Audio Usability in iPhone Apps

I am constantly drowning in a maelstrom of shitty usability problems so it is important to take the time to point out the things people actually do well.

Audio switching is a silly and annoying problem that plagues lots of audio based iPhone apps like Spotify, Rdio, Hype Machine and almost all games. The problem comes in several forms, but usually it is in the form of an app being overly greedy with audio. For example, Spotify will grab the audio away from background apps even when you aren't playing a song (which is annoying because it doesn't release it when you navigate away from Spotify). Almost all games act this way, not allowing me to play my own music over the game or allowing but not muting their own music. 

Today I found an app that deals with audio switching wonderfully. It is a game, Banana Kong, which is addicting and fun. When you open Banana Kong with audio playing through another app (Spotify, in my case), it deals with it perfectly. Here is what happens:

Banana Kong gameplay.

  • Allow the audio to continue over the gameplay
  • Mute the game music, but...
  • Play the effects sounds (getting coins, etc.) 

The last point is the kicker: it allows engaging gameplay without being overly greedy. Almost all games allow you to change the volume of the music and the effcts separately, this is just a reasonable extension of that. 

Almost all usability wins like this can be arrived at from a single idea: see things as they really are.   "Audio" is not a single facet of the game that must be either taken in full or removed. Your game music is ok, but it is repetitive and I like my own music better. Game effects, on the other hand, add considerably to the game even without the music, often making it easier or more fun (it is often very difficult to play a game without the feedback of the game effect sounds).