AirPause?: Nobody’s Perfect, not Even Apple

Below, a shot of AirPlay in action. (Pardon the hairy arm, but timing and metering this shot while pressing play was no easy task and didn’t seem worth repeating.)

Paused or playing? (Click to view larger image.)

On the TV screen, the play button appears while the video is playing, while in iTunes, the pause button does so.

This difference, while it may seem inconsistent for a moment, makes sense: The play icon on the TV indicates a status, while the pause button in iTunes indicates that the action to pause the video is available—and just implies as a consequence that the video must be playing. (This fact is not always obvious, since the present state of Internet service and the inconsistencies thereof can disrupt playback.)

In showing a pause button during playback—that is, in the case where an action may be taken by clicking the button—AirPlay works like YouTube, not surprisingly:

YouTube’s pause button appears during video playback.

Still, there’s something unsatisfying about the UX decision in the AirPlay case, since the TV screen’s play icon looks, well, more like a button and less like a (“mere”) status indicator. In part, the familiar positioning of the play/pause area at or very near the left-hand side of the scrub bar, again, as per conventions established for haptically actionable video controls. (I say “haptically” because the on-TV video chrome is actionable in a way; you just have to use the remote or iTunes instead of touching the TV itself.)

It’s also just a question of styling, though. The gradient and shape of the play button look a lot like the “lozenge” button Apple used for many years (and still provides in at least one arcane corner of their developer library):

The lozenge ought to look familiar.

Elsewhere in their UX universe, Apple tackles the styling with a bit more purposiveness, if a bit less panache. In DVD Player, the on-screen play icon is styled more in line with its purpose, while the pause button on the software “remote” (positioned for your viewing convenience over the redacted video image) looks like a button:

Yes, Power Yoga. Don’t you judge me.

This, it seems to me, is way, way better. The icon is translucent, which makes a big difference, and lacks the gradient and outline that make buttons look, you know, buttony.

The morals here are probably two:

  1. No matter how much thought you’ve given to a UX issue—and Apple has clearly put some effort in here—there’s always room for improvement.
  2. Sometimes, prettier design means worse UX.

The second in particular is a battle I find myself fighting on nearly every project I tackle at a large agency. I don’t think it’s the case that I should win every time; in this case, for example, I’d probably have conceded the point, had I worked on the AirPlay project. I do wish, though, that the team outside UX would more often recognize the importance of these little choices to the user’s ultimate satisfaction with a product.

(See also my curmudgeonly tirade about Apple’s recent treatment of scroll and scrub bars.)

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