Problems with the YouTube Playlist Bar

by on 08/21/10 at 10:57 pm

YouTube’s playlist feature is a great concept. However, the problem with it is not the playlist concept, but the way the playlist bar displays and functions for users. YouTube uses a bottom bar frame that pops up and down as each item in the playlist plays. Here is what it looks like on my browser (click to enlarge).

Bottom bar popping up

Bottom bar collapsed

I’m sure just by looking at it you can spot some user experience problems, but by using it you can feel how painful it is. In any user interface, the content should dictate the form. Here we have the form dictating the content. The focus is entirely on the user interface without consideration of the content. It’s almost as if someone thought the bottom bar would be a hip and trendy novelty so they implemented it for that reason. The bottom bar simply does not work and I’m not the only one that thinks so. Just google “youtube bottom bar” and you’ll find videos and articles that explain to a bunch of unhappy YouTube users how to remove it.  Here’s a few unhappy YouTube users letting the YouTube engineering team know how they truly feel about the playlist bar: http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/youtube/thread?tid=63f8e30552697903&hl=en.

Now, without further ado, here are the problems with the YouTube playlist bar:

It’s Intrusive

When it pops up, its covering too much of the screen. Users want content and to get access to it without obstruction. The interface interferes with other features on the site such as commenting and sharing. A bottom bar like that should not intrude on the user’s content and space. To improve on it, the designers should make it thinner. They should also make the click targets flush with edge to make use Fitt’s Law, so that users navigate through content faster, easier and without error. I like the bottom bar concept, but YouTube’s design execution of it went horribly wrong in this case.

It’s Complex

The playlist bar itself is a feature, and there are features within that feature. You have the autoplay, the shuffle and the queue features all within the playlist bar. That is quite feature heavy and makes the user interface absolutely complicated. You shouldn’t need an instruction manual to figure out how to use a navigation bar. It should display content and navigate to it.  That’s it.  Keep it useful and simple.

It Lacks User Control

This one that has pissed off a lot of people. User’s don’t feel like they have control over the playlist bar. The bar collapses, but you can’t get out of it unless you click on video that doesn’t belong to the playlist. There isn’t an option to use the bottom bar or an alternative. One user sums it up beautifully, “One of the basic principles of design is to give users control. This is something your learn in Human Computer Interaction 101. Not giving users the option to turn a feature off is arrogant.”

It’s Hard to Scan

Users want to scan the content on a playlist. YouTube makes this hard because the item title doesn’t show up unless you roll your mouse over the thumbnail making it secondary in priority to the thumbnails. Oh, but first you have to pop up the bottom bar before you can do this. So, you have to click on it and then roll your mouse over it. That’s two actions too many for a playlist item title. It also uses horizontal scrolling making it awkward to navigate, and can’t use your mouse-wheel to scroll either.

It Has Bad Contrast

Not only is the background transparent, but the thumbnails are too. Thus, it makes the thumbnails look dim and unappealing. The purpose of design is to make content shine, but in YouTube’s playlist bar the star is apparently the designer’s ego, not the content. This is a good example of bad design.

It Moves

It goes up. It goes down. Users don’t want moving things on their screens unless it’s coming from content such as a video. The whole collapsing functionality is a mess. It’s not intuitive to the user how to collapse it and pop it back up because you have four different types of arrows pointing every which way in the bar. It can’t get anymore confusing than this.

Despite this user experience disaster, I remain optimistic. I’m glad YouTube is brave enough to try something new and take risks because that is how you truly learn, and I believe they will learn from this. Nevertheless, I don’t think this issue is a matter of testing the design or not because the interaction design basics aren’t even right. What I think it boils down to is that YouTube’ designers prefer to design for themselves instead of their user.

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