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Friday, May 13, 2016

PocketCasts UI criticisms

A lot of the problems I have with PocketCasts (which I do love overall) are with unnecessarily complex and counterintuitive aspects of UI and UX.

1. Cannot browse past episode titles and dates:

Generally, I cannot view past episode titles and dates without first turning off automatic cleanup, which makes no sense. Why not just store a bit of metadata--titles, length, show notes from the last 50 episodes of each podcast you subscribe to, and fetch anything older over the network if the user scrolls that far? As it is, I frequently leave the app and use other apps or the web just to see the titles and dates of past episodes! And/or I lose my cleanup settings over and over. (Not to mention that I can't browse these titles at all if i'm not in a location with good connectivity!)

2. Fiddly auto-download settings

I spend lots of time fiddling with the podcast-by-podcast auto download and auto cleanup settings. This is an enormous pain when you follow 25 podcasts like I do. As it is, if there is an episode that isn't automatically downloading that I see get my, and I want that podcast to automatically download and cleanup, it takes 10 taps (!) to make that change and navigate back to the feed where I was.

I would much rather have a total storage size and have the app intelligently manage the downloading and cleanup. This would take a bit of predictive logic, but that logic could do a pretty good job without being very complex. For instance, you could start by defaulting podcasts to automatically download and maintain just the most recent episode. Then, rank podcasts internally by time spent listening, and just map this ranking statically to a set of numbers of episodes to maintain and download. (Eg, the 4th most-listened podcast gets 4 episodes downloaded and cached at any one time... the 20th most-listened podcast gets 1 episode downloaded and cached. Historical minutes spent listening could expire after 3 months.)

You could improve this by allowing users to make any podcast a favorite by starring the whole podcast, with the most-listened 5 automatically receiving stars; then a user could un-star if they really don't want to download automatically, which would clear the listening count history.

3. Playlists too fiddly

Similarly, I would love to have smart playlists that just use that same priority ranking and play whatever is both high priority and recent. There are several podcasts where I listen to essentially every single episode. Shouldn't I be able to just open the app and hit "smart play" and have it start playing stuff i like? You could keep this limited to, say, 10 episodes, and many users wouldn't use it at all, but for heavy listeners it could be a killer feature.

Playlist UI never does quite what I expect. I can "play all" but I really just want to play stuff that doesn't have to stream over cell data.

4. Navigation mysteries

You can't get to the screen for a podcast from the screen where an episode is playing--there is no link to the podcast as a whole.

There's a bug in the playlist screen, screenshot attached.

The icon change that happens to episodes in the feed depending on playlist state is mystifying. If I have an empty playlist, the episodes all show a downloaded state or a streamable state. Fine. Then I chose play all, and now the icons all show a minus, to remove them from the queue. It's hard then to see the downloaded state. If I then later clear the playlist, the icons have a plus to add to the queue, instead of going back to the original normal state. It's all counterintuitive and bizarre.

It's never been clear to me how to get to the currently playing playlist screen from the episode feed screen. 

5. Partially played mysteries

It's silly for there to be separate unplayed and in progress feeds. That just doesn't reflect how I listen to podcasts. I want to see podcasts in progress mixed in with unplayed podcasts. And that's what PocketCasts does show me... sometimes! Sometimes a partially played episode leaves the unplayed feed and sometimes it doesn't. Why? Beats me.

Partial downloads do not present with consistent appearance and UI state; often I'll download half of an episode and then lose connectivity, only to find that the state of the episode has been shifted to an error, and all the content downloaded so far is inaccessible. Other times, a partially downloaded episode will present itself with a play icon.

6. Forgetfulness

The app forgets my place in a podcast often. This seems to maybe happen when playback is  interrupted by playlist actions for relegation to the in progress list?

7. Swiping sucks

I appreciate that swiping is a popular UI element in theory, at least for social apps we spend all day on. But there's a very good reason it hasn't been a bigger part of material design, and that is because there is too much ambiguity over what the adjacent screens are, and too much ambiguity over when a touch is intended as a full screen swipe vs a drag or slightly ham fisted tap. 

One of the things I do most often is play an episode and attempt to advance the place in the episode to some later point. Maybe I started listening to the podcast on Sonos and I'm switching to the app, maybe I want to skip to a part of the episode I saw in the show notes, maybe PocketCasts just forgot my position. More than half the time I do this it interprets my motion as a full screen swipe and takes me to a different view.

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