The incredibly popular apps and content Apple sells for their incredibly popular devices lets them get away with some brain-bending nesting, recursions, and redundancies when it comes to naming and organizing their apps, services, and related features.

Here, let Merlin explain:

A Podcasts app for podcasts on your iPhone, Podcasts in iTunes on OS X. Separate Music and Video apps on iOS, the same functionality in tabs within iTunes on OS X. Two App Stores with identical icons — one for buying OS X apps, one for iOS. Oh, and you can still buy iOS apps in iTunes. I could go on and on. For sanity's sake, let's not even think about iBooks, ringtones, iCloud backups, iTunes Match, etc.

Some of the compromises they've made so far are understandable, but also depressing. It's not hard to imagine a project planning meeting somewhere out in Corplandia where "Apple does it" becomes justification for stapling two or three or twelve barely related tasks onto an existing platform or system. Sure Apple does it. Their ecosystem also happens to be based on selling highly-desirable apps and content—primarily marketed by the people who create that stuff—to support umpteen million devices that either exclusively or primarily derive their value from said apps and content. You're probably not so lucky.

Apple's ecosystem breaks UX's golden rule: it makes me think. Hard. I can't seem to build a sensible mental map of Apple's ecosystem, at least not one that helps me effortlessly know which app to open on what device to accomplish the task of the moment. I'm thinking way too hard about simple decisions like buying a one dollar app or song.

Being fuzzy on little details like having two discrete products with the same name is something few companies can get away with. Apple has a massive brand and massive bankroll primarily driven by hardware sales of real, tangible stuff. They have "stuff stuff" — computers, phones, mice, stores. Most of us just have "idea stuff" — websites, apps, services, add-ons and plug-ins, packages and languages. Giving idea stuff some semblance of substance requires careful construction of sensible taxonomies.

If you're in the business of selling ideas, you'd better give those ideas some hard edges. You need to make clear at a glance what each component of your ecosystem does and how they all relate to each other. Digital or not, people like to know what stuff is and what it does. That comes before deciding if it's good or not, if it's better or worse than the other guy's, and if it's worth the asking price.

Worse? These kinds of problems only compound and multiply with time. Let them multiply for too long and you're not just confusing people, you're building a schizophrenic company. Every idea that gets stapled on to a different, barely related idea makes you that much less nimble, that much less focused.

Playing fast and loose with product names and related features across platforms can directly impact usability, too. Here's one example from Apple's mess I ran into (several times) today:

  1. I'm listening to music on my MacBook through the Rdio app, controlling playback with the built-in keyboard shortcuts.
  2. I open iTunes to check out an iOS game someone recommended on Twitter.
  3. I click 'Store', then search for the game in the resulting search box.
  4. Meanwhile, a track I'd prefer to skip starts playing on Rdio
  5. I press the skip-forward button (F8) on my keyboard.
  6. Nothing happens.

Nothing happened because iTunes took over the playback controls. I didn't open iTunes open to play music. In fact, I almost never use iTunes to play media. Distracted from my original objective, I opted for quitting iTunes and getting back to what I was doing in an effort to not let my brain get sucked into thinking about how screwy this all is. (Except it did; you're reading the result.)

It's tempting to staple stuff together, whether that stuff is software and services or ideas and concepts — even companies. Without the right perspective that comes from research, careful planning, and — I'll say it — a healthy dose of content strategy, you might think one idea is supporting another when in fact they're both weighing each other down. Think carefully before reaching for that staplegun.

AuthorScott Kubie
CategoriesUX and Design