YouTube's new UI: Not bad, but here's what's wrong with it

Yesterday afternoon, Google launched a new YouTube design and the Internet exploded. Let's face it: people hate change. Has any popular site ever changed its design without getting lots of angry feedback? I don't think so (though I'd love to be proven wrong).

Check out the comments on the official blog post about the new design, or the G+ post announcing it. Lots of unhappy people (though opinions are a bit more mixed on G+).

I'm not really unhappy with the new design, but it certainly has what are, in my opinion, some flaws and rough spots, and since I have a soapbox to gripe from, that's what I'm going to do.

First though, here's their introductory video in case you haven't seen it yet:

Their first mistake was showing the site using an animation suggesting paper-prototyping rather than just, well, showing the site. Web developers probably got what was going on (I did) but apparently some users thought the new interface was going to look like it did in the video. Apparently people want gigantic red cursor arrows on their YouTube. There's no accounting for taste, I guess.

Google is pushing social throughout all its services, it seems, and the new YouTube is no exception. Prominently displayed are menu items that connect YouTube to Google+ and let you connect to Facebook. There're a couple of problems here. First is that you can't abolish either of those items, even if you choose not to connect to a Facebook account. A bigger issue is that the Google+ link displays videos from people who have you Circled, but that you don't have Circled. I suspect this is limited to people you may have Circled at one time; I didn't see any total strangers in my G+ YouTube feed, but I did see shares from people I've un-Circled.

The default view of the YouTube homepage is now heavily channel-based. If you just want to poke around randomly there's still a Browse link tucked in next to the search box, but for the most part Google thinks you just want to watch stuff you're subscribed to. Beneath those social media links are 5 of the channels you're subscribed to. You can re-arrange these by clicking on "See All" and then Pinning up to 10 channels. They'll appear in the order you Pin them in which makes re-arranging them a tad cumbersome. How about some fancy HTML5/jQuery drag and drop arranging, Google? Back on the Home page you can click More to see all your channels. That's not a persistent choice though, and it should be. If I open up my list of channels so I can see them all, when I leave the page and come back, YouTube should remember my preference and have all my channels exposed again. Granted that's nit-picking, but still.

In the center column is a chronological listing of activity in all your channels. If you click on a channel in the left nav, of course, you just see activity from just that channel. If you just want to see actual uploaded videos, you can filter that way (otherwise you'll see activity like adding an existing video to a playlist). There's no way to change sort order, which is a failing if you're trying to watch some kind of series of videos. You have to scroll to the bottom of the feed and work your way up. Clumsy.

But the major problem with this center column is that you really have no control over it. For instance (and this is, in my opinion, the single biggest failing of the new UI) video listings don't change after you watch the video. They should at least 'fade out' in some way, and optionally they should just vanish from the listing (with a "Show All" option in case you want to get them back later). Clearly Google wants you to kick back and spend an evening watching YouTube instead of watching cable, but they don't make it easy for you to keep track of what you've seen and what you haven't.

Last, let's talk recommendations. YouTube recommends both channels and videos, based on...dark magic, I guess (their recommendations for me were not compelling). There's no way to disagree with a channel recommendation, so there's no way to improve on these recommendations. For individual videos, you have to click through to the video and then give it a thumbs down to get it out of your recommendations list. That seems needlessly harsh. When there's a video I'm apathetic about, it seems wrong that I have to actively vote it down in order to get it out of my recommendations.

So griping over; the truth is I actually like the direction YouTube is heading in. I have to admit I'm not a YouTube power-user: I rarely 'hang out' on the site. I generally am driven there by a link or an embedded video on some other site. Once they do some iterating on this new design, that could change.

So what do you think? Are you one of the angry pitchfork and torch carrying users calling for a boycott of the new UI? Or do you see some value there? Leave a comment!

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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