The Fundamental Importance of Visual Cues

As much as I like the instant gratification of purchasing music online, I still prefer the experience of handling a physical CD and its — hopefully extensive — printed booklet. Consequently, I often rip CDs to add the tracks to my iTunes library.

The CD track list screen in the current version (12.4) of iTunes displays three useful buttons in the top right corner. Except for their labels — Options, CD Info, and Import CD — they look absolutely identical.

The three buttons, shown next to each other, look absolutely identical like, well, a simple, clickable button.

When a button is not really a button

When I last ripped a CD, I decided to double-check the import settings. Due to its proximity with the Import CD button, I assumed that Options would take me to those settings. Instead, a popup menu appeared:

The menu that appears when clicking the Options button contains the two items Get Track Names and Submit CD Track Names.

That behavior surprised me, because the UI widget is a simple button; it lacks the typical downward arrow that indicates a popup menu control. Additionally, the positioning of the menu looked a bit odd, as it is partially overlapping the button.

Here’s a standard popup menu for comparison:

An excerpt from a print dialog shows the menu attached to the popup menu control labeled PDF. The menu's top aligns exactly with the controls bottom. More importantly, a down-ward arrow in the menu control makes it very clear that this is, in fact, a popup menu, and not a simple button.

Clicking the center button summons the usual iTunes Info window for the currently displayed CD, which is exactly what I would expected.

As for the import settings dialog box? That actually appears when you click Import CD. Since there is no ellipsis in the button’s label, I had expected that clicking the button would immediately start the import process.

More interaction required. Or is it?

Quick refresher: An ellipsis in a UI control indicates that further user input (or, more generally, some kind of further user interaction) is required before the related action is triggered. E.g., the basic File > Save As… menu command features an ellipsis, because the user needs to enter a name for the file before it is actually saved.

One could argue that bringing up the Information window already completes the [Display] CD Info command, so that it is not strictly necessary to include an ellipsis in that label. For the Import CD button, however, an ellipsis is clearly required.

Just don’t mess with fundamental design principles

A fundamental goal of good design is, obviously, to make it easy for a user to reliably predict what will happen when they interact with a user interface control. In other words, an important aspect of design is to reduce surprises as well as alleviate users’ fear of trying out a feature.

Why, then, did the iTunes designers forgo fundamental visual cues that would make it so much easier to understand what’d happen with regards to these three controls?

Admittedly, displaying three identical-looking controls creates a very clean, low-clutter appearance. Then again, adding the cues for visualizing “this is a menu, not a button” and “more input required when you trigger this function” doesn’t really make the trio look that much worse:

A slightly edited version of the three iTunes buttons. The left-most control now shows the down-ward arrow indicating a popup menu, and the label on the right-most button includes an ellipsis character.

With regards to usability, however, these well-established cues make a huge difference. I find it worrying that Apple, of all companies, makes design decisions that so obviously violate fundamental principles of good user interface design.

The Mystery of the Glowing TV Power Light

Why do power lights on TVs and computer monitors stay on when the device is powered up? I’ve been scratching my head over this question for quite a while now.

That obnoxious light in the corner of my eye

Granted, these status indicators make perfect sense for showing that the device is in stand-by mode instead of being completely powered down. Then again, most modern TVs and monitors don’t even have a true power switch anymore. Instead of actually disconnecting the device’s circuitry from electrical power, the on/off button just toggles between “stand-by” and “on.” In other words, “stand-by” is “off.”

The TV's power light is housed towards the left edge of a clear plastic bar that runs along the full length of the TV screen's bottom edge. Its glow is at least as bright as a regular daylight TV image.

Of course, power lights do provide meaningful feedback, e.g., when the TV is receiving a command from the remote control, while it is powering up (if there’s a delay between switching the device on and the screen lighting up), or if there is a technical issue (as commonly indicated by unique blinking patterns).

Once the device has fully powered up, though, the fact that an image appears on the screen is more than enough feedback. At that point, a continuously glowing power light just does not provide any uniquely useful status information anymore.

These lights do bother me immensely.

When watching a movie, I often find that bright, ruby-red LED very distracting, especially if the movie’s scenery is dark and ominous. I’ve tried to find a way of deactivating the light, but short of ripping the LED out of its socket, I have yet to find a cure.

Screen on, power light off

My external computer monitor has a similar power light, and I find it at least as distracting as the one on the TV — even more so when working at night in a dimly lit studio. In its default configuration, the light glows red when the monitor is in stand-by mode, and blue while it’s switched on.

Several hardware buttons are embedded in the bottom right corner of the computer monitor's bevel. These are used for interacting with the device's on-screen configuration menus. The power LED is to the right of the power button, and it glows blue when the screen is lit.

(This monitor also lacks a true power switch, but it does have distinct “off” and “stand-by” modes. When in stand-by, the monitor will automatically light up as soon as it detects an active video signal. This is very handy as the monitor automatically switches the screen on and off when the computer wakes up or goes to sleep, respectively. In the “off” state, the screen always remains dark.)

After some research, I found a pair of promising settings deep in the monitor’s configuration menu. Besides being able to choose a blue and green color for the LED in “on” state (which I find somewhat gratuitous), there is an option for “LED Brightness.” And, yes, you can set the brightness to 0% to fully dim the LED.

As an indication of how much thought the designers invested in the monitor’s behavior, the brightness setting only applies when the monitor is on. When it’s in stand-by, the LED still glows red to help distinguish between “off” and “stand-by.” Great!

After adjusting the settings, the power LED is now completely switched off, even though the screen is lit. Success!

This is the exact behavior that I would love to see for every device that features a video screen: Provide feedback via an LED in response to certain user actions, as well as for indicating device failures — but please allow me to fully dim that light while the device is in standard, error-free operating mode, so I can focus on whatever’s on the screen, instead of what surrounds it.

Apple DVD Player’s Way of Failing Silently

Our media collection contains a number of DVDs whose region code is 2, because I had bought them when I was still living in Germany. The region code of our DVD player is 1, though, and unfortunately, it is one of the few models for which you can’t find an unlock code online. (Here’s an older blog post, dating back almost ten years, on how simple it usually is to change a DVD player’s region code.)

For reading legacy CD-ROMs, we use an external USB optical drive with our Macs, so I decided to try the following route: set the external drive’s region code to 2, play movies with the DVD Player application on the Mac, and stream audio and video to our TV via an AppleTV using AirPlay .

A map view in DVD Player's preferences panel shows the six geographic regions and their codes. It also displays the region code of the DVD that is currently in the drive, and the drive's own code.

Things looked promising — until I activated AirPlay on the Mac: While the computer’s desktop was mirrored on the TV, and the movie’s audio played through the TVs speakers, a gray rectangle had replaced the video viewport in DVD Player.

The Mac's desktop, showing the DVD Player video window with all the controls, like timeline, playback control buttons, etc. In this case, though, since AirPlay is activated, there is just a even gray rectangle in the window instead of the video signal from the DVD.

To sort out the problem, I connected the Mac directly to the TV via an HDMI cable. Interestingly, that changed the display resolution, but the movie did appear on both the internal and external screens.

Third-party software to the rescue

Next, I opened the DVD in VLC Player and tried using AirPlay again. Now, finally, everything worked as intended: The video and audio played on the Mac’s screen, and both were properly streaming to the TV using the default resolution.

The same setup as above works just fine with VLC Player, a third-party video player application. Its main window properly displays the video stream, even when AirPlay is activated and streaming to the same destination.

Considering that the video was grayed out in DVD Player as well as in my screenshots, unless I was using VLC Player, leads me to believe that Apple intentionally blocks playing DVD movies via AirPlay for “copy protection” reasons. Being able to stream HD videos via AirPlay from iTunes without any hiccups is further indication that this is not a technical issue, but a conscious design decision.

Failing silently is among the Mortal Sins of UX Design

Enough has been written about how “Digital Rights Management” punishes honest, paying media customers.

The annoying aspect about this particular experience, however, is the utter lack of meaningful feedback: How about popping up a dialog box that states that, “For copyright reasons, you cannot stream a DVD via AirPlay”? In fact, that message could appear right inside the DVD Player video window where the user is looking for the now-missing video signal.

Instead, all you get is a gray window where the movie used to appear.

Failing silently like this will lead users to wonder whether there is a technical problem, and likely make them trouble-shoot their setup, and search online for more details on the issue. Apple could easily avoid this waste of time and effort by showing a simple notification — even if that might come across as somewhat embarrassing for a company that takes an outspoken (and highly commendable) public stance against “copy protection” mechanisms.