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Karen Kiely 0643564 Digital Media Design
INTRODUCTION iTunes is a digital media player software by Apple. It is relatively new, introduced in 2001 as an interface to manage the content of the digital media device, iPod (Ars Technica, 2004). The software has a number of different functions, which include the playing of music files and the management of files on external devices, namely iPod and iPhone. I chose this system to base my heuristic evaluation on because the system is so popular and is used my millions of users the world over. It will be interesting to see how the usability might be one of the reasons for the system's popularity. As well as this, Apple and iPod systems are renowned for being easy-to-use. A personal example of this is when I first opened my iPod Touch, there was no instructions included with the package. This, no doubt, shows the designers' confidence in the usability of the device. If there is such a confidence in the device's usability, it will be interesting for me to research into the usability of the related program. The key tasks I have chosen to evaluate according to Jakob Nielsen's ten heuristics include importing music from a CD, organising a selection of these files into a playlist and synchronizing this playlist with an external device (iPod). I have chosen these particular tasks as each is a very important and commonly used task on this system. Analysing the usability of these tasks will give me an accurate evaluation of the overall software. Heuristics are, literally, (Pearl, 1983). Heuristic evaluation is a technique devised by experts to test the usability of a system. The user interface of a system is assessed using ten usability heuristics which have been devised by Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen describes the heuristics as
a method for finding the usability problems in a user interface design so that they can be attended to as part of an iterative design process
Evaluators examine the interface and note the compliance of the interface with the heuristics (Nielsen, 2005 1). The reason we need to apply Nielsen's list of ten heuristics is to examine the usability of the interface according to the most important “rules”. Should the system comply with these rules, it is permitted to move on from the 'evaluation' stage of the iterative design process to the deployment of the system. If it doesn't comply, the developers need to revert back to the design stage to alter the system so as to avoid the problems highlighted during the evaluation.
HEURISTIC EVALUATION Visibility of system status When the CD is inserted, it is a few seconds before it appears on the interface. The only indication the user has that the CD has been inserted is the humming of the CD drive. Therefore, the system immediately fails to provide the user with the status of the CD. A first user of the system could be wondering had the CD been inserted correctly/was the program able to read the files on the CD etc. After a few seconds have passed, the name of the CD, provided the user has an internet connection, is displayed on the screen. It is highlighted which shows the user that the CD has been read successfully. This aspect of the insertion of the CD has succeeded in informing the user of the system status (Fig.1). The actual act of importing the CD provides excellent visibility of the system status. To the top of the screen, the user is shown that the system is “Importing [song name]”, the number of seconds remaining and a bar that fills gradually as the song is imported. As well as this, there is a small icon beside each listed song, either a green tick to denote a successfully imported song or an orange wave to denote importing. When all songs are imported, each has a green tick and the system gives an audible sound that denotes a successful import (Fig.1). iTunes succeeds in informing its users of the system's status while importing the CD. Next, the user wants to create a playlist with some of the imported song files. Firstly, the user uses the cursor to roll over 'File' which cause the word 'File' to become highlighted. The user then clicks and chooses 'New playlist', which has also become highlighted when the cursor rolls over it (Fig.2). The playlist then appears under the heading 'Playlists', highlighted with a flashing cursor after the default title 'Untitled playlist'. The GUI's menus have made obvious which item has been selected (Pierotti, 2004) by means of highlighting the particular option with a dark grey. Using another of Pierotti's suggestions, there is always “system feedback for every operator action” (Pierotti, 2004). iTunes has succeeded in making the system status visible when choosing the option to create a new playlist. Having created and named this new playlist 'SAMPLE PLAYLIST', the user selects the required songs. These selected files are all highlighted blue to show a successful selection. Again, the system triumphs here. The user then drags the selected files towards the playlist, during which, it is shown that the ten files have successfully been selected by means of a music file icon with a red star saying '10' (Fig.4). This is efficient visibility of the system status. Here the system makes a minor failure. The user isn't informed of the status of the files as they are being dragged to playlist. When the playlist is then dragged to the device, the user sees the word “Syncing...” in the top bar which is excellent visibility of the system status (Fig.8).
Match between system and real world To take the music files from the CD to the iTunes system, the user needs to select 'Import'. This word can be described as a user-familiar term, however, there is an opportunity to make this more user-friendly by using a word such as 'grab' or 'take'. 'Import' is without a doubt a colloquial term but the system could be made that bit more user-friendly by using even simpler language. The system doesn't necessarily fail here, but could be slightly improved. The simple language used in the bar to the top of the page is excellent matching between user language and system functions. 'Time remaining' is a classic example of this as the user is simply notified of how long more the importing is going to take (Fig.1). However, the time remaining is followed a number within brackets similar to this (10.3x). I, as a user, am not sure what this denotes so therefore the system has failed in speaking the user's language. The 'File', 'Edit' and other drop down menus at the top of the page resemble a physical drawer where the user can find numerous tools for different actions (Fig.2). This is a classic example of matching the system with the real world. The user is already familiar with a similar physical counterpart and it is subconsciously easier for the user to use systems that employ this matching. The literal naming of the different functions, in this case 'New playlist', is unambiguous and uses simple language that the user would use in the real world. User jargon, as opposed to computer jargon, is used (Pierotti, 2004). Therefore, the user knows exactly what s/he is doing. The system is effective when considering the match between real world and system while creating a new playlist. When the user is dragging the playlist to the device, s/he is notified of a successful synchronization by the bar which simply state “Syncing...”. This is efficient use of user jargon that's unambiguous and not confusing for the user (Fig.8). User control and freedom The iTunes system succeeds in user control and freedom as it supports 'undo' and 'redo' for relevant situations. As well as this, the user is able to make his/her own decisions regarding “the costs of exiting current works” (Pierotti, 2004). While importing the CD, users are permitted to cancel out of the operation. This supports the user's own freedom in carrying out tasks. As well as this, the system doesn't carry out tasks, such as eject an imported CD, without the user's word. The user is in control as regards the importing of the CD and this reflects excellent usability.
Consistency and standards Industry formatting standards are in place in the iTunes system. The menu bar on the top left hand side of the screen is consistent with other applications such as Internet Explorer, Microsoft Word among others (Fig.2). The user is not left wondering which menu titles mean what as the consistency between all systems has allowed the user to subconsciously note which titles have which functions. The option of creating new playlists, folders, etc. is consistent with other systems, for example, Microsoft Word. The first three or four options in the File menu always allow the user to create 'new' documents etc. This consistency aids the user in quickly and efficiently carrying out tasks. There is not much conscious decision-making on what to carry out. Methods of highlighting certain songs and dragging these from the interface to a device is the same across many programs. Therefore, the system succeeds in providing the user with consistency. Error prevention After inserting a CD the user chooses to import the files. However, if the user has already imported or downloaded one or more of the same files previously, a confirmation dialog appears. The user is asked whether s/he wants to replace the existing songs or import them again (Fig.5). This is effective error prevention as it prevents the importing of two identical files which the user most likely doesn't want. The user then has the choice to import or replace files or cancel from the action. This is excellent usability as the user is not tied to carrying out a task which might have unwanted consequences. Again, when adding files to a playlist, the user is asked to make sure whether s/he wants the files to overwrite existing files or to skip the files that are identical to those existing in the playlist. One way the iTunes system prevents errors when creating a new playlist is the naming of subsequent playlists differently from the previous playlist. For example, if the user chooses the default name 'Untitled playlist' and creates a second playlist, the second playlist is automatically named 'Untitled playlist 1'. This prevents overwriting on the user's part, which would cause an unnecessary error, leading to an unwanted and time-consuming dialogue box informing the user of his/her mistake. Therefore, the system efficiently helps the user avoid errors in the creation of the playlist.
Recognition rather than recall When the CD is inserted into the drive, a first time user would be unfamiliar with the system. The placing of the 'import' button to the bottom right-hand corner of the screen would not help the usability. It is out of the way and almost invisible. According to Pierotti's suggestions, the system should place “prompts, cues and messages where the eye is likely to be looking on the screen.” (Pierotti, 2004). The system fails in this regard (Fig.1). There seems to be no usability issues as regards recognition when moving songs to the new playlist. The user's new playlist is located under the heading of 'Playlists' in the side menu. This is positive design as the user is not needed to remember where exactly on this list the playlist was put, rather just open the section entitled 'Playlists' and search for the desired playlist. As regards easy access to instructions for the program, Apple have provided concise help documentation under the heading of 'Help' in the top menu bar (Fig.6). The first option is 'iTunes help' which allows the user to choose the help option immediately without having to trawl through other options or remember where it was situated from their last use. Flexibility and efficiency of use The iTunes system caters for both the novice and the expert user. However, firstly, when importing the CD, there is no shortcut that the expert user can use to choose to import the CD. Here, the system falls short of flexible and efficient use. However, it succeeds when the user comes to create a playlist and synchronize this with the device. Basing my evaluation on Pierotti's (2004) checklist, item 8.13, the user can use their pointing device to select their new playlist. As well as this, a more advanced user can use their keyboard to highlight their playlist (using the tab key). This provides a much more efficient option for the more expert user. Another function that allows more efficiency of use for expert users is keyboard shortcuts that are shown beside most options on the 'File', 'Edit' and other menus. For example, a more expert user can simply type 'Ctrl + N' to create their new playlist (Fig.2). When moving files from the interface to the device, an expert user can simply hit 'Ctrl + A' to select all the files shown. This provides quicker and more efficient use of the system. A novice user needn't select each file one by one. If they are familiar with shift-click and control-click they can choose their files more efficiently (Fig.4). To perhaps allow the novice user make the choice, the system should inform the user by means of an optional pop-up describing the more efficient action. E.g. “To select more than one file, hold 'Ctrl' and click on wanted files”. The user could then let the system know that they do not need this help message again. The system is successful in efficiency and flexibility but could help the novice user use the system more efficiently.
Aesthetic and minimalistic design The way the system simply uses the word 'import' to communicate with the user when a CD is inserted is quite effective in that the user is not bombarded with irrelevant information. However, when the CD is in the process of importing, the system communicates some irrelevant information (Fig.1). The 'time remaining' information is quite useful but the information following this, in the form of (10.3x) is not needed. The user only wants to know how long is left before the song is imported fully so this information competes with the relevant information and could confuse the user. This is not effective usability. When creating a playlist, the system succeeds. Menu titles, such as 'File', 'Edit' etc. are brief yet “long enough to communicate” (Pierotti, 2004). Taking as an example, the 'File' menu, where the 'New playlist' option is situated, functions are divided into groups of three, four or five (Fig.2). Between each group is a thin line. This minimalistic approach is still effective as it tidies the interface for the user so the user is not faced with irrelevant information. There is no competition between relevant information and irrelevant information (Nielsen, 2005). Help users recognise, diagnose and recover from errors I did not come across any problems or error messages while trying these tasks on the iTunes system. This portrays the system in a great light, highlighting its good usability. Help and documentation This system seems easy for a novice user to use without consulting the help documentation. However, the help documentation is easy to locate (Fig.6), simple to search and as well as giving steps to, for example, carry out the creation of a playlist, provides some background on what a playlist actually is (Fig.7). This appeals to the ultimate beginner who is not at all familiar with the system. CONCLUSION Following my heuristic evaluation of the iTunes digital media player system, I feel that it is fair to say that the system has excellent usability. The system has faltered slightly in some respects, namely minimalistic design, visibility of system status and recognition rather than recall. However, these are overshadowed by some of the effective usability seen under other circumstances. As stated, Apple are renowned for efficient usability and the iTunes system is no exception.
REFERENCES Ars Technica (2004) Macworld Expo San Francisco 2001 [online], available: http://arstechnica.com/reviews/01q1/macwldsf/mwsf-7.html#itunes [accessed 6 March 2008] http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=SERIES9095.525 Nielsen, Jakob (2005) Heuristic Evaluation [online], available: http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/ [accessed 6 March 2007] Nielsen, Jakob (2005) How To Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation [online], available: http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_evaluation.html [accessed 6 March 2007] Pierotti, Deniese (2004) Heuristic Evaluation – A System Checklist [online], available: http://www.stcsig.org/usability/topics/articles/he-checklist.html [accessed 6 March 2007]
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