Sucky Software

August 2015

A big problem with Android is that a lot of the default apps suck. I often have to find replacements. Apple’s default apps are usually wonderful. Sometimes I still decided to find replacements that had more features, but the apps on iOS didn’t carry the same feeling of suckiness. Why?

Feature priority

The sucky apps usually have one or two missing features that, to me, are critical. It seems obvious that the app would need to have them, and the features usually wouldn’t be that hard to implement. 

Consider the set of all features a particular app could have. Let’s say the set is sorted by priority of implementation—which features should be implemented first. Priority is given by importance (a compound of how many people would use the feature and how much utility they would derive from it) divided by the amount of resources (e.g. time) required to implement the feature. A less important feature could still have a higher priority than a more important feature if the former is trivial to implement while the latter is more complex.

The feeling of suckiness comes in part from when it feels like features have been implemented out of order, based on priority. Here’s an example. I use my phone to play music. There are two particular features I would like a music app to have: 1) the option to select a specific directory that holds music, and 2) hierarchical folder navigation (as opposed to flat folder navigation). I don’t know of any apps that have both these features. Feature 1 especially seems like a no-brainer, yet few apps have it. The app I use right now, Shuttle Music Player, doesn’t have that feature. As a result, the folder with general conference recordings was being included in my music library. It was pretty annoying scrolling through dozens of “artists,” all with names that begin with “Elder.” It seems to me that many people would have non-music audio recordings on their phones. Why would an app not allow me to select where my actual music library is located so the app doesn’t have to add all audio files on the entire SD card?

But that’s not all—Shuttle does a lot of fancy album artwork downloading, so practically any song I have in the library (except for those by Elder Ucthdorf) has associated album artwork. This is a nifty feature I guess, but it’s not a critical one. After all, it’s a music player, not an art gallery.

Again, the suck is there not just because the music player doesn’t have the feature I want but because it also has other features that seem to have a lower priority. Using an app that doesn’t have a feature I want is like getting on a bus and finding out it doesn’t go as far as I wanted to go—irritating but understandable. Using an app that doesn’t have the feature I want but does have other lower priority features is like getting on a bus that drives right past my destination but doesn’t stop to let me off. The first experience is disappointing, but the second is truly sucky.

So why did the developers give higher priority to album artwork downloading than to music library location specification? Why do developers implement features out of order?

I’m still trying to figure that one out. There are two possibilities. I could be miscalculating the priority of a particular feature. Perhaps most people don’t actually care about the feature as much as I assume, or in some cases, maybe the feature would be harder to implement than I think. The other possibility is that the developers are unaware of the feature or its priority. Maybe they haven’t even thought of that feature, or they don’t realize how important it is. The only other possibility is that the developers are in fact aware of the feature and its priority but still choose not to implement it. Unless Apple has hired a team of developers to embed Android with apps that seem good but are just sucky enough to leave a bad taste in users’ mouths, this seems unlikely.

I think one reason Apple’s apps tend to not suck is because they put a lot of effort into understanding their users and what they need. They tend to have a good grip of all the features at the top of the priority list. But there’s another aspect of app design that Apple is really good at. I call it “ergonomic usage.”

Interface

There are two parts to any app: the raw functionality and the user interface. We’ve covered functionality already. A good interface could be defined as one that allows the user to take advantage of the app’s functionality with as little effort as possible. Again, it’ll be easiest to explain with an example.

I’ll compare two music player apps, Poweramp and shuttle. Poweramp is a widely used music player app for Android, and it constitutes what should be a good example of a well-designed app. I’ll compare the following tasks on both players:

  1. Start playing all the songs of a particular artist with shuffle on.
  2. Navigate to a different artist.
  3. Navigate to an album of a different artist.
  4. Create a playlist with songs from all three previous locations.
Poweramp

I open the app. It loads a now-playing screen. There’s no “artist” button. There’s an icon with a treble clef superimposed over a folder. That looks promising. It leads me to a list of all the folders on my SD card with audio files (makes sense). Still no artist button. There’s a thing at the bottom that says “Library,” so I’ll try that. OK, now I have a menu where I can select all songs, albums, artists, etc. I click on “artists” and then scroll down to Rise Against. I then get a screen with all the albums. Fortunately there’s an “All Artist Songs” button, so I click that and finally I’m at my destination. I select the song “This is Letting Go,” and then I press the shuffle icon. Task 1 completed with six clicks.

Task 2 is the same, only it takes one less click because when I click on that first folder icon, it immediately loads the Library screen instead of the Folders screen (why isn’t folders just another option next to artists and albums?). Navigating to an album is similar. We’re up to 15 total clicks so far.

I’m currently listening to the album Fallen by Evanescense. Fortunately I already found out by accident that if I touch the name of the currently playing song, it will bring me back to the song list of the album. I add three songs to the playlist, which takes three clicks per song (there’s no way to add multiple songs at the same time). I navigate back to the artists view. I add all songs from 3 Doors Down and then I add all the songs from Appeal to Reason, one of Rise Against’s albums.

Total clicks: 35

I ran into a few pitfalls while doing this. After finishing the first song in Fallen while I was playing that album, instead of going to another song in the same album, it switched to a song by a completely different artist. WTF (what the flip)? The same thing happened later when I listened to the playlist. I know this can be fixed in the settings—I’ve done it before—but it’s not straightforward at all. This is a serious flaw. I don’t think I need to state how obvious it is that when playing an album or a playlist, most people will expect the app to only play songs in that album or playlist (hint: it’s pretty obvious). The number of clicks it takes to perform all our tasks is insignificant in regards to this headache. There were a few other little quirks that came up, but this was the worst.

Shuttle

I open the app and it brings me right to the artists page. On the top of the screen I can see buttons for albums and songs. I already feel more at home. I scroll down and click on Rise Against. It loads a screen that has the albums but also has the entire song list underneath, saving me a click. Also, there’s a nifty button to immediately shuffle through all the songs, so I don’t even have to choose a starting song if I don’t want to. Mission accomplished in two clicks. Navigating to the second artist takes me one additional click because I have to go back to the artist view. Navigating from there to Fallen takes four clicks. Creating the exact same playlist as I did in Poweramp takes 16 clicks.

Total clicks: 25

In addition to being about 29% more efficient with regard to number of clicks alone, Shuttle’s interface just felt so nice. Everything worked as I expected it to, and it was all laid out in a helpful way. I can’t think of any way the interface could have saved me more effort as I used the features—a good interface by definition. Can you see why I use Shuttle? Apart from the music folder location thing, it really is a wonderful app.

I don’t think I’ve bashed Poweramp quite enough, so let me direct you to the Google Play listing. First of all, this app is actually just a two-week free trial. The full version costs $3.99. As of right now the trial version has about 900,000 downloads. The developer, Max MP, is listed as a “top developer.” Now let’s take a look at Shuttle. There is a full version for $1.75, but the free version isn’t a trial. 50,000 downloads. SimpleCity, the developer, looks like an average Joe.

The descriptions of each app are telling:

Shuttle Music Player is an intuitive, lightweight and powerful music player for Android.

Poweramp is a powerful music player for Android.

Intuitive isn’t a buzz word. It’s a great description of Shuttle. Notice that the Poweramp description only mentions power (and that it’s for Android. Same for Shuttle. I thought it was obvious since I’m looking at the Google Play store). Poweramp does have a lot of features, but it’s hard for me to care when my head is throbbing from the aneurysm caused by their abomination of a user interface (alright, maybe it’s not that bad, but “abomination” is one of my favorite words).

As Eric Raymond points out in a horror story about a terribly designed user interface, a “slick-looking UI” is not necessarily a “well-designed UI.”

When I was serving as a missionary in Malaysia and Singapore, I would be transferred to a different area usually about every three to six months. I typically had to catch a flight to the new area, so all my belongings had to be packed into a couple of luggage cases. When I arrived at my new apartment, I would take everything out of my luggage and arrange it so I could get to all of my things with the least amount of effort. Clothes go in the dresser, books go on my desk, etc. It’s pretty obvious. Good design usually doesn’t stand out because it’s not supposed to. The interface design should connect you with the features as closely as possible and stay out of the way.

I heard of another missionary who was transferred to a new area six weeks before he was scheduled to go back home to the US. He didn’t want to unpack all his things just to put them all back soon after, so he lived out of his luggage cases for those six weeks. This is like many poorly designed interfaces. All the functionality is there, but it’s not laid out in a way that facilitates ergonomic usage. Yet many of these interfaces come with customizable themes. “You can choose a luggage case in black (default), blue, orange, pink, red, green, cyan or chartreuse!” Isn’t that comforting?

Now, some of these bad interface decisions might be small, but small, repeated amounts of effort add up. You want an ergonomic design that minimizes effort.

May we all remember these principles and push for a higher standard of quality in the software we use. I believe that both Android and desktop Linux would benefit greatly. I plan to develop several Android apps with these philosophies in mind, one of which will be a music player. I think I’ll call it “SuckFree Music Player.” Ideally, the app will be good enough to be considered as a “default” app for custom ROMs, or one day even Android itself. If that day ever comes, I only hope I don’t have to compromise on a more politically correct name.


Got feedback? foo@jacobobryant.com

To receive email notifications for new posts, send me an email with "subscribe" in the subject line.