Cover Flow is a nice looking interface, but it is eye candy far from a practical and useful interface. The biggest problem with Cover Flow is that the user can only view the currently selected album, the one before, and the one after (and only a fraction of the latter two). The reason why this is not useful has to do with the way we mentally process ordered lists.
Typically we view lists in words made up by letters- since the alphabet is standard and consistent, we are used to making sense of where a “G” falls in reference to the rest of the items in the list. It is an automatic mental process developed by our mastery of the alphabet and language. By contrast, Cover Flow forces us to constantly relearn our mental processes of ordering visual cues in the form of album covers. While you could argue that it is possible to learn the order of album art covers, it would take time and would be difficult since the list is dynamic.
We are all obsessed with album art and love visual interfaces, but a different approach needs to be taken in order to circumvent our natural understanding of language and ordered lists.
At CES 2008 I had a chance to use MS Surface hands on, particularly the Zune interface. The first thing I thought was, “I want this in my home tomorrow”. But considering the hardware is not available to consumers and the hardware costs push to over $10,000 my dreams of a fluid and useful interface where instantly crushed. Instead, taking a different approach I thought, “How can this be translated to the desktop?” The answer is, almost directly.
While some things would be missed translated to the desktop such as multi-touch and physically setting the device on the screen, it would only take simple work arounds and minimal sacrifices to get a fully working Surface interface in Windows Media Player or the Zune’s software. This interface becomes particularly interesting on the desktop when we have the ability to drag and drop and manipulate the album cover matrix with a mouse.
So how does this solve Cover Flow’s deficiencies? The Surface interface would work around our mental inability to order art by allowing us to view 50 to 100 album covers at a time. Many times entire collections could be viewed at once, but when collections are larger and require minimal scrolling, visual cures in the form of letters can be added into the album mosaic.
Here is a video I took of Surface and how it interacts with the Zune. This could obviously be applied to Windows Media Player and other portable devices. The way that they are dragging content to the physical Zune laying on the Surface could be done as an icon or a virtual Zune on the desktop.
This is the Zune’s Now Playing screen. Currently the purpose just eye candy fading album arts in and out in addition to displaying the now playing list and current album. These also fade out when in active to show only the album and mosaic. With a few tweaks to this screen, with the addition the addition of Surface features and additional usability, you would have a pretty stunning way to browse music, make playlists, and sync your MP3 player.