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Plex Desktop Client – UX Analysis

March 29, 2012

About Plex

I use Plex as my Home Theatre PC system. It first started as a way to play videos through my 55″ Plasma at home. Its turned into a 5 year project and video collection.

Why I wrote this

I talked to Elan, the creator of Plex and who now runs a company developing and monetizing it. He said that they were already ( or soon?) going to be revamping the default Plex desktop client. I told him that I had some feedback that I would send. It got too long for an email, so I have turned it into this.

What I want to touch-on is the User eXperience of the Desktop client. I have my mac-mini hooked up to my Plasma and use the Plex Desktop client on it. I have subsequently installed a Apple TV elsewhere. The Apple TV is NICE.  You can hack the Apple TV and put a Plex client on it! A REALLY good one. After doing this, I began using the Apple TV Plex client more often, because it was easier, ready-to-go, and its UX is pretty good.

Below, I review the desktop client UX while keeping in mind the Apple TV client and other skins that are available for the desktop UI.

Pro’s / Likes

  • Foundations & Meta Data

    • I think that many many people stay with Plex and suggest it to others, because of the great job Plex has done on architecting the foundation, and the great job it does identifying and interacting with a variety of media and associated meta-data. Keep making meta-data acquisition and mgmt easier and more automated, in addition-to making it more manageable at the client sides. You notice errors in meta-data when you are using the system, not admining it. In the end – No one wants to deal with meta data mgmt – everyone wants it pristine.
  • Armchair HD’ness

    • Its what many of us AV geekers loved from the beginning – a true HD experience from front to back, yet still arm-chair readable. ATV2 seems to lack in making this stand out as well as the desktop – but maybe that is just my 55 incher speaking for itself on the desktop app 🙂
  • Organization

    • It can be done in many ways. You create your own organization to a degree. This is good and bad. Good for the AV geeks that Plex has been traditionally popular with – complex for the users that just want it to work ‘out of the box’.
    • Maybe a solution is to create, by-default on new installs, a few categories on the Media Manager. If a default empty category is chosen in the desktop client, some simple message (in the client) could let new users know that they should use the Media Manager to find and fill in media. I am thinking of new users who come in through the iphone or android app and dont have servers already. Maybe this is smooth already? I dunno
  • Channels

    • Simplification of plug-ins to channels was a great idea – much easier for understanding. Keep going with it. Bring the separate types of plug-ins all into one eventually. I think maybe this is done on the atv2 or iPhone?? not sure. The “Simplex Energized” skin does a good job of putting all the different channel types into one main menu item (see below). Even then, most people will mostly use only one or two kinds of these ‘Channels’. I use Video 98% of the time.
  • myPlex

    • Single best idea and implementation in the last year. It is not a UX piece of the desktop client so much, but I wanted mention it.
    • myPlex is so nice for stupid-easy configuration, and for queuing videos I don’t want to watch at work or that I get via email. Its very needed and used by the oncoming onslaught of virgin users that Plex likely wants to encourage.
  • Content backgrounds

    • The HD background for content, like once I am inside “Roger Rabbit”, or “Stargate Atlantis”. Those work AMAZINGLY well, and that experience has improved a lot. Keep it as is. However, see “Changing backgrounds” below.
  • Lots of Preferences

    • I love the large amount of preferences. Keep ’em coming. If nested smartly and UNIFORMLY, even new users can treat them right. The navigation of said preferences needs improvement – up, down, left, right, sub menus, sub sub menus, etc. Seems like there is inconsistency in which buttons are used to do what during the prefs navigation. See ‘Preference Navigation Confusion’ below.
  • Skins

    • Love how they seem to be pretty wide open as to what they can implement and change. However, skins are not easily browsable and changeable out of the box. See ‘Skin Confusion’ below.
  • Plays nice with all (most) content

    • The Plex desktop client is nice because it plays nice (very nice) with pirated content as well as your own burned and personal content.
    • Just get rid of the known audio bug 😉

Con’s / Pet peeves

  • Viewing Options Menu

    • One initial confusion of the UI for me, is how to use and change the different viewing modes. Cool feature, that often gets in the way and provides initial confusion.
    • Sometimes, when you click the right arrow enough, a right hand side pop-up comes up and lets you choose from different viewing styles.
    • This right click or arrow is constantly hit by myself because I think that it will play the media or go into the menu. All of a sudden, some other pop-up menu appears. I do not know what it does by the text in it. Confused. I fumble around and see huge changes in the way that the media is shown. I eventually get back to browsing my content.
    • Make it harder to find / enable. Fresh users should never run into it so easily.
    • I think this section should be accessed in some other way – though still within each individual section. Dont stick it off in the Prefs menu – its useful to play with the viewing in each section. Maybe do it similar to how the Alaska skin does it:
  • Section Preview Art work

    • When you hover over a root menu item such as “movies” or “tv shows”, it shows to the right, a listing of the recently added, or recently watched – and their cover art. Bad choice I think. It is confusing to new users who expect to initially see, for example, their listing of 5 separate TV series that they have. Instead, it often shows me the same album cover art of 3 NCIS shows, and 2 album covers of the same art of The Mentalist. Both shows that are my wifes, that I don’t care about, and leaving me initially confused as to where my other 10 tv series might be navigable at.
    • It is an excellent feature for seasoned users, who are part way into seasons and just want to get the next episode. It is not a good default feature to have on.
    • Its not much of a leap to learn that you hit enter and go into that section, but it is an initial confusion that should be an option at the least. Many users will think that click right here and browsing these ondeck previews, is the only way to browse their media.
    • I like how the ATV2 client does it. I have the settings setup to show my ‘on deck’ ‘TV shows’ in the apple tv’s top rack. I think it defaulted to ‘latest’ ‘movies’. Here is how it looks:
  • Filtering options

    • I have zero need to define, each and every time that I come into a section, that I want to see “All items”. This is my #1 pet peeve – but I think that new users do not get confused by this – so its not too high on the UX food chain. I would venture to bet that the vast majority of users pick the “All…” option 90% of the time – or that they stick to one of the filters, most of the time. Axe ’em by default. My opinion would be to keep the filtering options, but not have it on by default / initial install. Give the preference option to set this or to turn it back on, for those users who like it.
  • Changing backgrounds

    • Its a nice idea, the use of HD art from your titles and music as backgrounds during the root menu items – but its confusing to new users. Keyword here is, ROOT menu. First menu I see as a new user. I liked it more before, when it was some really nice, but easy to associate HD pictures like the movie theatre, the old tv, and Elans dog (nice photography he and his wife do btw ). I know there are options for this in the prefs – but by default, KISS. Keep It Simple. Let advanced users hack away at their root menu backgrounds.
    • The changing background works better in skins that mute the background images – allowing the menus to stick out and not be associated with the image:
  • Subtitle selection

    • On the desktop client, I did not see any easy way to select, before watching, which subtitle is available (to find out if there is any subtitles available at all, or if 5 are available), which ones is chosen, and if subtitles are on or off.
    • There is an in-play option for much of this, but I think it makes the in-play experience cleaner if its accessible outside in the menus.
    • ATV2 has a button selection before watching the movie:
  • Subtitle acquisition

    • Attaining and managing subtitle meta-data for media needs major work and architecture expansion. In my experience, it can work (sometimes), and its there, but you don’t get much feedback, there is not much interaction if things go wrong.
    • Management of subtitles should be available IN the client. There is so much room for error on subtitle-matching, that it is inevitable that user interaction (while browsing the media) will be needed.
    • I like that subtitle offset is available in-play. This way you can match up subtitles that are off. However, the offset that you set does not seem to save when you play the episode again later, or on another client. Wish subtitle offset was saved somewhere.
  • Buttons in In-play Interface

    • There should be no buttons to select. Do not allow the user to navigate left, right to buttons while media is playing. Its unintuitive. DVD players and VCRs never did this.
    • I do however like the extended in-play menus on the right. They are handy when you need them. If they stay out of the way of beginner users (arent easily accessible), then they should stay.
    • See next item for suggestions.
  • In-play ATV2-like UI

    • While playing content, I now find myself expecting the desktop plex to act like my apple tv. You hit something on the remote or keyboard, and it causes something to happen or show. Apple really hit the in-play UI on the nail. Simple, intuitive, easy, and guessable. There are not on-screen buttons that you can navigate to like the desktop app. If you git the “Down” button you get #2 only. If you hit the “Up” button, you get #3, if you hit “Up” again, you get #3 and #1. Below are the extent of Apples in-play components:
    • You can still introduce complexity (menus for a/v options like subtitle details, and screen brightness) via something like the double up key and then right arrow. See below mock-up. Keep any detailed menus away from the default / beginner user, so that they are not confused and to them it “just works”.
  • Skin confusion

    • I spent 15 mins in the plex desktop interface trying to figure out how to browse, download and enable a new skin. I thought I recalled doing this in the past. I failed. I wanted to try another skin only because of the pet peaves and annoyances listed here. I was hoping that maybe skins also allow slightly different UX operations…. Someone at work a year ago told me to get Alaska.
    • I am seeing now after some research that you have to d/l and place these manually or with preen. This eventually should be productized and available skins selectable in the options.
  • Media Manager abilities not available from client

    • If given the ability to enact 60% of the Media Manager content-org features, IN the client – Id pay for it after having seen it in action. Plex could upsell this. It would have to be done right and not rear its head for begining users or other family users. I know that this would be a complete rehaul in architecture, and everyone would start expecting the features on all clients. It would require a lot of resources, but damn it’d be friggin sweet to select an alternate background while browsing to my favorite series, or to correct a match while in bed with my apple tv 2 remote.
  • Meta-data upstream feedback

    • It would be boss if, when you fix meta-data issues, that they are fed back to a writeable DB or API. I think I read that freebase is open writeable. Public DBs should learn from mistakes that users find and fix in the Media Manager or even in the client. I know you can’t fix this stuff in the client now, but I sure have found myself wanting to – and wishing that the change would have the possibility to be fixed for everyone.
  • ATV2-like Content Options

    • I especially like ATV2s options-layout once you are on a specific content title. I do not see anything like this in the desktop Plex. It gives 3 or 4 big buttons for “Play”, “Audio/Subs” (which a/v streams to play, which sub titles to play), and “More” (watched, unwatched… this section could handle so much more). I like the very limited options at first, that then branch out as I dive into those various buttons.
    • I would cream my pants if the “More…” button was worked to have a “changed media meta-data” option where you then could fix its background art, matching, soft-delete it, etc.
  • Preference Navigation Confusion

    • Many confusions with this…
    • An initial submenu is off of the main root menu on the left hand side. All good. If you go into one of these – say “Videos”, there is now some other menu on the RIGHT side, and im not even sure where I am in the hierarchy. Did I go into the Videos section? I dont know, because the first submenu disappeared. 
    • Unified UX rules on menus is needed. Sometimes only the enter key takes action (changing a menu item), sometimes just moving the cursor takes action (the sub sub menu shown above, on the right)
    • Escape brings you out of the entire preference experience. Not even the root pref menu choice is displayed. I would have thought it would take you back one level. The rest of the UX acts in this former way.
    • There is an awkward “Change Preferences For…” title at the top, and the title under it (the section you are in) can be changed. Only allow this context change back at the root level, not in two places. Confused me. I never know where I am located – there is no clear, visual “breadcrumb” of where I am in the hierarchy of menus.
    • Needs to be simple and consistent like ATV2 menus are. No more “buttons”. Currently, you can hit left and right to focus on various “buttons” (up, down arrows for multibox selection). None of that. It confuses people I think. Instead, all menu items should act like this: you hit enter / play on them to change their value. THEN maybe you can do up and down.
    • Other skins do the pref menu well. But because MediaStream is the default and other skins are not easily available, its confusing out of the box to noobs.
    • Retroplex has done the grouping and visual appeal of the root pref pane nicely. Icons representing each category. Uses screen real estate nicely. Gives textual examples of what is within each category.

Final Words

Maybe some of the above cons are user-error (me), or I have not spent enough time with using the system . Either way, difficulty was met on the above points, and ‘program-error’ VS ‘user-error’ doesn’t exist in UX design.

I had fun delving into all my loves and hates and I hope that these can be seriously used by some of the Plex devs. If I get the time, I know that the ATV plex client is open source and on github. I might give it a go to add some mods to the subtitle stuff 🙂

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