Innovation & Design

iThinking About iPods


The iPod has become the equivalent of a Swiss Army knife for managing music and more. While its visual wizardry is impressive, it can also be confusing

Soon after the introduction of the new, iPhone-inspired iPod nano, I visited my local Apple (AAPL) store. There I saw a line of customers definitely not enjoying Apple's typical feel-good experience. They were there to collect Steve Jobs' announced but not-yet-released iPhone rebate and they were irate. The staff was literally hiding behind the store's genius bar to avoid their wrath. As I took in the queue snaking its way to the register I noticed an iPod display that was both the same, and different.

The box was small, thin, and glowing—like previous iPod packaging. But the iPod nano itself had gotten fleshier; it had gone from Twiggy to J-Lo. I picked it up to look more closely for other changes, and with a flick of the thumbwheel I noted the interface updates. For instance, the subtle zooming effect of album covers to the right of the album selection list, or images that jump in coordinated, Ninja-like fashion. With its flowing graphic treatments and assorted "look at me" visual acrobatics, my original nano suddenly seemed so 2006.

In my book, The Laws of Simplicity, I define a few key attributes of simplicity in design, and include a series of laws for designers and business people to consider when coming up with new product offerings. One of these laws concerns time: When you feel like you're not wasting time while performing some task, you may also feel that the task is simpler.

The New ROI: Return on Interaction

Designers can tackle the time challenge in two different ways: by making the wait shorter or by making the wait more enjoyable. In either case, the solution must boost the instant gratification by making the task more instantaneous, on the one hand, and delivering "gratification" a thousand times the value of the time used. I like to think of this in terms of ROI: return on interaction.

With the new iPod nano—or any MP3-playing device, for that matter—ROI is increasing in importance. That's because the challenge is no longer to increase the speed of the bits as they lift off the internal disk or RAM and transform into the music delivered to your ears. The technology works perfectly, with delays measured in microseconds. Rather, the challenge is to design the entire experience of delivery.

Which brings me back to Apple's new iPod interface, which allows the owner to savor the time spent using it. With a smooth dissolving wipe of the screen or a graceful rotation of a photo, its design sophistication melts on your visual taste buds. In car terms, it's heated leather seats as opposed to damp canvas coverings.

Too Many Features Can Be Distracting

Yet in adding features to improve the user's experience, there is a danger—people want more of a good thing: more colorful transitions, more icons that flip back and forth, and more options that can fulfill every possible fantasy. If we follow this trajectory to its seemingly inevitable conclusion, we could find ourselves asking a simple question of our iPod: "So, how do I play a song on this thing?" Just think of today's mobile phones, which have "evolved" to the point that it's not obvious how to make a phone call.

Visual wizardry and sophisticated interactive features are wonderful, but can ultimately be confusing. Add too many functions to an already terrific device and you might forget why you bought it in the first place. Within a short time, the iPod has become the equivalent of a Swiss Army knife for managing music, contacts, calendars, photos, and more. Add to this the graphical processing power of a desktop, and you literally have a personal computer squeezed into your pocket. And if you think your desktop system is confusing to manage, shrinking it to the size of a bar of soap isn't going to make it any easier.

But there is great hope in the new iPod's design—its touch interface, which follows the iPhone's forward leap of two-finger gestures that allow you to zoom in or out. While your desktop has a 40-year-old mouse technology that only lets you point at a single place on the computer's skin at a time, multitouch enables you to touch two points at a single time (three-, four-, and five-finger capability is not far away). This simple interface innovation opens a wide expanse of possibilities to reinvent how we directly and indirectly touch data on the computer screen. And by version 2.0, the multitouch interface paradigm will have shed its current limitations in text editing (as seen in the iPhone).

Now we can hope to see the influence of multitouch interfaces on larger desktop computer systems. I want to interact with my iMac by touch just as I can with the iPhone and iPod. I want the same higher return on interaction. In the meantime, I'm headed back to the Apple store to pick up my iPhone rebate.

John Maeda is associate director of research and Allen Professor of Media Arts Sciences at the MIT Media Lab. He's currently designing a luxury case for the Apple iPhone, which will be available this winter from Sawaya Moroni.

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