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.)

Classic #fux: The New Netflix App for XBox

On the happy occasion of a bug fix by way of which my list of recently watched titles reappeared in the new Netflix app for XBox, I unleashed a tirade on Twitter against the rest of what’s wrong with the app, namely, a handful of new features. I’ve adapted my rant for the blog, added a useful photo, and corrected one error I note below.

So, for starters, the new Netflix for XBox autoplays the next episode of a TV show, for example, instead of just showing you the list or the title’s info screen and letting you pick what (and when) to play. It’s possible I’ll get used to this, but I don’t feel at that stage like I’ve asked the system to play anything, so it’s annoying and obtrusive and hides what I really want, which is a list of episodes. Also, it’s wrong about my current episode and cue point more than half the time, where the previous app did land me on the appropriate episode almost 100% of the time. So get that sorted and maybe we can talk.

The inability to see an info screen without the app autoplaying means that to get more info about a title, you have to select it in the browse view and then just sit and wait for more info to scroll up, on the timeline Netflix determined was most useful for us all. This is a classic example of what I’ve called #fux (“F___ You” + “user experience”): The app punishes your simple desire to learn more about a title by making you sit and wait or making you start watching. I wonder if Netflix gets payed for every second of video you play.

Notice how much more difficult it is to see the category titles than in the old version (linked to in the paragraph at left). And look how far the still can be from my only reminder of the title it’s from.

As for the new Netflix App’s browse view itself:  The new “Let’s show a million movies so you all get a sense of our awesome selection” layout (see the conclusion of this post for more on that rationale), pictured at right, means that you can only see the titles of three browsing categories at a time. The old layout allowed you to see five, but more importantly, the categories seemed easier to navigate because they were immediately adjacent to one another, not separated by rows of images. In fact, in the new Netflix app, the category titles are superimposed on those images (or, in the uppermost category’s case, well washed out into the strong red background—as pictured at right). Their scannability in the old version made them much easier to use.

(In a Tweet, I had incorrectly suggested that you could see “eight or ten” categories at a time. I take this factual inaccuracy as a faithful reflection of my subjective experience of the difference between the two apps in terms of ease-of-use.)

Finally, it’s a minor gripe, but when I’ve landed on a certain title in the browse view, after about three seconds, the image of the cover is replaced by a seemingly random still from the title (as pictured above, like that will somehow help me make my decision about whether to watch. Instead, it just makes it harder to to get a reminder of which title I’m looking at, because of the spatial separation between the still and the name of the title (if you’ll pardon an awkward phrase). The stills are also sort of aggressively less engaging than the covers—which have been designed and tested, it’s worth saying, to get your attention and get the right people watching the right content. It’s a useless, counterproductive “feature”—and a spoiler risk—that I can’t believe somebody at Netflix green-lit.

And I guess that’s my point. I know I’m outside the target audience for autoplay (though I wonder if there really is one in this case), but this new layout—who does it serve? In his announcement of the new app on the Netflix Blog, Director of Product Innovation Chris Jaffe writes, “You really get a sense [from the new layout] of the depth of movies and TV shows available with a simple and elegant interface optimized for TV.” That rationale is so clearly driven not by user-experience but, defensively, by the critique that Netflix’s Watch Instantly library is mediocre. Stuffing a bunch of extra images down users’ throats is really a self-defeating measure, if the idea is to portray Netflix’s online streaming as a higher-quality service than current perceptions would have it.

Isolating Facebook for Privacy

Based on lots of chatter about this on Facebook and on the sudden zombie-like reemergence of passive sharing in my Feed, I thought I’d share some basic steps to isolate Facebook completely from the rest of your browsing experience. There are other ways (using incognito / private browsing mode, e.g.), but this strikes me as easiest.

Why might you want to do this?

  • to avoid passive sharing
  • to make absolutely sure Facebook apps don’t have access to your everyday browser usage
  • to stick it to the Dark Arts people at Facebook by rendering their tracking cookie useless
  • for other reasons of both sensible and tinfoil-hat varieties

Disadvantages? Sure. Forget using the super-convenient “Log in with Facebook” functionality that many sites are offering these days. Also, a bit of user-interface overhead in having to switch back and forth between two different programs to look at links people post on Facebook, for example.


  1. Download and launch a program for creating site-specific browsers (SSBs).
    • On the Mac, your choices are pretty much Fluid or Prism, as far as I know. If you use Safari as your Mac’s main browser, then either use Prism or shell out $5 for the premium version of Fluid. (Maybe some savvy PC user can chime in about Windows options.)
  2. Follow the prompts to create a new SSB for
  3. Launch the new SSB and configure it to redirect all URLs outside * back to your main browser.
  4. In your main browser, clear all cookies that say “facebook” or “fb.”
  5. Never log in to Facebook from your main browser again.

Note to smartphone users: If you log in to Facebook on your phone’s browser, you undermine the total isolation of this approach.

Any questions, please leave ’em in the comments below so other folks can benefit from them. I’ll do my best to respond quickly.

Go with the Flo: What Good Customer Service Looks Like

Scooter, awash.
Scooter, interrupted.

I just submitted the long, happy note below as part of a survey in response to my having filed an insurance claim on my scooter, ruined in a flash flood. I’ve spent enough time whining about lousy service on Facebook that I thought it would be worth posting my praise for Progressive just for the sake of balance.

As I reread my response to the survey, though, I noticed that it reveals quite a bit about how good customer service looks. In particular, Progressive seems to have anticipated several my likely pain points as a customer and, like Icy Hot, applied (figurative) ointments to relax them away.

In what follows, I discuss a few of these tactics in terms of how I imagine it would be to deal with Flo, the famously helpful character in Progressive’s advertising of the last few years.

Flo wouldn’t act like she was selling used cars.

I mention below that I expected the kind of service relationship one has with a used car salesman, antagonistic just below the surface and fraught with mutual suspicion. Conversations with friends about having to file a claim revealed they had the same expectations, some based on past experiences. Instead, though, each of the handful of people I spoke with took careful steps to disarm what cynicism I came to them with.

For example, the claims adjuster explained why he was asking me certain questions that might otherwise have seemed odd, like whether there was any damage to the scooter before the flood. He told me he was asking not in order to reduce any potential coverage amount but to help determine an initial likelihood that the scooter would be written off as a total loss, which he and I both suspected based on the circumstances. The result of his explanation was to set me at ease—and frankly, given his patient demeanor and proficiency as a speaker, he might have seen the same result even if he had been telling me my coverage might be reduced.

The point was that the explanation and the professionalism made me feel like I was in an honest service relationship with somebody who wanted a fair outcome on both sides, like I did. And that’s as it should be: Given a well-run insurance company, there should be no need to inflate margins using scare tactics and little lies the way used car dealers so often do.

Flo would be flexible, not a stickler.

According to the rules, the adjuster should’ve had me call the shop and release my scooter to Progressive, and then had the bike transported to their own casualty center for inspection. But in this case, my adjuster saw the situation for what it was:

"Fishbowl Bike"
At the shop, they called it “Fishbowl Bike.”
  1. My scooter had been fully submerged for perhaps 30 minutes. (See photo at right, from about three weeks after the fact.)
  2. You can’t submerge a scooter for perhaps 30 minutes and expect to fix it for less than the resale value of the bike.
  3. I had sent my scooter to a shop that the claims adjuster had dealt with before.

Given these facts, you might think a reasonable course of action would be to just send a rep—any rep—to the shop next time he or she was in the neighborhood. And that’s exactly what my adjuster did.

Sticking to the rules would’ve meant not only extra hassle for me and the shop, but also laying out extra cash for towing and inspection (because the inspector would be starting from scratch, instead of having a mechanic already familiar with the problem walk him or her through it).

At a worse company, I’m sure, my adjuster would’ve had to stick to the rules. But Progressive, it seems, trusted him to make the judgement call. I’m glad they did.

Flo would know everything.

The single word “knowledgable” in my note below actually carries more weight than I let on. I’d expected having to go over the details of what happened again and again, each time answering the same lame questions. (“So wait: There was a flood on a hill?” “Dammit, no. There was a flood in Squirrel Hill.”) I remember once having to explain the precise manner in which my Internet connection would periodically drop to five separate Comcast employees in three days. And it’s almost always like that, right?

Not with Progressive, of course. Once I had told the claims rep the story, it was as though that information had spread, as with The Borg, to every corner of the organization. I spoke with three more people about the situation and each of them knew everything about what had happened to the bike, what I had done about it, when, and why. Even better, they all knew that I had comprehensive coverage (somewhat non-standard for scooters, as I understand it), a $100 deductible, and every other relevant detail of my policy and situation.

I don’t know enough about the industry or the logistics of customer service to determine what exactly Progressive does to enable this kind of pervasive knowledge-sharing. I suspect that the process involves unusually ample time to review a case before making customer contact, training on how to suss out the most salient facts, and a positive work environment that encourages communication across departments and functions.

Then again, maybe I just got lucky, ended up by chance with a posse of top-notch service reps. But I doubt it.

I’ve never had to file an insurance claim before (other than for health care), and I expected it would be one of those things that everybody hates, like buying a used car or calling your ISP for technical support.

Instead, it was one of the best interactions I’ve ever had as a customer: First, everybody I spoke with was professional, courteous, and knowledgable to degrees well beyond anything I’ve experienced in the past. Also, the settlement—which was available to me within just a few days—was more or less exactly what I expected after I did some research on the value of my vehicle.

I was especially surprised to see the adjuster streamlining the process in ways that I wouldn’t have thought he had the power to do. For example, it was pretty much a sure thing that the scooter was going to be a total loss; it had been underwater in a flood for like half an hour. So instead of having to tow the thing to your casualty center, he just sent someone on a quick trip to the service center that had the bike. (They also reported they loved working with Progressive, by the way.)

You’ve really won me over with this experience. I can’t imagine switching to another insurance company. Thanks a million.

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Leave My Scrollbars—and Scrub Bars—Alone

I’ve been complaining to anyone who would listen about Lion’s iOS-like disappearing scrollbars since the day they were announced. I need now to take a moment to gloat. In his incredible-as-always review of the new version of the Mac OS, ArsTechnica’s John Siracusa takes my side, explaining why it’s jarring and terrible—my words—to have disappearing scrollbars on the Mac (even as it makes perfect sense on the iPhone, e.g.). (The whole 19-page review is worth reading, but if you don’t think so, then at least give the section on scrollbars a go.) Siracusa notes:

Scroll bars do more than just let us scroll. First, their state tells us whether there’s anything more to see. A window with “inactive” (usually shown as dimmed) scroll bars indicates that there is no content beyond what is currently visible in the window. Second, when a document has more content than can fit in a window, the scroll bars tell us our current position within that document. Finally, the size of the scroll thumb itself—or the amount of room the scroll thumb has to move within the scroll bar, if you want to look at it that way—gives some hint about the total size of the content.

Thankfully, as Siracusa points out, non-hiding scrollbar behavior can be restored in System Preferences. The issue persists elsewhere in the OS, however, and in fact, has been around since years before Lion’s release today. In particular, in watching video using either of Apple’s applications for doing so (QuickTime and DVD Player), you have to deal with the same kind of pretty-but-less-informative chrome-hiding that I’ve been griping about. Let’s take a moment to review the most influential video player in computing probably ever, YouTube:

YouTube’s standard player.

Nice. I get lots of good information out of YouTube’s standard, non-full-screen player, including:

  • how far along I am in the video (indicated both visually and with temporal data and useful when my patience is being tried by the content, as pictured here)
  • the video’s length (useful in deciding whether to watch now or later)
  • how much of the video has loaded (useful in knowing whether I should walk away for a bit to “manually” increase my buffer)
  • whether I am on play or pause (occasionally useful in troubleshooting)

If all’s going well and I know I’m going to settle in and watch the rest of this video, I may not care about that information anymore. It’s not in the way in the standard player, but it would be in full-screen mode. So YouTube smartly hides it there:

YouTube’s full-screen player. (On cursor activity over the video, the controls come back.)

Great. Well done, YouTube: I see what I want when I want it, and not when I don’t.

Let’s compare this approach to QuickTime’s (both Player and plug-in) and DVD Player’s behaviors. The full-screen versions behave much like YouTube’s, but, frustratingly, so do the standard players, hiding information:

QuickTime Player.
QuickTime Browser Plugin. (Thanks,!)
DVD Player.

Yes, I get that everything’s a little bit prettier this way. But I desperately miss the information more often than I would’ve expected before these changes came about—and I resent the growing influence of this aesthetic in places where I’d rather it not be. (As one otherwise smart and talented designer friend said in designing a video player, “If it’s good enough for Apple…”. It’s not good enough for Apple, I wanted to retort.) After living with these video players, of course, it seemed a no-brainer that disappearing scrollbars in Lion would be maddening. I just don’t get why Apple’s pushing so hard to make the Mac OS more like iOS. As Siracusa notes, the devices these OSes run on present users with totally different models of interaction. Why try to combine them when they serve such different purposes?