Roy Zornow MS Word version

IA / UX Designer

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Answers to Google User Interface Design Questions (cont.)


  What are some of your favorite web sites in terms of design and why?


3. Pandora is a site that hosts a Flash-based application allowing users to create, edit and share multiple streaming radio stations, and to use affinity sorting to introduce new, related artists.

The information design of this site and application is innovative and highly usable. Pandora is an example of the evolution of web-based information design. It is:

Like any real-world product, Pandora could benefit from user-interface improvements, but in conclusion, it's an exiting new use of the web.

NEW USE is an offshoot of the Music Genome Project. This project began in early 2000 when a group of musicians and musician-loving technologists came together and created a comprehensive song taxonomy. Over the past 5 years they have listened to the songs of over 10,000 different artists and analyzed the musical qualities of each song. "We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or "genes" into a very large Music Genome."1

The musical attributes and categories they created were far more precise, subtle, and complex than the crude categorization that had available at the time. Thus a song that might have earlier been described as "light rock" could now be categorized as "having rhythmic syncopation, extensive vamping, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, minor key tonality and a breathy female vocal."

Although the ability to create complex categories has always existed, it took the advent of computer technology for those categories to find practical employment. The problem up to that point was that the uses one could make of these categories was extremely limited. It would be impractical for a record store or radio station, for example, to have hundreds of record bins, each its own highly-specific category.

Database technology then enabled a set of virtual record bins of near unlimited number, that could be split, recombined, searched in innumerable ways. Digital music technology enabled the song itself to carry its own identifying information or label. TCP/IP allowed on-demand customized distribution.

This was the point at which the founders of the Music Genome project found themselves. Advances in technology created a NEED for a new way to define the medium of music. These new categorization prompted further advances in technology, a second wave. The existence of granular, recombinable categories facilitated refined affinity sorting as a way of creating a customized music playlists.

Pandora allows for effortless customization by hiding the complex categories it associates with individual songs and instead presenting the user with simple options like "I really like this song - play more songs like it!".

This is affinity sorting made easy: selecting like items (songs) into groups (Pandora's "radio stations"). In essence, Pandora is using the song itself as a selector tool, a widget, for receiving user category requests. Consider how much more intuitive this process is for the end user than if they were required to select checkboxes such as "rhythmic syncopation", "mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation", and "minor key tonality". These criteria are not secret--the system can reveal them--but for reasons of usability they are not presented to the novice user as part of the traditional user path for this application.

The customization schema used by Pandora is iterative. Criteria change based on a user giving a song a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down". New criteria can be selected at any time by adding a new song or artist. Thus what looked like narrow categorization can result in a drift effect where the user unconsciously selects songs weighted with particular criteria they may not have even have been aware of, like "rhythmic syncopation"

The web was originally conceived as a way of delivering simple hypertext. Its use as a layout engine, not to mention music and video delivery system, has been awkward at best. Pandora uses the principle of affordance, the principal that an object's characteristics intuitively imply its use, to reduce the adaptive friction implicit in the introduction of an atypical media within a browser environment. It employs a browser-within-a-browser paradigm, suggesting that users can interact directly with the bounded application itself, rather than with surrounding http page elements or overall browser functions. "Play" and "Pause" functions are in the form of easily-recognizable tape-recorder buttons. Monitoring of songs is handled via a slide-show view of the album cover of the song currently playing. This is visually delightful although compromised to the extent that certain slide-show functionality like being able to select previous items is missing (because of legal restrictions around playback methods).

Another highly usable feature familiar to the hypertext world is the ability of the user to email a station to a friend, in this case the friend DOES NOT HAVE TO BE REGISTERED to listen to to the station. Eliminating the cognitive and emotional load of registering before being offered value is a trait that establishes trust with the end user.

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Cosmetic improvements center around increasing compliance with he heuristic of "consistency and standards", that is, following browser and application conventions.

The Pandora player would improve if menu items were moved to standard areas. "Help" is currently in the lower right corner of the interface when it should be in the upper right. The tape recorder-style buttons are offset to the upper-right corner rather than being centered below the main display--a bad match between the system and the real world. "Your Favorites" would be better as "My Favorites" and should be incorporated within the bounded box of the application itself rather than floating outside of the upper-right corner (this may be the result of a late-stage programming add-on).

Small improvements are things like adjust the "Guide Us" windowpane so that it does not appear to form tabs with the slide-show album covers.

Text readability would be improved in the FAQ by increasing the contrast between the text and page background.

Pandora is not a file sharing program, there is no method for saving files, It is limited to streaming songs and will not currently allow the user to replay songs, due to music licensing agreements. I'll limit my discussion of possible functional improvements with these constraints in mind.

An immediate functional improvement would be to add contextual right-click functionality to individual station labels such as "remove this station, "email this station to a friend", and "add a song or artist to this station", This functionality could be mode-based, so for example the user could only add songs or artists to the active station, while they could email any station at any time.

Currently, the functions most often-accessed:"I really like this song" "I don't like this song" "Why is this song playing" and "I want to add more music to this station", are hidden behind a "Guide Us" button that window-panes a panel with these choices. While this is a good teaching tool, experienced users would benefit by access to highly-recognizable icons associated with these choices, as resident buttons. Equally as easy would be to add a resident search field.

Pandora has no advanced mode. Although the use of songs as sophisticated category selectors is highly-intuitive and seamless, advanced users may indeed possess the sophistication to select songs based on precise individual criteria such as "moderate syncopation"

Pandora is highly at solving the real world problem of finding music that appeals to one's individual tastes without listening to hundreds of songs or befriending a coterie of music critics. It is an exciting example of technological change driving cultural change, which then drives further technological change. It's anyone's guess as to how far this cycle can continue (shared user-created mash-ups based on category?).

Pandora's use of behind the scenes affinity-sorting and the "song as selector widget" sets it apart in terms of usability. The fact that it successfully integrates the non-traditional medium of music into a functionally-limited hypertext environment, a feat handled dismally by even non-web based computer music applications, makes it even more remarkable.

While the usability principles upon which Pandora is based are solid, some functional and cosmetic improvements remain. Affordance-based design is currently inconsistently employed. Interface elements supporting most-often performed tasks could easily be brought to the surface in addition to being available underneath a "teaching" stepwise layer. Finally an advanced mode, which would allow the user to fine-tune selections based on individual music "genes" (attributes) rather than on the organism itself (the song), while less usable, would be more powerful. This trade-off is acceptable, inevitable, and a recommended next step.



Roy Zornow MS Word version

IA / UX Designer