Every week The Friday App Clinic takes a critical look at a selection of apps in a particular category. Our focus on is to help developers learn how to make their apps magical, and we'll use these corresponding blog posts to provide links to some of the techniques you can use to make that happen.Last Friday Ian Ni-Lewis and I took the scalpel to podcast players. Up on the tablet were Doggcatcher, Beyond Pod, Pocket Casts, Volksempfänger, Listen Up, Good News, Podax, and Hipstacast.
Podcast Player Essentials
Let's start by looking at the fundamentals to creating a good podcast player.
Audio playback and control
This Android Training class on Managing Your Audio Playback explains audio focus and how to make sure your app responds to hardware and bluetooth multimedia control keys.
We recommend you create a homescreen widget to show users what's playing, and offer a shortcut to pause or skip tracks.
Use the Remote Control Client to offer the same details and shortcuts to users from the lock screen, and enrich your ongoing Notifications to support pause and resume playback at any time. While some of the apps we looked at allowed you to pause playback from a notification, doing so removed the notification, requiring you to relaunch the app to resume playback.
Offline Media Playback
Like any media playing app, a podcast player should continue to work even when your network connection is intermittent or disabled.
You can use the Download Manager to download podcasts in the background, using techniques like prefetching, as described in Android Training class Transferring Data Without Draining the Battery, to ensure that users are never left listening to "dead air" while the next track buffers or downloads.
Taking things a step further, Ian called out the elimination of the refresh button as the gold standard for podcast players.
Eliminating the refresh button is hard - which explains why all of the apps we looked at included a refresh button. To effectively remove it, you need to ensure that all your feeds are constantly up to date. The best solution is to use Google Cloud Messaging to notify each installation of your app whenever a new podcast is available.
Making Podcast Player Work Like Magic
Listening to podcasts is the sort of thing you tend to do when you're using your eyes for something else.
With your eyes otherwise occupied interacting with your app needs to be intuitive and familiar.
From a user-perspective, there's very little difference between a podcast player and a music player, but we noticed that many of the podcast players were presented more as podcast feed managers rather than media players, with playback controls like pause and skip were often hidden behind secondary tabs or even menu options.
Consider arranging your UI to focus around playback, so the media control buttons should always be available whenever a podcast is playing.
Podcasts are amazing -- there's thousands of hours of fresh content in every posible genre available for free, every day. But like TV and radio, content discovery is a key challenge.
The perfect podcast player should be as easy to use as the radio. Turn it on, and you should be able to start listening to something interesting within one or two clicks. That means presenting new users with a selection of content that's likely to get them hooked.
In the apps we looked at, we noticed that the behavior of the "next" and "previous" buttons was often unpredictable. If the user hits "next", your app should be able to determine something for them to listen to without them having to pick it out specifically.
Similarly, never present users with an empty screen, or rely on them knowing and entering a podcast URL in order to get started. Even if they're experienced podcast listeners with their favorite feeds, make it easy for them to test your app before they go to the trouble of importing their favorites.
The focus of many of the apps we looked at was in managing your subscriptions and controlling which episodes were downloaded. These are largely implementation details that help you decide how often to refresh feeds, which feeds to fetch, and which episodes to download ahead of time.
While important, this functionality but is secondary to the point of your app. In most cases, a user's preferences will be global for all their favorite podcasts, so rather than having them configure different settings for each feed, create a sensible (customizable) default and apply it to all their subscriptions. Now you only need to allow users to browse content and select the sources they favor.
Show users what they've got organized in ways that are familiar and obvious: genres, albums, artists, and playlists.
Tune in every Friday at 1pm Pacific Time (UTC-7) for The Friday App Clinic with Ian Ni-Lewis and Reto Meier.