At the beginning of August, beta testers began to announce to the internet at large that the YouTube application had been removed from their devices when they installed the fourth beta of the upcoming iOS 6. Shortly after these discoveries were made public, Apple announced that its licensing relationship with YouTube had ended, so the built-in YouTube app would not be included in the new version of the operating system. This brief article from Mac Rumors (http://www.macrumors.com/2012/08/06/ios-6-beta-4-removes-dedicated-youtube-app/) sums up the major points of the story, and finishes with a rather interesting quote which was passed along by folks from YouTube, that reads: “We are working with Apple to make sure we have the best possible YouTube experience for iOS users.”
Just a few days short of the Apple press event which announced iOS 6 and the iPhone 5 (http://content.usatoday.com/communities/technologylive/post/2012/09/apple-iphone-event-sept-12/1) Google Inc. released a new YouTube app on the App Store. Google’s accessibility record has been fairly spotty of late, with some really pleasantly usable entries, such as Play Books, some up and coming contenders like the Nexus 7 Tablet running Jelly Bean, and some far less usable products. This begs the question, did they succeed in providing the “best possible YouTube experience for iOS users.” (Especially blind iOS users)?
In a word? No. First, let me get this out of the way. Yes, technically, this app is somewhat usable. Buttons are mostly labeled in meaningful ways, (although it took me a moment to figure out what “Search Voice@2x” was supposed to do.) a user can sign in (if they double-tap on the right sign in panel), search for videos (as long as they don’t mind not knowing the username of the person who uploaded it), and even start a clip with relative ease (though stopping is a bit trickier). I will admit that this is better than the apps which just dully pop when I go to explore the screen, or spew nothing but “unlabeled button” “unlabeled button” as I attempt to navigate, but it’s far from the polished experience provided by the old iOS YouTube app. To add insult to injury, once I upgrade to iOS6, I can’t even do an end around to avoid this clunky obnoxious app because VoiceOver cannot see the search button on m.youtube.com. What’s been done so wrong in this app? Well, my above comments should give you an overview, but there’s plenty more to talk about, so here’s the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the YouTube iOS app.
Good falls into two categories, both accessibility implemented well, (something of a short list), and general improvements over the original iOS app for all users. So… let’s talk accessibility. As I stated previously, most buttons, controls and other elements are meaningfully labeled, including the titles of videos and the settings page. Most controls are also in the flick order (though there are a number of problems with this that we will discuss later) which always makes it easier to move through an app one is unfamiliar with. That’s about all I’ve got. It’s a good baseline to build from, but, rather disappointing for such a high profile app.
The much brighter news though, is that there are actually a number of different general improvements to the app which will benefit everyone, sighted and blind, so long as the accessibility gets shored up. First, since videos can be monetized now, we are likely to actually get more (ad-supported) videos than we could on the previous iOS app. This will be especially exciting for music video enthusiasts. Another new feature that I rather like is the Guide. The Guide will make YouTube more fun to just browse because it allows for a little granularity in the results that YouTube insists on blasting us with. Now, if I want to wander YouTube aimlessly, I can at least wander through a backlog of topics that interest me, such as pets, or technology, instead of just whatever everyone else is watching right now. It’s possible to control one’s subscriptions in the app now as well, and see playlists of videos. These are major features of YouTube that were simply not present in the old iOS app, and are welcome signs of innovation (though they both have accessibility concerns that mar them somewhat). Finally, The social media stuff, such as the like and dislike buttons, are easier to find and access, while a user can now browse comments and other video information while waiting for their video to play (though the comments on most YouTube videos probably belong under the Ugly section of this review).
I realize as I write this that bad and ugly probably sound like the same thing, so for purposes of this review, bad is going to be what I consider to be general design issues that may hamper any user of the app, and we will save ugly for problems encountered with the VoiceOver interface, because believe me, ugly is the best description for that mess.
I admit that there are actually few areas (save accessibility) where this app doesn’t actively improve on the iOS app, but there were three that I feel were worth mentioning. First, when I mistyped my password while signing into my account, the authentication error flashed visually across the screen without any announcement in VO. Why is this not a dialog box? It would ensure that both blind and sighted users would see the error and correct it. As it stands, someone who wasn’t watching visually would not get the message that they had a problem until they tried to do an account specific activity. It’s sloppy, and unhelpful to us and sighted users in my opinion.
The second complaint is that in the old iOS app, it was possible to see my subscriptions list without a bunch of “YouTube Recommends” results cluttering up my timeline. If I wanted to see what YouTube Recommended, I would have gone to the Featured page and viewed them. It’s a small thing, but I find it a rather unfortunate change.
Yes, those were nitpicks, but the other major issue is fairly significant (at least to a particular subset of iOS users). There is no native iPad app. The YouTube app is running in 2x mode on an iPad. It’s not a game, or something that usually makes sense on a smaller screen, this is a video streaming app. Why didn’t they build this with universal support? I don’t understand how they think that this is anything like the “best possible YouTube experience for iOS users”. They claim that an iPad app will be forthcoming in a few months’ time, but it’s really a backwards design choice to my way of thinking. And speaking of backwards design, let’s look at accessibility concerns in:
So, as I previously stated, the app is sort of usable, but the number of hang-ups and strange behaviors the app produced with VoiceOver is fairly staggering. Most issues were surmountable via workarounds, but it is ridiculous that they were necessary. An example of a perfectly functional (if somewhat limited) YouTube app already exists, and they had a fully unrestricted ability to study all of the Interface elements it provided, but this kludgy mess is the best they could come up with?
If you noticed, above in the “Good” section, I said that elements were meaningfully labeled, yes, that was intentional wording. Let me explain, I don’t want to say that they are all “properly” labeled, (some are, but not all) because several elements were labeled strangely like the previously mentioned Voice Search button, or missing what I would consider crucial information, such as whether the video s actually one from someone you subscribe to, or one that “YouTube Recommends”. For that matter, I find that I am missing another fairly crucial bit of information from the videos, the username or channel name of the uploader. Many videos have the same name and vastly different content, and it’s important to know who uploaded a video and the number of times it’s been viewed to decide if you want to watch it or not. Videos read as “Video Table Entry [name of video]. Playlists, like videos are missing some useful information, (the number of videos in the list). Channel searches, on the other hand, (surprise, surprise,) actually provide all the same information to blind users as they do sighted users. So that’s actually pretty great.
The app contains two places that a user can sign in. One is prominently displayed on the main page, while the other is tucked into the “Guide” menu. Blind users have to sign in from the Sign In Button under the menu opened with the “Guide” button, as the option on the main screen which allows a user to “swipe to sign in” does not function correctly with VoiceOver.
If you visit a channel, it can be difficult to change your subscription status. If you are subscribed to a channel an element next to it reads “Subscribed”, double tapping it changes the word to “Unsubscribe?”, and if you don’t confirm by double-tapping again, it reverts after about a second to “Subscribed”. A channel that you are not currently following reads “Subscribe”, this needs to be double-tapped as one would expect in order to subscribe to the channel.
Those problems are frustrating, particularly the lack of pertinent information about videos, but the greatest barrier to easily and happily using this app as a blind person is a problem that I like to call “phantom” VoiceOver elements. These are essentially elements that are not currently on the screen, but VoiceOver reads (and visually surrounds their location on the screen) as though they are currently available. If a user double taps on a phantom, they will activate whatever control is visually shown on screen under the VO cursor, not the phantom which was read. If there is nothing on the screen where the phantom would reside, then no action occurs. These are all over the app. The entire guide list reads behind the main screen, or settings screen if the user attempts to flick through the interface. The most troublesome issue though is that there are actually two unique sets of phantoms behind videos on a viewing screen, and these phantoms have to be manipulated in order to control videos. If a user explores the area under the video (whether it is playing or not) they get items from the “Guide” menu read back to them. Here’s the thing, in order to access video controls, (like, dislike, more button, play/replay, scrubber or full-screen controls) they actually have to “activate” one of these phantoms or double-tap and hold in the playing video itself (which resides in the top third of the screen) or these controls never show, and cannot be explored or flicked to. If however, a user has managed to bring up these controls, and they disappear into the interface again while highlighted, they become the second set of phantoms on the video screen. (This can also happen if a user has started a video, and not flicked away from the play button until it disappears). If these are phantoms, they have to be double tapped twice to activate them, not just once. The first time makes them “visible” again, and the second actually interacts with the control. This is buggy, broken and obnoxious, and I am really quite put out with Google for putting out an app which is this unpleasant to use.
I really want to like the new YouTube app. It has a number of new features that I am sure are going to be a boon to all users, but instead, I’m left feeling frustrated. YouTube is one of my favorite forms of relaxation, but using this app just feels like a chore. It may mean I’ll have to find new places to get my techno-nerd and cute animal cravings met. Hey Google, would you give me my accessible YouTube back? Pretty Please? Preferably before Apple takes it away.