I’m a big fan of Last.fm, but I’ll admit that music-based social networks haven’t completely nailed it yet. Part of the problem lies in the lack of problem-solving for the user. Last.fm gets halfway there, in that it is a simple way to catalog listening behavior into a social profile. It loses in the sense that it is so passive that most people forget to engage. Or if you’re like me, you go whole months without realizing that your scrobbling has lapsed.
I’ve never been keen on subscription models for music, although I never thought I’d be keen on a subscription model for movies, yet I’ve been a Netflix member since the beginning. So, I suppose there is room for convincing. That said, the proposition of a cloud based music library bolted to a social network is extremely compelling. When Ping was announced, this was the very first thing that came to mind — the promise of what this thing could become if allowed to grow in the right directions, oh the possibilities!
Imagine my dismay when finding that Ping does offer that very promise, yet fumbles on a few of the basics along the way. Specifically, interaction design around social activity. Yes, a company like Apple can produce iPhone after iPhone with an industry changing UX, yet they seemed to have dropped the ball on some very simple things. Before I dive in, let me preface that all of this is easily correctable, and I suspect we’ll see most of these issues addressed in future updates.
1. The Lonely Island
Joining Ping is an extremely lonely experience. Sure, Apple makes some follower recommendations right off the bat, but they aren’t particularly good ones. To be fair, a network that requires activation like Ping is bound to have limitations in the “People We Recommend You Follow” department, so Apple is wise to offer up recommended artists to follow. Yet, it still chalks up to a miss, and here’s why: I’ve never listened to an MP3 from any of the artists Ping recommends via iTunes. They have my listening data, they have my library, and they already scrape both of these for Genius recommendations, so chances are these are the closest matches they could muster. But some of them are so completely off base that it left me scratching my head.
Browsing deeper into the recommendations revealed another off-putting issue: The recommendations sometimes duplicate, which throws off the count. That means I see the opportunity to browse through 16 recommendations, only to find out that I’m actually offered 14, and the duplicates don’t even match my musical preferences. What does this say? Right off the bat, this gives me the feeling that I won’t find anything of interest for me here from an artist perspective. But that’s OK, I would be happy enough just to connect with friends and share music likes and dislikes. Ping leads with this call to action, but it isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. To make matters worse, your option to search in iTunes or Ping doesn’t really offer a remedy, but more on that in a bit.
2. The Postal Service
I’m an early adopter, so I have no trouble jumping onto a new platform and finding very few people there. In fact, an early indicator of a thriving and growing community is really dependent upon the rate at which my friend/follower lists bloom. I might have 1 friend on opening day, but by the end of the week I’ll have a better understanding of whether this network is picking up. That said, new adopters need an easy way to shout out that they have joined and are using a new product. The simplest way to do this is a sound invite system, either social or email based. The bottom line, it needs to be easy and it needs to leverage existing resources.
Apple attempted to tap this with Facebook Connect, but we’ve since learned what happened there. What we’re left with is a rather defunct email invite system, which requires the manual copying and pasting of multiple email addresses to facilitate the invite process.
Call me lazy, but why would I ever waste time doing this? I sync addresses to my Apple Address Book, and I also have other email platforms chock full of contact lists. Why not take the few simple steps necessary to wire up your invite process to some of these?
Note: If you are going to attempt to compel people to connect with others, you need to make it easy to do that, whether they are artists or friends.
It seems to me that Apple banked on Facebook, and that didn’t really work out too well. While they work to get that back up and running, perhaps they should consider some of the alternatives?
3. Is This How You Like It?
The big win for Apple is the liking and commenting angle it has taken with Ping. The idea is genius, and I really think Ping could take off…if only it wasn’t so hard to do. iTunes is filled with artist pages, search results pages, and lists of songs, yet I can only like content in very specific places. This is sometimes frustrating. On my iPhone I have to click on individual song titles to like an individual song, which would be fine except it queues up the song sample to play while I decide to like or comment. Why not just make it easier to like?
Apple is clearly looking to convert “likes” into “purchases,” and it’s not a bad strategy. If my social graph gloms onto Ping, and I see value in connecting via music listening data (I do), then this could really turn into a smart monetization move for the company. This may be one of the reasons a cloud-based iTunes library wasn’t announced in parallel with Ping. It makes sense. Get people hooked, enjoy some extra revenue, then move into the cloud idea as a growth opportunity. Again, super savvy decision here. Unfortunately, some of this business acumen appears to have impacted some of the user experience decisions. For example, deciding to like an album in the iTunes app puts your finger awfully close to the purchasing button.
No harm in that, but note that there is no real indication that I can like individual songs? Now jump into the iTunes app and take a look at how you navigate finding artists, songs, or albums to like.
Here is the search experience within Ping, in this case I’m trying to find out if They Might Be Giants are using Ping:
Nope. Again, it was wishful thinking to hope that TMBG would have a profile set up, but it was worth the shot. Look at the wasted opportunity on this results page.
No results from iTunes.
No conversion to “following” or “liking” artists, songs, albums, or heck, even making purchases.
Instead, you are behind a wall while inside Ping, and this is going to be one of the biggest issues Apple will need to correct to get this thing right. Let’s hop over to iTunes and compare the crossover there. Surely I’m able to seek out artists and their content, then apply the social aspects of liking and commenting over there, right?
One search and click into the They Might Be Giants artist section spills the beans:
Well, not exactly. Remember my mention of the placement of “like” within the iTunes app? Check this out:
Yes. That little arrow next to the purchase button is your window into social within iTunes. Nothing is more of a deterrent to engage than the threat of an unintended purchase. Seriously, do you think people are going to eagerly dive into Ping with this type of UX? I really love the function, but the form is sorely lacking here. Perhaps Ping needs an icon? Replace that arrow with a different color, or a clearer indication of the social aspect Ping is meant to foster. Maybe I’m missing it, but how do I like a band in this workflow?
4. Broken Social Scene?
Now take a closer look at the social aspect of Ping. The idea here is to connect based on music, both listening and liking behavior. We know that people connect with one another in two basic ways within a given system: via activity, or via profile recommendation.
Examining my Ping profile, there are some excellent opportunities for personalization at the top of the profile (especially the “music I like” module), and a nice mix of activity below, indicating some of my personal preferences based on liking, reviewing, etc. But digging in a little deeper, it’s easy to see where those business decisions impacted the social aspect of Ping.
Take a closer look at how that “music I like” module is programmed. Apple appears to offer some flexibility in options, here’s what the Automatic option looks like:
Nice option, right? The implication here is that my active liking, rating, reviewing, or purchasing music will dynamically update this module to reflect my activity. If this were the case, Apple would have stumbled upon the perfect mix of personalization through social activity. This could be a major driving point for driving social interaction on Ping, as well as outside of Ping if they made this module embeddable.
But looking closely, this module only truly updates with purchases made, not the other activity described in the preference description. Is this bad? Well, it wouldn’t be except that the preferences explicitly describe functionality that implies a type of dynamic interaction that could be really compelling, while it actually serves only to reflect the business model they hope to serve with this leap into social.
Would I be upset if the automatic option stated, “Automatically displays songs and albums purchased on iTunes” instead? Not at all, but the module would still fail to deliver on the promise that the original preference hinted at. Sure, I have the option to manually update, but what a hassle! I predict these modules will get pretty stale if most people opt to manually customize, and then never return to them.
5. Dirty Projectors Just Need A Little Lens Cleaner
Don’t take any of this the wrong way, I think Apple could pull this whole thing together with some simple fixes. As this title hints, the projector isn’t broken, the lens is just smudged. If they regain focus and loosen up some of the UX stumbling blocks caused by laser-beam focus on the business model, this could actually work out well. Here are my recommendations:
- Fill ‘er up: Make some changes to the Artist and People following recommendations. On the Artist side, do some recruitment. Apple never has trouble pulling artists in for iPod endorsement or on-stage performances, so why not put a little more effort to pull them into Ping? Take music listening data into account when making recommendations, and display recommendations that make sense.
- Invites are key: Facebook was a smart move, but don’t stop there. Tap into email contact importing, and consider going the opposite route using Twitter as a potential growth opportunity. Lastly, for goodness sake eat your own dog food. Tap Address Book as an option to send bulk emails to contacts.
- Clearer UI for social calls-to-action: Make buttons clearer. Rubbing social interactions up against purchasing opportunities is a smart move, but make sure to clearly call out the difference between the two interactions.
- Recognize opportunity: Revise search on both iTunes and Ping to create crossover opportunities. The trick with social is, the more active people are the more likely they are to engage in the activity you actually want them to focus on — in this case purchasing music.
- Music I Like: Perhaps the issues with this module were a mistake, but the opportunity to merge social activity with personalization could create a vibrant use of profile pages.