A rant/review on Google Play Music’s UI

Disclaimer: I’ve posted a few complaints about Google Play Music (GPM)’s graphical layout in other places before, and many of them have been fixed in later updates. Play Music is one of the better Android services, and it’s improved on a fairly regular basis.

Second disclaimer: GPM is flawed, but still my music player of choice by a long shot. Few music players have better Material Design implementation, and no music players have GPM’s level of cross-device syncing. That’s what Google does best (though some notable examples do still hang out (behind) the rest) and my life is seriously better with Google Docs, Keep, Photos, Contacts, Mail, Chrome and Music. I use all of those things every day and am very happy with all of them.

I remember when GPM was first updated to Material Design late last year. Play Music was already ahead of the curve, and it was exciting to see Google implement their own philosophy. Early this year I took the plunge and uploaded my music collection, and it’s really taken the headache out of ID3 tag editing and playlist syncing, while giving me useful features like song play counts.

Buuut their UI still frustrates me in a few ways. Phase 2 of Material Design seems to be focused on spreading information out across a needless number of pages, having the user navigate small buttons to move between pages rather than scrolling or swiping. Let’s start with the Artist page.

Things look pretty nice. There’s an easily recognizable profile picture for the artist (blending with the transparent status bar to boot). The orange circle implies playing the ‘St. Vincent’ category at the highest level, and clicking it indeed prompts a shuffle of every St. Vincent song. The biography is embedded as the artist’s wikipedia entry , and it does not appear when the device is offline.

But why is there an ‘All my songs’ entry in the album list? The orange circle at the top already takes me to a list of every St. Vincent song.

True, clicking All my songs takes the user to a list of every St. Vincent song without automatically playing one of the songs (the orange button does the opposite, playing a song without showing you any list) but this could be easily implemented into the orange button’s function. As it is, the All songs entry clogs the ‘purity’ of the album view. Every song is presented twice, within the context of the album (as intended by the artist) and in a list already accessible by the orange button.

The simple change of moving the All songs entry ‘inside’ the orange play button would imbue the Artist page with natural hierarchy. Scrolling down the page would naturally move you from the option to browse their body of work alphabetically, down to their albums. “In my library” should be “Albums”, plain and simple. No more, no less.

A personal preference choice would also be to sort the albums by year, rather than alphabetically, as the web version of GPM does, but the app is just as navigable either way.

Now let’s look at the Now Playing page, which is available anywhere in the app by swiping up from the bottom (whenever a song is playing, obviously.

Things have moved around a little bit since the initial MD refresh, but the layout is basically the same. The Thumbs Up button is now easier to reach with my left thumb, all the icons are clear, the three-dot-drop-down menu lets me do a bunch of things (add song to playlist, go to album, go to artist, etc..)… but something’s wrong here.

The album art, a 1x1 picture, is being shown at the phone’s 16:9 ratio. Want to see the whole picture? Too bad!

This is clearly a holdover from KitKat’s introduction of (glorious) fullscreen album art in the lock screen, which only saw a small change in the move to Lollipop in the form of player controls as a notification, which makes sense and looks… okay. (We probably don’t need a thumbnail of the art already plastered across the whole screen, but as a representation of the status bar notification, it makes a little sense.)

But the point is, the lockscreen clearly needs to crop the album art to make it full screen. The music player doesn’t need full screen album art, and it isn’t full screen anyway, because the controls cover the top & bottom of the album art.

If Material Design is all about the content, all about getting out of the user’s way… why not get out of their way and show the whole album art? At the very least, scale the album art back to the edges of the white bars on the top and bottom. Even if the Repeat and Shuffle icons were still on top of the album art, but the bottom edge of the album aligned with the top edge of the white control bar (and the top edge of the album aligned with the bottom edge of the white info bar) the user would get to see a lot more of their own music’s artwork. It wouldn’t be 1x1, some information would still lie beyond the edges of the phone screen, but it would be a lot less than how it’s displayed now.

And if Google wants to avoid pure white on the control bars, they could be dynamically matched to the artwork (like the status bar in most Lollipop apps.) But Google’s own introduction of Material Design at last year’s I/O emphasized white as a neutral space. And it isn’t an overkill, burn-your-retinas-when-you-open-the-app-drawer-at-night blinding sheet of white — it’s two small bars with a functional place and purpose on the boundaries of the Now Playing page. Scaling the artwork back, and letting the album cover be an album cover and letting the white be white, would be within the bounds of Material Design and let the content remain the focus.

That’s my biggest issue with Google Play Music right now, as an app I use every single day. Besides that, I swear it’s really great and I’m mostly happy.

If I was in charge of GPM, my next move would be to make Listen Now the leftmost page of the My Library section, and there is hope for that, as the latest update has moved Playlists, Instant Mixes, Genres, Artists, Albums and Songs into the My Library section. Swiping as an abstract gesture always beats hunting for a specific button.

That’s been my rant on Google Play Music as an inaugural post to my “finally, a place to complain about Android” Medium page. Thanks!