much more further along and there is a feeling that the device hasn’t lived up to its potential.

On Relay FM’s Upgrade, Jason Snell and Make Hurley have been critical of the device but bring a healthy dose of enthusiasm as much more regular iPad users. Check out episode #282 ‘iPad at 10’ for more. Nowadays I use my iPad regularly for blogging, research, sketching and podcasting, so I tend to relate to Snell and Hurley a bit more when it comes to the ease of navigating the iPadOS interface. As others have said, however, do we find something easy to use because it is in fact intuitive by design… or is it simply familiar because (as fans) we invest the time in learning the interface?

Most of all, I have been intrigued by the discussion of what makes an approachable and engaging UI. During the aforementioned episode of The Talk Show, I really related to Thompson’s point about the iPad being a magical piece of glass that transforms into a range of different tools. Most notably, he spoke about the demo of GarageBand for iOS at the iPad 2 launch back in 2011. It didn’t just show a small window with piano keys like on the Mac; it became a piano. Direct manipulation with a finger opens up uses and possibilities that just aren’t possible with a mouse.

Amongst all of this, I was reminded to two intriguing UI experiences from the early days of iPad: the first of which facilitated a novel method of navigating content; and the second of which transformed the display in a whimsical and nostalgic way.

The first is the original Twitter app for iPad. Back in the day, Twitter had a fun interface on the device, which included a series of horizontally-scrolling, hierarchical columns that linked threads and topics together. As you tapped on a tweet or link, it would expand to the right and you could easily swipe between levels or dismiss columns to navigate conversations. While totally unlike anything on the Mac in its design and layout, this app applied the Mac’s spirit of a truly intuitive, enjoyable user experience, but for touch instead. The order of conversations was not only indicated by the left-to-right layout, but also by the use of shadowing. Below is my own saved screenshot of the app from my third-generation iPad, back in 2012.

Twitter’s current iPad app is an utter disappointment… simply a blown-up version of its iPhone counterpart. These days, I use Twitterrific by The Iconfactory instead, however I retain the official app in a folder for the support of instant DM notifications, which was dropped in the APIs for third parties.

The second app is the initial version of the Podcasts app, which is perhaps the greatest example of Apple’s love for skeuomorphism under Steve Jobs (apart from ol’ leather-bound Calendar app in Mac OS X Lion). It showed a gigantic tape reel, which was inspired by the Braun TG 60 Tape Recorder by Dieter Rams. Below is my own saved screenshot of the app.

Although this interface did not add any practical functionality, it totally involved the user and felt delightful. It transformed this piece of glass into an approachable, nostalgic interface that related to the app’s focus on enjoying audio.

I’m no UI designer but I like to think that I have a reasonably good idea of what constitutes ease of use and good taste. Skeuomorphism is not necessarily the best approach these days, particularly as people have become more comfortable with touch interfaces, however the depth, tactility and whimsy that come with it are things that could continue to be reinjected into modern iPadOS.

Moving on to the topic of multitasking, I was really impressed with a recent effort by Twitter friend Ian Williamson (@tuckerjj), who used Keynote to develop a more approachable, logical way of using multiple apps in iPadOS, which doesn’t have floating windows.

My favourite thing about it is this: his concept does not break the recently established system that Apple developed; it simply refocuses the whole process around the Home indicator, which has seen great praise and adoption as a visual affordance on iPhones X and later. This has enormous potential benefits, as it would be easy to adapt current iPadOS apps that use multitasking, become more approachable to more casual users and would be an easy relearning curve for current ‘power users’. Check out his concept video below… Apple should definitely be paying attention ideas like this.

I have and always will be a fan of the Mac, however I love the way that iPad has enabled me to compute more comfortably—away from a desk. It really absorbs you in a way that no other computer can, with and without a keyboard.

With iPadOS now the official name of a differentiated software product, I’m extremely optimistic about the platform’s future and believe that Apple can correct the product’s course. The magic of this piece of portable glass can be restored.

Feature image source: Apple (2012)

Deborah Rutter on ‘Recode Decode’ with Kara Swisher

The latest episode of Recode Decode includes a fantastic interview with Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in the United States.

I had no idea about the Kennedy Center prior to listening to this but I found it absolutely riveting. On the show, Swisher asks Rutter not only about the centre’s history, but also about her varied career and the ways in which she believes that technology can enrich the performing arts. Later in the episode, they discuss the centre’s new collection of free, ‘immersive learning spaces’, called REACH, which is a great example of technology and the performing arts working together to engage diverse audiences.

This was a stand-out line for me, spoken by Rutter:

Technology is a way for you to figure out what you want to do with your primary activity. Don’t try and build technology for technology’s sake but to advance what you want to do with whatever your art form is.

As someone who loves digital devices, I can really relate to this. I don’t want my social accounts and computers to rule me; I want to use them in a way that helps me to be creative and engage with others.

Check out the episode.