A Review of Apple’s Podcast Application: Functionality and Design

Posted on June 27, 2012

Apple has released its new podcast application, solely focused on improving the podcast experience. This is a very interesting application from a few points of view, as well as having some room or improvement.

There are already a few different podcasting apps available for iOS devices, with the two best known being Downcast and Instacast. These two applications are trying to be the be-all-and-end-all of podcast manages, will full features such as playlists.

What Apple has seemingly set out to achieve, rather, is a straightforward great user experience for podcasting rather than trying to out feature the existing two leaders. In many ways this was exactly what was needed in the market as both Instacast and Downcast have usability drawbacks which could be in part prescribed to the complexity surrounding their additional features.

Apple’s podcasting application has a very interesting design. The are five main parts to the application, the catalog, tile view, list view, Top Stations and play view.

Apple’s Podcast App’s Catalog

The catalog view is very similar to the bookstore in iBooks. It’s kept behind a similar “moving bookcase” concept, and looks and feels just like the other app stores on the iPad. This is good as Apple has retained consistency.

Where the catalog could be improved is the ability to subscribe to more than one podcast at a time. With each new podcast, the user is returned to the tile view. This is great if you’re adding one podcast, but I feel adding several podcasts at a time is a valid and frequent use case too.

The other slight issue with the catalog is positioning. When you search, part of the results are podcast episodes and part are the podcasts themselves. This is fine, except sometimes the location of each group is physically reversed, which is inconsistent.

The Podcast Tile View

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Indeed, the Podcast Tile view looks a lot like metro’s home screen with its tiled view. It is very pretty and I think quite an original way to present podcasts. You can gracefully move the tiles around to reposition them – there is no sorting. I do quite like it, although on this view you cannot see if there are any new podcasts. It might be nice to see a badge with the number of new episodes although I think that Apple’s designers might feel this would be detrimental to their design aesthetic.

Speaking of design, this whole application feels rethought and modern and I hope that many of the concepts will find there way into future versions of iOS standard UI kit design.

The Podcast App’s List View

This is a more traditional layout for a podcasting application with a list of podcasts and the number of unplaced episodes. It’s very well done, very clear and very clean. A good reference work for designers making such lists.

The Podcast App’s Top Stations

Top Stations is a discovery mechanism that complements the catalog by showing a list of top podcasts. I’m not sure if this is curated or generated automatically.

What’s really interesting is the user interface. You swipe across to move to differ categories and sub categories and you swipe up and down to discover podcasts in those categories. Now before swiping, you really don’t have an idea of what you’re going to get. The categories are alphabetically ordered, but it’s not clear what the next one will be. Likewise, you have no idea of the content or appreciation of a podcast without tapping it to see the details

That said, this is actually quite fun, and it is complementary to the more structured approach in the catalog. I don’t think it would work as the only way to discover podcasts, but as a fun alternative, I think it’s rather good. It’s a bit akin to turning the dial on a radio to find a station you want to listen to. Sometimes randomness and chaos can be a fun thing!

The Play Screen

Oh joy of joys. The play screen is simple and uncluttered, which cannot be said of Instacast or Downcast. There are a few simple buttons to start and stop a podcast. What more could you want?

Actually, a bit more. Maybe you want to forward a cast on a few minutes. Well you can. The advances playback controls do exist, but they are hidden below the podcast’s description. It’s not very evident, but you have to “lift-up” the description to see a beautiful skeuomorphic view of a reel to reel tap player with advanced controls.

Now there are many arguments about the appropriateness of skeuomorphic design, but in this instance I do find it works very well. The reel-to-reel tape recorder is an anachronism, which indicates this redesign is very much fun, but it is also subtle and exceedingly pretty. Indeed, when the podcast description is closed, it’s just possible to see the reels moving in the background.

So although at first it’s hard to find the advanced controls, the overall design of the player is very good.

Syncing Problems with Apple’s Podcast Application

One of the most important aspect of an application that co-exists on the iPad, iPhone and your desktop computer is the ability to sync content between applications in each environment. iCloud exists to be able to do that, however in this implementation Apple has been lamentable.

Yes, it is possible to sync the status of each podcast across iOS applications. If you start a podcast on your iPhone you can pick off where you left-off on your iPad. This is seamless and seemed to to work great.

However, what Apple has failed to build in is the ability to synchronize subscriptions. You have to add podcasts manually to each device. This is a big fail. Apps themselves are automatically added, new purchased music is automatically added, so why not podcast subscriptions?

I wonder if this has something to do with iTunes syncing (which doesn’t work at all reliably for me); and I hope they will put it at number one on their list for improving upcoming versions of the podcast app.

Which Podcast App to use?

I think for 80% of people Apple’s podcast application is perfect. I have 10-15 podcasts I listen to regularly and for me it’s the easy way I need to understand the status and play my podcasts. For power users, the 20%, Downcast and Instacast still exist and offer very good options (certainly better syncing!) and will fit that gap well. Overall a great application from Apple with some very interesting design innovations that should be studied by all app designers.