Is the Ipod well desgined semantically...?

I know its a cliche but I have studied the Ipod and it seems to work well as an interface, once you get used to it, in terms of semantics. Due to its simplicity and feedback.

Any comments or thoughts bad or good will be greatly received.


Laurence Willmott

I think the iPod is a poor example of product semantics.

What semantics communciate it’s purpose? It looks like nothing that came before it in both the music player industry or the computer peripheral industry.

What semantics communicate the clickwheels function or use? It doesn’t look like or turn like any control I’ve ever seen or used. It also provides no cue to it’s use. It’s buttons don’t look like buttons. Plus it’s modal, so you need to learn it’s function depending on your current activity. (The first-gen iPod being the exception, since it had a wheel that actually physically turned and had separate buttons that looked like buttons.)

What semantics communicate how you get music into it?

I’m not slamming the iPod, I just think it’s a better example of the shortcomings of product semantics, because it succeeds despite them. It is a better example of visceral simplicity over behavioral complexity.

When I saw the iPod at first, I did not personally like it because I felt it looked “blank”, totally void of content… but that is exactly what it is. It is up to the user to fill it up. (most) every iPod looks the same, yet all are totally different once turned on… here I think they did a very good job semantically (wether intentionally or not…)

On all the other aspects, I agree with cg, other than the headphone jack, everything was a new way to do things, so users had to learn how to use it. Fortunately they did such a good job with the interface, that learning how to use it took about 15 seconds.

I wonder how other generations perceive this though. My Dad had mentioned that he wants an iPod, and I cant imagine him figuring it out easily… maybe it is just my prejudgement of his generation?

I wonder how other generations perceive this though. My Dad had mentioned that he wants an iPod, and I cant imagine him figuring it out easily… maybe it is just my prejudgement of his generation?

Being a ‘boomer’, I will admit that I had one helluva time getting the thing to operate and I’m hardly computer illiterate.

Apple seems to feel that their iPod is so ‘intuitive’ that it requires no instruction manual (other than a small, one-side-printed, cartoon-esque illustration).

No CD, no instructions to go to a website, nuthin’. I bought it at Circuit City and called the ‘clerk’; he didn’t have a clue either. But after the ‘self-discovery’ that everything needed is provided on a website installation went smoothly … after the three-hour initial battery charge (I later purchased a wall-charger (something the ‘clerk’ should have advised me of at start)).

Popping two hundred bucks for an ‘entertainment product’ and then having to endure an hour long hassle trying to ‘enjoy it’ wasn’t much fun. So little fun that I almost took it back.

Very poor presentation. I expected more from Apple, a lot more. So much frustration because they wouldn’t include ‘complete’ installation documentation. I guess a CD was too cumbersome to include in their slick little iPod box…

Weird, because I just plugged it in and it asked me two questions and I was done… I never looked at a booklet, site, asked anybody anything or used one before…

Is it a generational product?

Laurence, what’s your semantic analysis?

Is the three hour learning requirement part of the product relationship? That is, taking a “blank” product, without comprehensive instruction or overt interface cues, making the owner “figure it out” on their own - because they will, figure it out, eventually - and thus it becomes somehow closer to what they already know and have assimilated? It’s an interesting take on things - assuming that a newbie will fuck with something until it makes sense on a personal level, rather than read a 20 page how-to.

making the owner “figure it out” on their own - because they will, figure it out, eventually - and thus it becomes somehow closer to what they already know and have assimilated?

I’m too old school Slippy; I buy something, I want to know about the features that are available to me. I don’t want to f**k with it … at all. I just want to use it. Shortcuts and alternate ways of use I’ll figure out later.

Would you buy your first digital camera with no instructions? A customer (read:spender of money) shouldn’t be frustrated by the experience of trying to use the product s/he thought s/he wanted.

The mindset may come from growing up with the written word on paper.

Might be, because people raised on videogames are looking for puzzles to solve and relish the rewards of mastery and the sense of elitism that comes with it. That said, the iPod is still probably the easiest in the category and I don’t see them abandoning the ease of use strategy.

I think the generational gap is a variable, as much with the iPod as with cellphones. Most of our parents would be dumbfounded at the thought of experiencing a new technology or product interface like that of a cell phone or ipod, while we, already comfortable with the idea of new technology, would be willing to just play around with and figure it out as we went along, learning its functions whenever the need of them arose.

I think that a lack of design semantics are behind that gap.

Consider the unprecedented amount of new technology your grandparents adopted into their everyday life over the course of their life. Why is adopting to computers, mobile phones or MP3 players so difficult by comparison?

To loosely paraphrase some Don Norman, between our grandparents (and parents) to us there was a huge shift from mechanical devices to electronic. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but if a mechanical device doesn’t work, sometimes you merely have to pull the lever harder to un-jam it. Think of old typewriters, when something wasn’t going right, you could see and feel it.

The thought process around operating a piece of electronics is completely different. When I taught my father-in-law how to use the computer I bought him last Christmas (mac mini) he had never touched one before in his life. When something didn’t work the way he thought it should, his instinct was to CLICK HARDER… I caught him pounding the mouse… it’s a totally different thought process. A year and a bit in, he is doing great with it, the key was he had to unlearn a bit of how he goes about things. Since then I’ve noticed his DVD player has the correct time on it…

The ipod kind of builds on years of VCR and cell phone programing…

I think this is a great point.

The more I think about the state of interactive and industrial design for consumer electronics, the more afraid I become that the market, the designers, engineers, and consumers are designing for a specific group of people and feel no sense of duty to make products intuitive, or at least out-of-the-box learnable, for all. It seems nearly compassionless to me.

There is, of course, a perfectly reasonable argument that electronics companies are simply designing for who they know will be the core group of consumers, but to that I must ask 1) why not expand the core group and at least attempt to include all, and make a killing while you’re at it and 2) why be so heartless as to not care that you’re leaving so many people behind?

Perhaps I’m bringing too many emotional aspects into the issue, but I see nothing wrong in wishing the industry would exercise a little more inclusiveness.

mspence wrote:

Perhaps I’m bringing too many emotional aspects into the issue, but I see nothing wrong in wishing the industry would exercise a little more inclusiveness.

Sure sounds like consumer advocacy to me … it’s what industrial designers are supposed to do.

Maybe in a perfect world… … .

It would be an interesting exercise to redesign the iPod to solve the semantics issue. The resulting product would be huge, ugly (and certainly more viserally complex, despite being simple behaviorally.)

A knob that looks and acts like a knob. Stops turning when you hit the end of the list.
Buttons that look and feel like buttons (with labels and color coded)
Added buttons for everything thats modal, like star ratings
A volume slider (shows absolute position)
A motorized track-position slider (shows absolute position)

The software UI could be simplified with semantics as well. You’d definitely need to ditch any modality. Navigating artists and tracks should be handled differently–the new “album art browser” in iTunes is a great example of how you should navigate artists. Not so sure about tracks…Probably just skip forward and backward buttons like with cassettes, CD’s and radio-station switching rather than “navigating to a song.”

What else?

I really don’t think the iPod has ANY consideration of semantics at all: Without wishing to sound rude at all, you do understand what Semantics are?

The iPod shows no form of having been influenced by it ancestory products. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that products should always have a relationship to their groundings, but with the iPod, the only thing that was really considered, obviously the click-wheel, could communicate to a user many things: It’s supposed to represent turning up volume on a stereo, but why does it have a home based product semantic? Also, could it be looked at as a bakelite style telephone as well? Or turning on a tap?

If you want good examples of experimental and metaphorical semantics, ones that are truely exaggerated, look at the Cranbrook Academy in the late 80’s. Some serious thought went into those products.

I do have to say though that the iPod is such a great product for design discussion, it related to almost everything that can be arguementative. I had one, got hit by the planned obsolescence. Hint: Sell your broken iPod on eBay, I got almost half the original price for mine!

That stuff inspired the hell out of me in design school.

Do you know any good design books out there that document that stuff, or design semantics in general?

All I know of bookwise is The New Cranbrook Design Discourse, a book by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (London Journalist), who has done books on other areas of design like biomorphism and Zoomorphic architecture (actually, come to think of it, he has a book called Zoomorphic which complimented an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert in London in 2003(???)

Recommend the Cranbook book though, some stunning stuff in there, and there are also a few good essays, including a good one by Aldersey-Williams. Details are below (I made reference to it in an essay once)

Aldersey-Williams, H. (et al.) 1990. The New Cranbrook Design Discourse. New York: Rizzoli International Publications

Hope this helps.


I dunno, I still make mistakes using the scroll wheel. I mean, up for going back? I still don’t get that one…I wish it was a true side to side interface, ie, hit left to go back up the menu structure. Sometimes I don’t know when to hit the middle to select or the down to play.

Love my Black 30gb regardless.

That’s the book I remember!
I just ordered it used on Amazon for $30. Thanks for the tip!