Apple Music’s segmented user experience

Apple Music shares a lot of the same DNA as other streaming platforms. There’s a huge music catalog, the ability to save a collection offline, curated playlists, and radio stations. Yet its UX feels distinct, more segmented and compartmentalized compared to its streaming peers. That’s a plus for streaming newbies and more casual users. But it comes at the the cost of comprehension and cohesion in the long run.

It’s easiest to cover Apple Music’s UX shortcomings through example. Say you browse through playlists in New on iTunes, and then jump into the For You segment to browse further. At this point, there’s no way to jump back chronologically into your previously accessed playlists. Each segment has a separate state and history. Or you want to find the source (e.g. album, playlist, radio station) of the currently playing track. It’s often awkward if not impossible to do so. Even search adds a binary toggle between My Music and Apple Music to further separate results.

Also consider the visual differences Apple Music employs between segments. Connect runs with Tumblr and Twitter-like columns to deliver status updates. For You uses edge to edge banners, huge album art, and splashy colors. Only My Music keeps the list format we’ve seen on iTunes and the Music app for years. Mixing up visuals and affordances helps keep the platform feeling fresh, yet it’s also inconsistent and disjointed. You get the sense Apple bolted the “greatest hits” of Beats Music onto iTunes and the Music app but didn’t have time to finish the integration for launch.

I’m not alone it this criticism. Apple Music’s UX frustrated many prominent tech critics as well. The WSJ’s Joanna Stern compared it to Russian nesting dolls and a “music maze”.

Yet you have to credit Apple for trying something new that breaks out of the iTunes-like mold that every other streaming service has mostly hewed to. In a way, Apple treats each segment as its own independent “app”. Each has its own target audience. Radio has a simple, passive appeal; one button starts Beats 1 and you’re off. For You adds a bit more curation and active interaction. And My Music offers full, pinpointed access to specific songs. To Apple, different activities, like different apps, deserve more of a clear UX split to keep location obvious. It’s a strategy well suited for streaming newcomers and casual listeners.

Over time, Apple Music will inevitably improve. Apple will loosen barriers between segments, UX inconsistencies will be cleaned up, and iTunes hopefully will get a much needed design refresh. Yet for now, Apple Music’s disjointed UX is going to be a deal breaker for many, potentially myself included.