Fix This App: Podcasts

[We spend a lot of time with mobile apps. We know what we like and what we don’t—sometimes within the very same app. Each week in Fix This App, we’ll take a mobile offering that’s not without its share of flaws and try to nudge it a little closer to perfection.]

Though it will come as a surprise to those who’ve only recently discovered that a couple of podcasts thrown on to a mobile phone or music player makes a commute less tiresome, podcasts existed before Apple added them to the iTunes Store in the middle of the last decade. But it wasn’t until Apple made this move that most people started paying attention to them.

Given Apple’s position in the podcasting world, you might expect that when it decided to design an app for obtaining and playing these things, that app would be an example of exemplary design.

If it were, it wouldn’t appear under the heading Fix This App.

By way of damning with faint praise, Apple’s Podcasts isn’t a terrible app. If you’ve never experienced podcasts before and seek a gentle and fun way to be exposed to today’s most popular podcasts, easily subscribe to your favorites, and play those podcasts with a single screen tap, Podcasts is a perfectly lovely way to go about it. If you instead desire an app that puts scads of podcasts at your fingertips, gives you a lot of power over navigating through the podcasts you play, and supports subscription syncing with your other devices, Podcasts falls woefully short.

What it works on: The iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Apple provides one version that works on both the smaller iOS devices and the iPad. The functionality on the two classes of device is the same, but naturally the interface is more spread out in the iPad version.

What it does: Podcasts lives up to its name by providing you a way to browse, preview, subscribe, and download podcasts available from the iTunes Store. Though the feature is hidden, with an RSS feed in hand, you can additionally access podcasts not available from the iTunes Store. Podcasts is also a podcast player, providing playback features including half and 1.5x speed playback, a sleep timer, and rudimentary chapter navigation.

What it gets right: Perhaps the best thing about the Podcasts app is that it’s Apple’s first big effort to showcase the iTunes Store’s podcasts. Under the Old Way, podcasts were relegated to just another store tab or, in the built-in Music app, buried in the More pane. Now with a dedicated app, podcasts finally get some notice.

Designed for casual podcast listeners and those new to podcast listening, the app makes it easy to find today’s most popular podcasts. Just tap Top Stations at the bottom of the screen and use a wheel interface to select first a category—TV & Film, News & Politics, or Health, for example—and then choose a subgenre from that category—Fitness & Nutrition from the Health category, for instance. The bulk of the screen is taken up with a large thumbnail image that represents a particular podcast. To view the next one, swipe up. To explore a podcast, tap it and then tap an Info button, which causes the thumbnail to flip around so that you can view the titles of individual episodes, stream or download a specific episode, and subscribe to the podcast.

Newbies will appreciate navigating with the large wheel and viewing big thumbnails of podcast artwork.

When you begin playback, basic navigation controls are at your fingertips. With these controls you can play or pause the podcast, rewind 10 seconds, fast forward 30 seconds, and move to the next or previous podcast. To see a list of episodes, tap the track list button in the top right corner.

It’s just as easy to see the podcasts that you’ve subscribed to and downloaded. Tap the Podcasts button and there are your shows. Tap one and a list of episodes appears to the right. Within this list you can stream or download episodes. By tapping the Settings button you can choose to auto-download podcasts you’ve subscribed to as well as sort episodes by newest or oldest first.

So, again, if what you’re looking for is an easy way to discover popular podcasts and play them, Podcasts fills the bill. However…

What it gets wrong: The Podcasts app fails to be my favorite podcast app for these two reasons: It doesn’t address the needs of podcast power consumers. And in an effort to satisfy clever design themes, the app is less powerful than it could be.

I mentioned that the large thumbnail images of popular podcasts made finding such podcasts easy for beginners. For seasoned podcast listeners, however, they’re a waste of space. In order to navigate between them, you must swipe for each individual show. For those interested in eyeballing a lot of promoted podcasts, it would be far better to see multiple smaller thumbnails or a list in this view. The large artwork is pretty, but seems like a waste of valuable space.

That large thumbnail images leaves little room for other, more helpful, interface elements.

This interface inefficiency extends to two other elements. The first is the large wheel you push to move between podcast categories and subcategories. It’s attractive and perhaps helpful for newbies, but it’s a clumsy way to browse.

The second is the reel-to-reel tape recorder interface that appears when you swipe up on a playing podcast. You use this for navigation finer than what’s offered by the play controls found on the Now Playing screen. For those who recall what a tape recorder is (or who’ve read about them in their history books), it’s a nice looking interface. As the episode progresses, tape spools from the left reel to the right, indicating in a broad way how far along you are in the podcast. But that’s all they do. And in the process of doing that fairly insignificant thing, the reels take up half the screen. Surely this space could have been used for something more helpful—a chapter list, for example, or a navigation tool for quickly switching to another podcast.

That tape recorder interface is cute, but just look at all the wasted space. Kill it or reduce it and place all navigation controls on a single screen.

Speaking of chapters, while they’re supported by the app, their implementation is poor. They appear within the tape recorder interface as buttons below the timeline. Tap All Chapters and you can see each chapter as a small mark on the timeline. You can navigate between chapters by tapping a Forward or Back button that appears on either end of the timeline. (The Forward and Back buttons at the bottom of the display don’t do this. Rather, they move you between episodes.) Although the podcaster can assign titles to chapters, those titles don’t appear in the app, making it impossible to learn what a chapter contains without actually listening to it.

I understand that Apple wants to push the podcasts available from the iTunes Store, and while Podcasts lets you subscribe to podcasts that can be found elsewhere, Apple couldn’t have done a much better job of hiding this feature by asking that you enter the RSS link to those off-store podcasts in the Search field and then press the Search button. Intuitive, it’s not.

And then there’s playlists and subscription syncing. Podcasts supports neither, and it should.

How to fix it: Apple is a company that intends every step it takes. In regard to Podcasts, it may have produced an app that does exactly what the designers desired—provide casual podcast listeners a way to obtain and listen to popular programs. But it doesn’t cut it for more seasoned podcast listeners. Were I offered the option to make it more useful to those listeners I’d make these suggestions.

  1. Offer alternate views: If I’ve grown beyond the single-thumbnail browser, allow me to tap a Grid or List button that provides an overview of all the recommended podcasts. Let me get hide the selection wheel and instead view category and subcategory headings. Provide a way for me to sort those recommendations by popularity, weekly rank, yearly rank, and average length.

    I can sympathize with Apple’s desire to keep the tape recorder interface as it’s cute and provides some feedback on how far along you are in an episode, but it takes up a lot of room. Dump this interface element, and you could put basic and advanced navigation controls on the same screen and have room for speed controls and a helpful chapters menu. If Apple can’t stand doing away with some kind of tape recorder analogy, how about a smaller cassette tape or 8-track instead? (Each is a more recent development than the reel-to-reel.)
  2. Support playlists: I’ve been able to create playlists in iTunes and on my iOS devices for years. I’d like that same capability in Podcasts.
  3. Support subscription syncing: These days Apple is all about content syncing and it has the iCloud service to do the work. Third-party podcast apps such as Downcast allow you to sync subscriptions via iCloud. Apple could surely manage it as well.
  4. Open the gates: Podcasts should provide a more intuitive way to subscribe to podcasts not offered at the iTunes Store.
  5. Consider the pros: While nearly everyone who enjoys podcasts appreciates Apple’s efforts to bring new listeners to this medium, it needn’t come at the cost of forcing experienced users to wade though inefficient eye candy. No one does interface design better than Apple. The company can surely find a way to step up the interface so newbies can find their way and the savvier set not feel like they’re forced to ride with training wheels.

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