Jony fix iTunes design, please!

Jony Fix iTunes

The iPod was not the first to market, but it came, saw and conquered the mp3 players market. Key to iPod’s success was the seamless integration of hardware, software and services made possible through that formidable piece of software called iTunes.

Over time though, iTunes app has become hard to navigate, clunky and bloated. In order to chase music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, Apple tried to stitch to iTunes’ core music player, a radio streaming service that is trying, not subtly, to up-sell music. The end result is a badly executed hodgepodge of radio and music player that is mediocre at best at each of those functions.

The music player has become a secondary focus and it is almost unusable. Here is why.

Let’s say you would like to listen to that old Led Zeppelin album you loved when you still had hair or you want to play the Frozen “Let it go” song your kid in the back of the car is screaming about. You open the app and land on the Radio tab, which does not directly show any search box. Without any sign of despair, you use the pull down gesture and a search box appears, as well as your smile. Only to vanish though, after you realize that the search box lets you just search among radios.

But you do not want any “Let it go” radio, you just want to play that song and more importantly your ear bones to stop trembling under your kid’s pounding screams.

Then you try the second tab, Genius, but you are starting to become skeptical. As you should be of any creature that calls itself in such a way. Your suspects are tragically confirmed. No genius search box there, even after pulling down.

Then you try the third tab, Playlists. No exposed search box again, you pull down again and ..Yes!! the magic box appears.This time you feel it might be the right one, you type “Let it g”, you tap, music starts, the screaming stops, you start smiling again. Your ears and your nervous system are safe. Wait, that song was not in any of your playlist… it doesn’t matter. You’re back to be an accomplished parent.

In summary, as crazy as it might sounds, iTunes designers believe that searching your music is not a use case that deserves prime real estate in a music player. They also do not buy into the universal search experience where radios as well as artists, playlists, songs or albums could be returned in search results. They instead believe that the user needs to take the cognitive effort to search in context within the proper tab. Very intuitive right? Not exactly Apple’s style.

Not still convinced on the state of iTunes? Let’s take another crazy use case. Let’s say you do not have cellular or Wifi coverage…remote scenario, huh?

You are greeted by a warm message on the Radio tab and an inactive greyed out Genius tab. In this not so unlikely scenario, even if you have music locally stored on the device, the first two tabs are completely useless and just sad.

In another not so remote use case, let’s say you just do not want to use your data plan for streaming. In that case, if you want to browse only the music that is locally stored on your device, you just can’t. You would need to go back and forth in the rest of the app to tediously select only the songs that are not greyed out. Unless… you figure out that you need to close iTunes, go to Settings->Music-> Turn Off Show All Music and then come back to iTunes.

Now finally only the songs locally stored are displayed. Super intuitive Apple style. Other apps like Kindle solve the problem with a simple cloud/device toggle that you can activate without leaving the app.

Those are not the only iTunes issues. Others include a usability flawed tab customization feature, duplicate files and lost album art in addition to the issues iMatch has in recognizing audio files ripped from CDs. Due to such bad user experience, I ditched iTunes and mostly use Spotify even for listening to my iTunes music.

iTunes has long been in need of a complete re-design and re-write. We have read rumors about Apple working on a new music service integrating Beats streaming service and boosting its editorial staff with great DJs. Hopefully this is the chance for Jony to overhaul iTunes and bring back a music experience worthy to carry Apple’s brand.

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What Groupon got right in mobile

friends chatting with their smartphones

Groupon Q4 earnings from last week confirmed how mobile continues to be the bright spot for the company. Groupon embraced mobile from the beginning and mobile became a key growth driver at a time where many web-born companies were still struggling to adapt. As former Grouponer that managed and launched mobile products in the past, I often get asked from fellow product managers and developers to share the “secret sauce”.

There is no secret sauce that can be applied to any situation, but I thought I would share three of the lessons I learned on Groupon’s journey to build a mobile first company.

1. Design a habit, not a mobile experience

We used mobile as a tool to design a daily habit around Groupon. Great addictive experiences have distinctive characteristics and usually get this combination – reminder, discovery, action, gratification – right.

For Groupon, the morning notification or email is used as reminder to open the app to never miss a deal. The constantly refreshed offers make the discovery experience excitingly unpredictable and the purchase action leads to the gratification of getting a deal, different every time. The unpredictability of discovery and gratification is key to stimulate dopamine in our brain, which is what gets us wanting for more and helps create a habit.

Getting the reminderdiscoveryactiongratification combination right in mobile requires product optimization. The discovery experience should be effortless, preferably aided by gestures; the content should be optimized for on-the-go consumption; the actions should be streamlined and the gratification could trigger notifications to bring you back into the virtuous cycle of reminderdiscovery-action-gratification.

If you are interested in learning more about designing a habit, I suggest to check out the behavioral design work from BJ Fogg at Stanford and Nir Eyal’s Hooked book.

2. Define a cross-platform engagement model

As consumers use multiple devices in their daily life, in order to design a daily habit, we really needed to stop designing experiences in silos (web, email, mobile) that felt disconnected. We had to start defining a cross-platform engagement model with different touch points and we had to make sure transitions and hands-off were gracefully handled. For example, if your first touch point with the users is the email she reads on the mobile device during her morning commute, when you design your app, you would better start by optimizing the email for mobile and the transition to the app.

This cross-platform approach added more complexity, but forced us to become more system design thinkers and overall better product managers and designers.

3. Leverage Context to Be Relevant

Now that you defined touch points across different platforms, how do you make sure that every touch point is relevant?

The wealth of contextual information associated with the device comes in handy. Context is not just location though, but it may include the time of the day, the day of the week, the weather conditions, the user’s travel patterns and her implicit and explicit preferences. Combining context with push notifications allows you to engage consumers when it is most likely for them to act on.

Context also helps streamlining actions, which is key in mobile. For example, search auto-complete suggestions that take into account contextual information such as location, time and previous search history can turn a tedious task into a delightful and magical experience. Another key piece of context to consider when your users open the app is where they are in the lifecycle. You might want to design a complete different experience if it is a first time user, an engaged user or a user at retention risk.

In summary, looking back at my past Groupon experience, the main insight is that since the beginning we never considered Mobile as a channel. Because the device is always with you and brings with it a lot of context, we always approached mobile as an opportunity to shape a daily habit and engage consumers in context at different times of their day.

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Five Lessons Learned On The Road To Mobile First


From Groupon Engineering Blog

Mobile is becoming the primary way consumers connect to the internet and consume services, but why are so many web companies struggling to adapt?

Treating mobile devices as a channel by just optimizing the web experience for the small screen doesn’t cut it. The smaller screens in a mobile environment require changes in user experience – as well as shifts in distribution, monetization and development models. A truly mobile experience taps into a smartphone’s unique capabilities and recognizes that users want different experiences on these devices.

At Groupon, we have made great progress in our move to a mobile-first world – nearly 50% of U.S. transactions came over mobile devices in Q2 2013 – but the path has not been simple.

If you are “mobilizing” your business, here are five lessons to learn from our experience:

1. Get Users Addicted to Your App!

Smartphones are always with us. Because they’re always with us, being able to reach consumers and entertain them in their moments of downtime is a huge opportunity to get them addicted to your app.

Great addictive experiences have distinctive characteristics and usually get this combination – discovery, action and gratification – right.

We’ll call it the ‘addiction mechanism’.

The ‘addiction mechanism’ plays out well with Instagram, Flipboard, Facebook and Pinterest. For example, Instagram’s photo feed is a great discovery tool as it constantly brings fresh content, and the action of sharing photos provides gratification in the form of social connection and acceptance through likes, comments and shares of followers.

Groupon makes discovery exciting through its constantly refreshed offers and the discounted purchase leads to the powerful gratification of getting a new deal every time.

Getting this ‘addiction mechanism’ right in mobile requires product optimization.  The discovery experience should be effortless, preferably aided by gestures; the content should be optimized for a snacking consumption; the actions should be streamlined and the gratification could trigger notifications to bring you back into the virtuous cycle of discovery-action-gratification.

2. Context, Context, Context

The smartphone offers a wealth of contextual information that can be tapped to enhance the discovery experience. At Groupon, while location is used by the apps to locate deals nearby, other context including the time of the day in combination with user preferences is used to determine which deals to show. The end result is that two different users opening the app on the same block at lunch and at dinner will most likely see two completely different lists of relevant deals they can pick from.

Combining context with push notifications allows developers to engage consumers anytime and anywhere it is most likely for them to act.

Developers that leverage geofencing, users’ current location, their travel patterns and preferences can provide users with the choice to be notified about highly relevant things to do within walking distance. Bandsintown, for example, is an app that uses your current location and music library to alert you when your favorite artists are playing in your area and when tickets go on sale.

Context also helps streamlining actions for users. For example, auto-complete suggestions in our Groupon search experience take into account contextual information such as location and time. The Google Now app on Android goes even further by presenting, without any user input, relevant information such as directions and time to destinations based on the device’s location, time and user’s calendar.

Another key piece of context to consider when your customers open the app is where they are in the lifecycle. You might want to design a complete different experience if it is a first time user, a heavy user or a user at retention risk.

3. Design Your Mobile User Experience First

When you are developing a new feature or product, start by designing the mobile experience. The inherent limitations of the mobile environment will force you to make the hard choices up front. It will require your team to create the simplest user experience possible – and to avoid the addition of unnecessary features.

The restraints on the mobile device – processing power, memory, battery life, connectivity – will also push your team to focus right from the start on performance and efficiency issues, which will be easier to consider at the beginning than to fix at a later stage of development.

Also, designing on mobile first will focus your team on designing for “tapability” rather than “clickability,” which requires different ways of thinking about the user interface. We learned this the hard way when we had to redesign web features that used user interface elements that didn’t work on touch screens.

4. Be Bold on Your Design Tests

The design process is never truly complete. On every app release we typically launch over ten simultaneous tests in native code on different features. With millions of users using the products and going through the tests every day we quickly learn what design works and we are able to iterate in the next app release.

A common pitfall among app developers is to test only small incremental changes for a specific product or feature in order to avoid confusing users.

But you need to think bigger. Periodically, you need to consider – and test – adjusting the design, or possibly overhauling your interface completely – rather than evolving series of tiny tweaks. The more aggressive approach is the way to get real performance improvement.

For the second version of Groupon iPhone and Android, for example, among several radical changes throughout the app, we tested two different navigation paradigms, tabs versus carousel, before deciding on the winning carousel design. While tabs offered PC-style navigation, the bolder visual carousel approach fostered a more frictionless discovery experience and significantly increased consumer engagement.

5. Scale Mobile Development Across Your Organization

Most companies start developing mobile experiences with a small, dedicated developer team. This approach ensures a cohesive mobile experience, faster decision making, code ownership and continuity. After reaching a certain scale, however, every company crosses the line where it gets untenable to have a single team making every change to the app.

To scale mobile development, a company could adopt a complete decentralized model with mobile developers embedded in any product teams. While this model increases scale of development, it could become very hard to execute if no one is accountable for the quality and cohesiveness of the mobile experience and in absence of shared mobile development tools and best practices across teams.

A more practical model we use at Groupon retains core mobile development teams responsible for the overall design, architecture, scalability and key product elements. These teams actively work across the org to build mobile experiences – pulling in developers from other teams and growing pods of mobile expertise across the organization. This creates opportunities for other engineers to build mobile experiences, but keeps a strong central group that maintains continuity.  Employing an open source model where changes can be proposed and accepted can work very well when managed and coordinated by these core mobile teams.

At Groupon, we are still working towards mobile nirvana and these are just a few first important lessons to keep in mind when crafting mobile experiences with the ultimate objective to engage your consumers in new ways.

What other lessons have you learned on your road to mobile-first?

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Does the world need another blog? Not really. However, while I use Facebook to share more personal stuff with my close friends and family, I did not have a place like this to have broad conversations with folks on the mobile industry, Silicon Valley life, Italy, movies, food and other random things. I will try to create and post here entropy that I found interesting.

Shannon's entropy theorem

In information theory, entropy represents a measure of disorder, uncertainty of a certain variable and interestingly it is defined as measure of the minimal information content of a communication. Disorder and synthesis in the same concept.
Let’s start the journey.

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