5 +1 Reasons Why App Store Sucks

The App Store is the benchmark all the other mobile application stores are compared against. Nobody’s perfect, though – after several years of operation, it’s still ridden by some problems and weird design decisions. These are my pet peeves.

1. You need Wi-Fi to buy large applications

too large

It’s understandable that Apple doesn’t want to let you download the largest apps over cellular connection. However, the 20 MB limit is rather low and what’s worse the feature has been implemented poorly.

There’s no way of knowing beforehand whether the app can be downloaded – let alone the ability to show only the apps that are available over cellular connection. What is more, once you try to download something too large, it’s not remembered anyway when you later connect to to Wi-Fi or use the App Store on iTunes. Business wise, it’s weird Apple doesn’t want to help you remember and buy an app that you already once tried to buy.

2. Reloading something you’ve already bought

free update

Once you’ve purchased an app you can always download it for free again later on. This is great, or rather the only acceptable way of doing things nowadays (Ahem, iTunes Store).

Then again, it’s weird that the user interface doesn’t anyhow inform the user that the current application has been already bought and can be downloaded for free. It’s a leap of faith to click the buy button, insert your password and hope that you get the dialog that tells that the app has been already bought. Otherwise you end up paying again.

This is especially difficult if you happen to use several iTunes accounts and can’t remember which you have used to buy the app in the first place. (This is a niche case, of course.)

3. The App Store is closed after every purchase

The App Store does a good job with solving a common problem with installing applications onto mobile phones: once the users install the applications, they don’t know where to find them later on. The App Store application closes after the purchase and walks the user through the process to show exactlly where the new app is located on the home screen.

This is good for novice users but gets irritating once you try to buy several apps in a row. Certainly, it should be possible to ask the user whether he wants to exit the App Store after a purchase or continue shopping.

4. You only get the local reviews for an app

In the Finnish App Store there are many apps that don’t have any reviews even they had been reviewed in other stores. However, I have no way of reading the reviews that have been written in other countries.

5. Lack of real browser-based App Store for the desktop

itunes

If you wan’t to browse the store on your computer, you need to use iTunes. I have nothing against iTunes per se – I think it’s a nice media player application – but as a store browser it’s certainly worse than Safari or other web browsers. Things like the lack of tabs or the resize button that instead of resizing my browser window turns my store window into a mini-player drive me crazy every time.

Nowadays there exists the itunes.apple.com website that lets you view the App Store apps [iTunes link] also in your browser. However, it’s not designed for browsing. Whenever you click a link there, the it’s opened in iTunes. What is more, when you click a link that opens an app’s page on itunes.apple.com the iTunes app is still opened in the background. (Fortunately there’s a Safari extension that stops this madness: NoMoreiTunes)

The Buy button is hidden

buy

This is not an actual problem but rather a compromise. The screen area on the iPhone is so limited that Apple has decided to combine the price information and the Buy button. Clicking the price once reveals the buy button, doubling as a confirmation for accidental pushes. It’s a clever idea but in practice I’ve seen many people (myself included in the beginning) lost trying to find the Buy option.

It’s interesting to notice that the same approach is used on the iPad as well even though the screen size shouln’t be an issue. It feels weird that the all important Buy button is so much smaller than the much less important Developer Web Site button.

The Cover Flow of the iPad App Store

skitched-20100909-004910.png

I was going to say that the Cover Flow of the App Store on iPad sucks but it seems that Apple has noticed this too, since it’s been removed. Now, this is promising. I hope they’ll have a look at the other problems, too.

Will iPad deliver the Origami vision?

While anxiously awaiting the Apple tablet, I took a look at the promo video of the original Origami device. Introduced in 2006 by Microsoft, it was an intriguing concept that was supposed to be something between a laptop and a phone.

What happened was what happens to the concept cars that are shown at exhibitions but never make it to production lines without losing their character. Sadly, the actual device failed to live up to the expectations set by the hype that surrounded the project. Just once when Microsoft was able to come up with a catchy name, it was watered to something like ultra mobile personal computer, UMPC. And the device was no better: David Pogue reported that he was actually able to click with it.

And you can “click the mouse” by pressing the Change Resolution button while also pressing the Menu button.

But nothing in this first crop is anything like what Bill Gates envisioned a year ago: a one-pound machine with all-day battery life and a price tag of $500 to $800. That dream, Microsoft admits, is years away.

[4 years, to be more accurate.]

My experiences weren’t any better (in Finnish).

***

Mockery aside, it’s interesting to see in hindsight that their vision was surprisingly similar to what iPad turned out to be.

YouTube - UMPC, Ultra-Mobile PC - Microsoft Origami

Downloading photos from you camera.

YouTube - Microsoft Origami

Doodling pictures.

YouTube - Microsoft Origami

Using it as a picture frame.

YouTube - Microsoft Origami

Typing with an auxiliary keyboard.

YouTube - Microsoft Origami

Playing games.

YouTube - Microsoft Origami

Using maps.

YouTube - UMPC, Ultra-Mobile PC - Microsoft Origami

And watching videos, of course.

Ironically, the only magazine shown in the video is printed on paper:

YouTube - Microsoft Origami

Recently, Microsoft has been getting attention with a concept called Courier. It takes the ideas even further and relies heavily on advanced text recognition. Let’s hope it won’t take another four years before we see something concrete along these lines.

***

Otto Berke, who led the design of Haiku tablet concept at Microsoft, has also commented on the iPad. He thinks that it is unsurprising as a product but gives Apple credit for the execution.

With the 7”-display-based Haiku/Origami, I aimed for greater mobility in the tradeoff between mobility and display real estate.

Master’s Thesis: Toward Strategic Usability

It seems there’s going to be some delay before I proceed to printing my thesis, so I might as well try to get rid of the mistakes. Even though the text is absolutely fascinating, I’m somewhat fed up with reading through it over and over. If somebody decides to have a look, I’d be happy to hear about the oddities encountered, as I might be able to still fix them. (I just noticed that there is something weird going on with the page numbering, so that does not need to be reported.)

It sure was interesting to find out that I have a habit of writing the word were as where. What is more, I seem to love the phrase what is more. When it comes to phrases to avoid, that is another one I have been cleaning out.

The PDF is created using the most compact settings that Pages provides but the document weighs 3,2 megs nevertheless.

Toward strategic usability – user knowledge as a basis for new service development [PDF] [Edit: the link now points to a corrected version]

Toward strategic usability – user knowledge as a basis for new service development

Said about the thesis

Pietilä’s overview on the concepts of user-centered design is broad for master’s thesis. It clearly indicates Pietilä’s broad knowledge on the topic. This is also evident when considering the breadth of the source material: the thesis has over hundred references which is an amount that is often expected from upper level theses – especially licentiate theses.

Professor Marko Nieminen, supervisor

 The thesis is also a very thorough examination of the topic. There are a noteworthy number of references used in the thesis. The thesis includes literatures on usability, user/human centered design, user experience, innovation and so on. Also the empirical part is rather strong: 13 interviews and a case study involving design work in practice have been carried out. Clearly, a lot of effort has been put into the thesis.

The language of the thesis is understandable and pleasurable to read, even though it has been written in English. The thesis shows that the researcher is well familiar with the topic. The way topics are addressed in very clear and thorough.

Overall rating: 4
Interestedness of the topic: 5
Quality of the work: 5

Final standing: ”top 5”

Anonymous SIGCHI Finland thesis competition judge.

Full screen Party Shuffle in iTunes

It seems that Apple constantly makes it difficult to queue songs on the fly, meaning that users can add songs to the playlist without interfering with the song currently playing. It took a long time before such a feature was even included in either iTunes of iPod and the implementations are satisfactory at best.

The iTunes’ take on the issue is the so called Party Shuffle feature. One item on the sidebar acts as the party shuffle playlist, where people can insert songs by dragging them from the library. The problem is that the feature is hardly intuitive for the users who have not seen it before. Dragging can also be considered tedious by some but no keyboard shortcut is provided. It is illustrative that the feature is so hard to figure out that Apple has decided to explain its usage with an OK dialog.

Party List Dialog

In a party context it is common that guests want to add their favorite songs to the playlist but I have never seen it happen that users would respect the Party Shuffle mode and act accordingly. What usually happens is that people end up using the library for browsing the songs and either accidentally or purposefully double-click them, ending the song currently playing.

Nowadays iTunes also boasts a full screen Cover Flow view which looks great but is rather useless. Certainly, it would be great to have a kiosk-like full screen interface that makes the task of managing songs easy for novices and looks great while doing it. The current full screen view lets one pick a song but does not provide any means of doing this without ending the one currently playing. I spent some time with Keynote and put together a little mock-up that demonstrates how the full screen view could be made more useful by adding a queue function akin to the Party Shuffle. The flipping CD covers are borrowed from the iPhone and do not necessarily directly fit to a mouse-driven environment.

(It seems that YouTube somewhat messed up the synchronization of audio and video)

This video only shows how one can manually manage the playlist. Shoud the list become empty, it could automatically be filled, like the current Party Shuffle does. A search function would be helpful, too, but this has not been done in the video. Moreover, it would be useful to show the titles of the songs on the playlist when hovering on the album covers with the mouse but this has not been implemented due to the limitations of Keynote. It can be argued that it is misleading to use album covers to represent individual songs but Apple has done this in other areas of iTunes as well as on the iPhone, so this should be well in line with the existing design decisions.

(The Cover Flow view of iPhone is equally disappointing. By its nature, it is highly suitable for going through the music collection, looking for an inspiration for the song to play but the inability to select songs without ending the currently played makes it rather unusable for this purpose. The only way that iPhone lets one add songs to playlists is through a cumbersome list, which is only sortable by the song-name.)

iPhone firmware 2.0 and radio button like check boxes

Engadget provides a hands-on with the forthcoming iPhone firmware 2.0. Among other improvements, one is now able to select several items for deletion in the Mail application.

Weirdly enough, a symbol which resembles a radio button has been chosen where the actual functionality of the widget is that of a check box. The likely reason is that throughout the iPhone, the symbols used in the lists are round-shaped but still I’d consider being consistent with conventions more important than being visually consistent with the rest of the UI.

Re: Engadget

Once a message is selected, a tick symbol appears, hinting towards check box kind of logic.

Engadget

For comparison, here are the widgets that iPhone uses when rendering web pages.

apple hig

Toward Strategic Usability

This is an attempt to summarize what I have been pondering lately:

Usability engineering is a methodology that has matured during the past couple of decades to provide solid means of creating products that are easier and more efficient to operate for different kinds of users. The results are not restricted to concrete products for the emerging field of service design demonstrates how a similar approach can be utilized when creating more abstract services. The umbrella term experience design takes into account all the aspects the users experiences when utilizing a service or a product.

The benefits of user-centred design are not restricted to the end-users, as the producer also gets its share of advantages. For instance, development costs are lower when problems are fixed earlier and support costs are reduced when users have less problems with operating the products. What is more, the perceived quality also improves the brand image. In general, traditional usability methodology is good at answering the question how to implement things in the most optimal way.

It has been demonstrated that the earlier the usability activities are introduced to the development process, the more drastic their effects are. The emerging school of strategic usability takes this to the extreme by saying that users should be studied already before deciding on developing new products. This brings usability professionals to the field earlier occupied by marketing professionals and strategic planners – to contribute to the questions of what to develop.

Meanwhile, it has been noted on the business side that modern day technologies are so complicated that the competence of the marketing departments alone are insufficient for creating truly usable products. No longer is it enough to simply listen to the customers and implement each and every feature they might request, as this only leads to featuritis, a complicated system full of features that few know how to operate and even fewer actually use.

A bridge between technical implementators and business-oriented marketing departments seems to be needed – even though the profession of usability is highly non-existent in business literacy. It has also been learned that technology alone is hardly a compelling reason to buy a product for most customers. The vast majority of people want simple total solutions to their needs. These do not come up to be without explicit design.

What is more, history shows that companies – however customer-centric – have continuously difficulties in adapting to the fundamental changes taking place in the marketplace because of so called disruptive technologies. Catering for the needs of current customers and improving their products with tactical innovations, the companies often ignore the fact that emerging technological solutions might open new possibilities for people who they have not earlier identified as potential customers.

In the end, the new technologies tend to mature enough to cater for the needs of majority of the current customers as well, forcing the unalert companies to the small high-end niche markets. Recognizing the opportunities for strategic innovations brougt by disruptive technologies involves better knowledge of the actual needs of the users and proactive actions based on this knowledge. This is where strategic usability work comes to play. Seizing these opportunities often requires closer collaboration with other companies and open innnovation; innovation freed from the chambers of in-house R&D laboratories and based on the actual user needs, not just the technologies that the company has already developed.

Unnecessary Modality in Facebook

All in all, it’s a nice idea to tell people what it means that the service remembers them when logging in. But why on earth have they implemented it modally? Now the dialog covers the Login button and the user is forced to click Okay even if she already knows the message and would like to proceed, ignoring the dialog.

Truth be told, there is a tiny area of the button visible beneath the dialog and clicking it actually works. I’m not sure whether this is an accident or a deliberate design decision, trying to solve the problem with modality. Whatever the reason, I don’t see why the dialog couldn’t be moved to right, leaving the button wholly uncovered.

Scrolling Directions Revisited

It is well known that novice users often find traditional scrollbars counterintuitive: ”How come the document moves upwards when I’m scrolling downwards?” The reason for the confusion is the faulty mental model the user has created – due to the problematic system image. When moving the scroll thumb, one does not actually move the document but the viewpoint, hence the direction is inverted.

In the case of a hand tool the direction is more intuitive. Once the document is grabbed and the hand is moved downwards, the document moves like it would in real life.

***

The other day when I was fiddling with my iPod touch and computer simultaneously, it suddenly occurred to me that the same phenomenon is demonstrated there as well. Having just scrolled a list on iPod and trying to scroll a webpage in Safari using the two finger scroll gesture, I ended up moving to the wrong direction. iPod works like the hand tool, whereas the scroll gesture mimics traditional scroll bars.

This got me thinking how this is implemented in the new MacBook Air with its new gesture-capable trackpad. As can be seen in the video, Air works like other laptops and the gesture used for flicking through photos is exactly the opposite to the one used on iPhone. In order to advance you flick from right to left on iPhone and from left to right on MacBook Air. This is the difference between the direct interaction of a touchscreen and the indirect of a trackpad.

It is worth noting, though, that when it comes to rotating photos, the mapping is direct again. When fingers are rotated clockwise, also the photo rotates clockwise. Interestingly, what feels intuitive can change so abruptly between different gestures.

Using Songs with the Alarm Clock Function of iPod touch

Maybe my new year’s resolution could be to try and write in English every now and then. Besides, I believe this might be interesting for the English-speaking audience as well. I noticed that with certain iPod speakers one is able to use actual songs as alarm tones instead of the normal beeping sounds.

Coupled with a dockable speaker set, my old iPod nano was a handy alarm clock, letting me wake up to music of my liking. As always, there were some gripes: the songs could not be selected freely, as only pre-made playlists were allowed. On-the-go playlists weren’t available either, so one had to plug the player to the computer to select the songs, which was rather tedious to do when going to sleep.

Until some firmware version, it was also common that the iPod started playing automatically in the morning even when it had been forgotten in a pocket somewhere, hence draining the battery and messing up the playcounts. I’m not sure but I believe that after an update it only started playing when there were headphones or a speaker attached to it, which mostly solved the problem.

My new iPod touch is different. It only lets me use irritating beeps as alarm tone. When played through the internal speaker, the volume is so low it hardly wakes anyone up. When the iPod is connected to speakers with the dock connector, the sound is played through the speakers but is irritating, nevertheless. Having googled around, I found out that I’m not the only one with the problem.

I discovered by accident a method which lets me use the songs as alarm tones but this likely only works with certain iPod speakers. I have a Logitech mm50 speaker set (actually Logicool because I bought it from Japan) which wakes up automatically when the iPod is set to play and also pauses the iPod when the speaker is turned off.

The trick is first to set the alarm as usual. Then set the iPod to play the wanted song and dock it to the speakers. Now, turn off the speakers. When the time of the alarm comes, the iPod wakes up and resumes playing, hence waking up the speakers – and hopefully the user, too.

You mileage may wary, I haven’t been able to test this with other speakers yet. As far as I know, iPhones are plagued with the same limitation and likely benefit from the solution, too.

Using Songs with the Alarm Clock Function of iPhone & iPod touch

Maybe my new year’s resolution could be to try and write in English every now and then. Besides, I believe this might be interesting for the English-speaking audience as well. I noticed that with certain iPod speakers one is able to use actual songs as alarm tones instead of the normal beeping sounds.

Coupled with a dockable speaker set, my old iPod nano was a handy alarm clock, letting me wake up to music of my liking. As always, there were some gripes: the songs could not be selected freely, as only pre-made playlists were allowed. On-the-go playlists weren’t available either, so one had to plug the player to the computer to select the songs, which was rather tedious to do when going to sleep.

Until some firmware version, it was also common that the iPod started playing automatically in the morning even when it had been forgotten in a pocket somewhere, hence draining the battery and messing up the playcounts. I’m not sure but I believe that after an update it only started playing when there were headphones or a speaker attached to it, which mostly solved the problem.

My new iPod touch is different. It only lets me use irritating beeps as alarm tone. When played through the internal speaker, the volume is so low it hardly wakes anyone up. When the iPod is connected to speakers with the dock connector, the sound is played through the speakers but is irritating, nevertheless. Having googled around, I found out that I’m not the only one with the problem.

I discovered by accident a method which lets me use the songs as alarm tones but this likely only works with certain iPod speakers. I have a Logitech mm50 speaker set (actually Logicool because I bought it from Japan) which wakes up automatically when the iPod is set to play and also pauses the iPod when the speaker is turned off.

ipod and logitech mm50 (the lamp is from IKEA)

The trick is first to set the alarm as usual. Then set the iPod to play the wanted song and dock it to the speakers. Now, turn off the speakers. When the time of the alarm comes, the iPod wakes up and resumes playing, hence waking up the speakers – and hopefully the user, too.

You mileage may wary, I haven’t been able to test this with other speakers yet. As far as I know, iPhones are plagued with the same limitation and likely benefit from the solution, too.