Thoughts on Overcast 1.0

Since getting into podcasts a few years ago, I've used pretty much every podcast client there is on iOS. My client of choice has been Pocket Casts --- a sentiment echoed by my friends at The Sweet Setup. Pocket Casts is deep and full-featured, and while I don't consider myself a "power listener" --- always in want of granular controls and the like --- the app has done well by me for quite some time. It was during this time that Marco Arment announced Overcast, his new podcast app for iPhone. The app went live on the App Store today, and I couldn't be happier or more excited for Marco. Late last month, I received an email from him out of the blue, asking me if I'd be interested in joining the beta team so as to help test for accessibility (VoiceOver, in particular). Though I haven't used the app for very long, Overcast has earned a permanent place on my iPhone's Home screen --- it's designed in typical Armentian fashion (read: exquisite) and very accessibility-friendly. The focus of this review will be on accessibility in two areas: visual design and VoiceOver.

* * *


In my writing, I've long championed the idea of "accessibility as design", whereby app developers and user interface designers take into consideration the disabled when building their apps. I don't necessarily mean incorporating dedicated Accessibility features --- although that's certainly part of it ---- rather, I mean sensibly designing in such a way that interface elements are clear: buttons, labels, typography, etc. Unread, the RSS client for iOS, by Jared Sinclair, is a good example of this. Not only does VoiceOver work flawlessly, but buttons and labels are decipherable and the typography is splendid. Put another way, Unread's clean, focused look is appealing not only to fully-abled users, but to users with visual impairments as well. This is due to the fact that Jared, as Unread's creator, recognizes and empathizes with the disabled, and wishes to help us. Like Jared, Marco is empathetic towards the accessibility community, and tries his best to accommodate disabled users who use his apps by including technologies like VoiceOver. This sentiment is apparent throughout Overcast, where, as Jared does with Unread, Marco's clean design sensibilities and attention to VoiceOver makes the podcast client very appealing, at least to this low vision reviewer. My favorite thing about the app (the gorgeous icon aside) is, interestingly enough, the orange. The color is pervasive throughout the app, and really lends itself to easily identifying interface elements. The orange pops off the white backdrop, which results in huge benefits in terms of contrast. Overcast is decidedly and rightfully iOS 7-y in its look, and while I'm (still) not fond of many of Apple's design decisions, the orange color scheme works really well for my eyes in terms of distinguishing between the app's content and its navigational controls. The greatest example of this is the playback controls on the Now Playing screen. They are gigantic and orange and gloriously easy to see and tap. It's a usability win because (a) I don't have to strain my eyes attempting to locate the playback controls; and (b) that the buttons are so gigantic means the tap targets are also gigantic, which ultimately means I needn't worry about mistakenly tapping or missing a button altogether. The moment I laid eyes on these buttons, I smiled, because I knew they were going to work great, and was so happy to see someone do something different here. If there's one complaint that I have about Overcast's UI, it's that the font size is a bit too small to be comfortable. I find myself struggling at times, squinting to be able to read show notes or whatever, and it definitely puts a damper on an otherwise splendid experience. It would be great if, in a future update, Overcast would add support for Large Dynamic Type, or at least add a font size slider to Settings.


Full disclosure: VoiceOver is not a feature that I use on a daily basis, but I am familiar with it and am confident in critiquing its use, as is the case here with Overcast. In all honesty, there isn't much to elaborate on in this section of the review. In my testing, I've found VoiceOver to work extremely well in announcing the labels of buttons and so forth. Everything I selected in the app read just fine, and I was generally pleased with how it worked. VoiceOver is somewhat tricky to get right because it requires developers to correctly label an app's controls so that VoiceOver can read them correctly. In short: Marco did a great job with VO, and regular users of it will notice.


Despite the fact that this review is focused on Overcast's accessibility merit, being the design snob that I am, I can't help but talk about the little touches of the app. These things aren't so much functional as they are delightful, and they definitely add to the app's ambience and experience. First, the Now Playing screen includes an animated waveform that moves as an episode is playing. Again, I'm unsure of its practical use case, but I enjoy it immensely for the eye candy alone. Oftentimes, I'll just gaze admiringly at the waveform while listening to a show. Secondly, this was pointed out by my pal Jonathan Hoover on Twitter. When you select the "Unlock Everything" option to access the in-app purchase for extra functionality, the there's a tiny radio tower icon within the padlock icon. It's too small for my naked eye to notice on my own, but I smiled when I saw Jon mention it.

* * *
As I said in the beginning, Overcast has overtaken Pocket Cast's spot on my iPhone's Home screen. As someone who listens to podcasts regularly while on the go ---- either on the bus or BART or on foot --- I'm happy to have found an app that is not only aesthetically pleasing but fits well with my spartan podcast-listening needs. Overcast gets two thumbs up from me. If you like podcasts, check it out.