Tag Archives: UX

Last stream for allothercountries.fm (including Italy)

Likely you scrobbler or even occasional Last.fm listener have already heard the bad news: on the 15th of January 2013 Last.fm stops streaming to a large number of countries, including mine – Italy.

The announcement came to me first as an almost unnoticed clickable display on the top of the personal page (not linked here because I’ve never been there with my real name), which at some point I decided to check, with inevitable disappointment. Judging from the related thread on the Last.fm forum, this decision has upset a good number of folks in “all other countries”, i.e. all over the world except the US, the UK and Germany (where Last.fm will keep also the ad-supported free Web radio), plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Brazil (where radio has been and remains a subscription feature only, as they say). Link to the official announcement.

I won’t delve here into considerations specific to Italy (if you are from my country, I have a few lines on the other side); instead, I jotted down some general commentary. And let me copy here a pic of the pin that I got as a gift from Alberto D’Ottavi @dottavi brought back from London after his brief interview with Last.fm co-founder Martin Sticksel published in English on infoservi – (the blog has also more Last.fm and related themes coverage, in Italian). Well, that pin was something!

Last.fm pins

Others keep streaming anyway

In short, what came out for Last.fm is that licensing costs for streaming music and insufficient ad revenues are pushing them to this new restricted geography. Have a look at the Paidcontent or Techcrunch posts for more. Anyway, it’s not new to anyone that streaming music on subscription models have stll to find solid business ground. But it’s also a fact that there are a number of services pushing it — to name two European-based big players, say Spotify (from Sweden, not available all over Europe though) or Deezer (from France – I started using it right now). Then there are also a few more already well established brands and startup, all with its own history and positioning, from Pandora to Rdio, from Soundcloud to whatever you can pick. The thing is, while they are different, all of them seem to pursue an enlarging trajectory when it comes to geographies, even if at different paces.

Going down

As it can be read easily all around, I also think that Last.fm is not new to a downwarding spiral since when the founders left, sometime after the well remembered 280 millions pound acquisition from CBS, a historic name of the media business (and big in radio as well – but as people noted, no visible result in that regard yet). And by the way, the two co-founders and former leaders are now up for a new general-purpose content discovery startup called Lumi, as I just learned from another Techcruch post.

Proud subscriber

Seeing this decline unfolding over time has been quite sad for people that have been hanging around for years (2004 in my case). I’ve always been a service enthusiast, praising and recommending it to friends at all times, and paying the subscription not just for the add-ons, but also for support. Not only Last.fm has been the eponymous streaming music machine: I think that their mix of music discovery, community and recommendations has made it quite unique for years – perhaps still unique in some respects.

Best jukebox ever

By encouraging people to be creative with tags and personal stations and following in the listening steps of others, be they “neighbours” or “friends”, with the variety of custom stations that the service has offered over time (some unfortunately well gone, from the famed loved tracks radio to the tag ones), I think that Last.fm has been incredibly good in exploring new music consumption paradigms. Now “consumption” might appear reductive: actually it’s not. What I mean is that Last.fm to me was still very much a music consumption machine, a place primarily for listeners, novice or expert, fan or not. Last.fm was and still is a kind of uber-jukebox, an entertainment machine. In this respect, it’s not very suitable for the music connoisseur, for those that want very high quality sound and even more the orderliness and quietness of album listening; but that entertainment is not trivial, nor it passive. Quite the contrary: on top of music there is an all set of added meaning that is distinctively social and interactive, as opposed to other more traditional types of music-related experiences, such as, say, going to a concert or chatting about your favourite album or song over a beer. Beside shouts and messages, not particularly original as such, e.g. I think that groups on Last.fm have often created very nice sort of music venues, especially when it is about getting across conventional music genres of even cross-linking media bridging different services, e.g. with ANobii+Last.fm books&music groups (or viceversa; then I noticed that some of these hangouts turned into social games, not always that funny).

Getting kicked out is not like opting out

Now that these days I’m really stopping using the service, there are a couple of phenomena that caught my attention. The first is related to the nature of this specific interruption for all of those “in all other countries”. Usually the big drama in this consumer internet world is getting people use something, more and more, or provide a decent way to opt out if they want to. I mean, the usual problem is getting users *in*, not *out*. And this is quite different from the paywall concept, where you can still have a (premium) chance to get in. On the other hand it’s reasonable to expect that this is going to happen over and over again. Service and companies can obviously fail the deliver to all of the intended markets. Yet it’s utterly frustrating from the user point of view, and surely very bad for branding.

Plus, UI habits can get very deep, and sometimes emotional

Moreover, to me some of the Last.fm UI distinctive features, namely those of the desktop player, have become such a strong element of my music listening habits that I feel like something rooted in my daily routines is being stripped away. Once you have hit the love, skip or ban buttons a few hundreds or thousands times, that’s get really deep. And it goes beyond routines. It’s well known that some of the best physical design features nurture some form of emotional attachment, as the thing becomes part of our mental landscape, and of our social realm.

Online services tend to continually evolve over time, and paradoxically keep being unstable, forcing people to change habits from time to time (at some point Last.fm redesigned its Web UI spurring waves of protests and a number of “bring back to old Last.fm” groups), except that some very characteristic aspects might continue to stay and they become the hallmark of the service, a sort of “experience anchor” that one can’t remove altogether easily. In this respect, it’s interesting to see how these emotional qualities perhaps are finally beginning to transit from the mighty world of “pure” physical objects to the relatively more fragile and liquid world of software and services. I guess that the interaction design and service design literature will have already papers and papers on the topic… just don’t know so if you have readings to recommend, please do, much appreciated.

Playing with it

Last.fm APIs have also provided a playground for many inventive minds. Last.fm has held a series of hackatons in which they invited people to build on top of the service. As for me, I have a very vivid memory of @jnkka showing his Last.fm+YouTube visualization mash-up exploring Italian oldies like Venti chilometri al giorno transformed into 00s cult pieces with the voice of Mike Patton. Go for a break with this amazing cover of Nicola Arigliano.

It was in a Bergamo hotel conference room, if I remember well; after Jukka’s speech we started chatting about the thing, sharing our common enthusiasm for the service and the inspiration it provided for new ways to listen to music and enjoy it, as for instance it somewhat could do with new and promising combinations of audio and visualizations. We moved from there to writing a project idea with a number of friends & colleagues. It was about music and media “trails”, or hyperlinks of sort, an idea still causing a bit of Vertigo to us (project paper here with all references and credits).

Research folks, look here for a moment

Even before, I think it was 2005 or 2006, I presented Last.fm as an early, brilliant and simple socially-aware content discovery case from the consumer internet at one of the large WWI R&D mobile&wireless projects meetings, raising bright gazes from the youngest guys in the workpackage team and some skepticism from others (“yeah pretty interesting but mobile is different, these Internet models are not going to change everything”). When later on Last.fm got that huge 280 millions pounds CBS cheque I had the minor satisfaction of saying, you see? it seems that they are on something relevant…

Better must come

Now of course those skeptics might come back and point to me that the Last.fm decline proves that the model is wrong. Well, I think they are still wrong. The fact is, this stuff is so still in its infancy. As said, for a Last.fm retiring back to its song-tracking scrobbling roots, there is a very lively squadron of others already battling for music streaming leadership, not to mention the likes of YouTube and others. Clearly there is a big question here on licensing costs, business sustainability, industry changes and everything, but to me it’s difficult to argue that music streaming is here to stay. All of these providers will compete based on prices, sure, but also on the service, the interaction qualities, the user experience, call it as you like. In this respect, I think Last.fm has done quite a lot.

The corporation & the startup

Oh, of course I think that all of this story can also be cited as an example of yet another brilliant startup gone down when ingested into the huge corporate world. Some coverage offers support for the argument. But who knows, it’s easy as well to bash the bad big guys. If one wants to stay away from easy generalizations, the only way to go would be proper investigation and analysis of the company history.

Best of luck to the Last.fm team

As for the change and its possible effects on the future of Last.fm, I wish all the best to the team. Honestly I think that I’ve really got a lot of music & media pleasure for a few euros (I’d have given more, that’s sure, at least something closer to what you pay for proper on demand services).

Stay calm and keep scrobbling

So, at least for me that’s the end of the unpredictable, but very often enjoyable streaming story: no more love, skip, or ban, it’s a stop — with Last.fm I mean, thanks God there are alternatives out there. For sure, Last.fm has made me addicted to 1, music streaming in subscription mode and 2, scrobbling (i.e. tracking) + tagging + getting music suggestions + enlarging my (virtual) library as core aspects of the whole experience. I suspect it happened to many others, “in all other countries” as in the lucky ones. I’ll try to see if scrobbling keeps me attached to the place. It’s like one of those old bars long gone from the fashionable list, but where you keep going, because you get used it, and you have spent endless hours in good company, and well you just like it too much. “We’re ugly, but we have the music”.

ubicomp@Ikea (well, say TV@Ikea)

Full disclaimer: I am a very happy Ikea customer, and I have spent endless hours walking along their aisles in search of the perfect match for an usually limited budget and some Bauhaus-ish/Scandinavian piece of taste and practical use. Ok, getting closer to reality, I spent some good hours when in company (i.e. girlfriend), while I have always tended to run through when I was on my own. I am not sure about the side-effects of these meanderings on my mood and relationship health, but well, furniture is here at home, in good use. Then Ikea is a Generation X cultural icon, and I am right there. When I ran into the small illustration about the “semidisposable Swedish furniture” in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X it has been a kind of epiphany, truly a moment of self-awareness (what a self you have, one might wonder). And I guess that there is an already large body of scientific literature about Ikea and business and strategy and design and culture and everything in between, and I have not checked it, so this is just my own immediate thinking, bla bla, and that’s the end of this too long premise.

Now, you might have seen the video here below. It’s about Uppleva, the new TV and furniture offer for the living room put forward by Ikea. It has had a broad coverage, so not need to talk about it in detail etc. The video itself is a very well done piece of communication I think; it would be nice to know who has authored it as well. It’s a promotional thing but really smart in conveying the context explored by the people behind the design and the all business initiative.

I read about Uppleva somewhere when it broke the news and pinned it on my Pinboard (yeah “pin it” to me is for super-functional “anti-social bookmarking” Pinboard first, not Pinterest, with all due respect for the wonderful Pinterest). Then I noticed on Twitter that Alberto D’Ottavi had a post about it, and we had a couple of exchanges on the topic there with him @dottavi and @evilelka (in Italian, here to credit people). Alberto’s post is in Italian but see here for some recent Alberto Dottavi posts in English at Forbes; second disclaimer: Alberto is a good friend of mine).

In short, as tweeted, I might be totally wrong but I feel like there is something not quite right about Uppleva. So, discussion.

People took good notice that Uppleva is more than the separate elements that made the thing. It’s more than a TV set, and it’s more than a standard TV cabinet or table. Alberto and others called it “a solution” – which of course is something that many want, as the increasingly complex lives of us are more or less always in demand of solutions (to more or less serious problems). And yes design does not want to stop at the design of things etc. (do not open that door! I agree on the general concept, but it actually raises so many more questions).

But what kind of solution is this? I’ll stick to the words of the Uppleva girl in the video. She says that according to research done “all over the world”, people are not at ease when it comes to their TVs placement in the living room, because TVs come with too much stuff around them, first audio boxes and set-top boxes and game consolle (but she doesn’t name them) and especially CABLES (she actually screams at that point), yes the cable mess we are so used to and that now could go away with Uppleva. And it’s not just cable-concealing. Ikea has also worked on the TV software / UI and on the remote, so that the integrated blu-ray and connected / smart TV features are all better accessible and easily usable and more enjoyable and everything, which I think it’s a very sensible effort and objective.

Now, there are still two or three interesting problems here to me, somewhat related, even though they are of different nature.

Let’s talk about CABLES first, as they have an unusual prime-time in this spot. Yeah they are not nice. It’s very true that they give that messy nerdy garage-like air to everything and some might think that this tech flavor is all so passé now that TVs are just a normal presence in our home environment. Say that their tech appearance, black electronics with blinking LEDs is out of place. Well, now let’s step back from the argument that tech flavor given by cables is passé, because I might not agree (nerdy electronics is a matter of love for many, perhaps rightly so!). The point is that Uppleva comes with a number of *ports* (USB and HDMI) that, guess what, are obviously done for the damned plugs and CABLES. So the nice picture from the catalogue might disappear pretty soon… CABLES again; not easy to get rid of them, definitively (of course I think that Ikea has very sensibly produced Uppleva with all these ports — my take is just on the cables disappearing and then coming back, really much like nasty snakes).

Let’s see the remote then. Here we have another typical classic case of design chaos in the living room. Raise your hand if you have never used a slide with a bunch of remotes in your UX presentation (third disclaimer: I think I did used one of these slides more than once, I confess).  But here it comes the same point. Once you have plugged your extra stuff that is not already put into the integrated (integralist?) Uppleva you are back into square (slide) one with a bunch of pretty remotes, badly designed by unaware designers (whose houses have at least one Ikea piece I bet!). Point is, remotes are just one side of a bigger game and getting rid of too many remotes is as easy as solving the all issue of interactivity and television, which is still *huge* – I mean, even Apple, kings and priests of Design and User Experience in their Most Noble Forms, are still quite working on it… (not joking on Apple btw… they do great design of course etc. but it’s a fact that with TV they still have to find success etc.).

And what about more general or abstract qualities? What about the very notion of order and cleanliness and messiness that are at stake here? Because there is it, the Uppleva girl tells us that people around the world are tired of messy living rooms, full of nasty cable snakes. And how not to note that order is such a central concept of everything designed, from architecture to the universe? (I am talking about all things/intangibles that are artificially made, no implication about the fact that the “natural” universe has been designed 😉 — Well the intriguing point is that the messiness of consumer electronics in the “home context” (scientific tone) might be at the heart of the all evolution of related technologies, something really central and inherent to the thing.

Take the argument of two top scholars. Even though I haven’t still managed to finish the reading (second confession, nth disclaimer!), Dourish and Bell recent book on ubicomp (Divining a Digital Future) outlines a vision of the real evolution of technology in which messiness is not a casual attribute or contingent nuisance. Quite the contrary actually: it stands really much as a distinctive aspect of an endeavor that progress by not planned competitive (techno-scientific I’d add) programs and additional layers, as it happens with many of the traditional infrastructures of the urban environment (think the networks of mass transportations for an analogy, or I’d say the city itself as an infrastructure for living). Can we remove this mess, if it is so rooted in the all thing? Or, how to deal with it? Perhaps the first question should be about the mess itself, its relation with technology, etc.

I’m afraid that messy ubicomp can not be easily stored in a cabinet. It doesn’t disappear in the background (or not yet), it’s not part of an integrated solution, because it can’t be (maybe it will).

One specific aspect of the latter issue is about design & industrial cycles I think. With consumer electronics and information technologies and especially everything digital, you often have cycles that are pretty fast, say 2 years and another game begins. I can’t see how it’s possible to match these cycles with those of the furniture consumption. What about my Uppleva wooden side in 2 years or 4? What will be the average TV size then? Furniture has a pretty long consumption curve, it just works for a long time until it breaks down (or one decide to dump it), while tech stuff goes up and down like on a rollercoaster.

Having said all of that, it’s a fact that Ikea has taken an interesting and new challenge here, so I’m very curious to see how the thing plays out. In the meantime, I’ll roll my cables on the bottom of my Ivar shelves.

Nasty cables on the bottom of a lower Ivar shelf, typical Gen X setting

PS if you wonder… according to Google Translate, Uppleva means “experiencing” (have to check with Swedish friends).

Digital TV, audience, users and people

Having been invited to give a talk about “challenges and opportunities” of digital terrestrial TV — this month in Italy many regions will start the switch-over — I tried to draw some reflections on expressions like “audience”, “users” and “people”. I think they bring many assumptions that often go unquestioned. “Audience” is TV and media jargon, “users” are those of ICT, HCI and user research, and I guess “people” are the real individuals behind the previous categories. One great reference in this respect I think is the 2009 paper on “non use” by Satchell and Dourish (see here the PDF from Dourish publications page); some more comments on the local perspective in the Italian version of this post (click Italiano on top right).

Now, the presentation was mostly a series of visuals, so there is not much sense in sharing it here. But see below the video with which I managed to entertain the conference audience 😉 — It is a 2008 viral produced by a then successful FOX talkshow; the intent was to show how “insanely difficult” had been the switch from analog to digital TV. The conference has been held in Trento, under the auspices of the Autonomous Province of Trento and the public agency Trentino In Rete, in cooperation with Create-Net (I have already worked with them).

He can’t circle his programs in red pen [on the EPG]

Photo credit: Finding Love, Then by jonesing1 CC License

My Dad stopped getting his major city daily when they shitcanned the TV guide. He’s 87. I tried to explain the guide on TV. But he can’t circle his programs in red pen on it so it’s useless to him.

This comment from TroisFilles is one of the nicest from a Gawker piece on the continuous decline in magazine sales in the United States (found via Vanz feed). I think it’s remarkable because this 87 gentleman has a very good point in being dissastified with the EPG — even if I suspect that most of us would be tempted to delegate the issue to specialists of “technology for the elderly”…  Marking preferred programs with a red circle is certainly practical; I bet that whatever bookmarking feature is offered on an EPG, it can’t match the traditional pen ease of use and immediacy. But having an EPG where people can mark programs making e.g. a circle with their finger does not look like science fiction, right? Repeat with me: TV, EPG and STB needs massive doses of interaction design. (PS: this should be of concern to magazine publishers as well, unless they have already surrendered to the destiny of being reduced to pure content providers).

The $300 Million Button and the “registration fatigue”

The $300 Million Button from Jared Spool tells the success story of a web form redesign — a huge success as it brought this additional big bunch of money to the retailer that asked for Spool’s consultancy advice. It is indeed a quite practical point in favour of good UI design, and UX design in general. It seems something still relatively new even in the very advanced US market: people get very surprised (“Spool! You’re the man!” is the message left in the voicemail by the client CEO). The post reports also about the resistance to registration before purchasing from a good number of users. This is quite interesting to me: I guess there are already a number of studies about this “registration fatigue”; but this is also part of the bigger effort of managing one’s personal identity online, especially when it comes to ecommerce: this is not about your various social networks’ identities, but your real personal information, at least for the part connected to your credit card or other payment methods. I wonder what it is the real progress and adoption of the various initiatives trying to deal with identity management in the broadest sense (open id and the likes; I have my account there obviously but I failed to take much advantage of it)