Aug 09

Last.fm, intrusive advertising, and good feedback

I love last.fm. Normally it looks like this:

Sometimes, they brand whole pages with big music events like Lollapalooza:

I’m OK with this. It’s very much in the background, I can engage with it if I want, or I can ignore it. It doesn’t take away from my core experience at last.fm – listening to music and checking out new bands.

Recently, when I have ‘loved’ a track, the page has also been taken over by a brand:

I’m not OK with this. This is shouting at me, trying to take over, trying to get my attention. It is taking my attention away from listening and loving music. I just clicked a little heart, I didn’t ask for a huge banner ad to take over my experience. It also isn’t genuine. I don’t trust it. I’m pretty sure that AT&T don’t want me to ‘spread the love’ and ‘learn how to tell the world’ by spreading this music all over the internet. Worst of all for last.fm and for myself, I’ve stopped loving tracks to avoid this ad.

This is bad feedback. It’s rude, it’s in my face. It’s like the shouty sports coach yelling encouragement at his team of 10 year old kids.

Good feedback is subtle. It’s encouraging, but in a soft way. Like your grandmother coaxing you to eat more vegetables.

I wish last.fm was more like my Granny.

May 09

Hello everyone, this is your captain speaking

Last year I was on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to San Francisco. Over the Rockies, I was subjected to the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. On numerous occasions it felt like the plane was falling out of the sky. I was gripping my seat, my body was in a sweat, but I wasn’t worried. My peace of mind came from communication with the captain. Before the turbulence, she came on and informed us that there was reported turbulence ahead. She told us that we were going to try and drop altitude to avoid it, but that we may have to pass through some of it. She told us that it was going to be very uncomfortable, but that we were all perfectly safe. She was right, it was very uncomfortable, but she came on again multiple times to reassure us that we were not in danger, everything was under control. Everyone around me was uncomfortable, but managing. A month later I took another flight (with United), and passed through almost equally bad turbulence. This time there was no communication from the captain. And everyone around me was saying their prayers.

This story is not about Air Canada or United, it’s much more human than that. My uncle is a pilot, and I asked him what he would do. Surprisingly, there are no guidelines. Communication is at every pilots’ discretion. He was surprised that I valued the warning, he felt that it was better not to worry people and just get through it as quickly as possible.

On commercial flights, why is the communication from the pilot to the passengers so inconsistent? In what contexts is it best to communicate to passengers? When is it best not to communicate? When communicating, what are the best words to use? These seem like research questions we could gather strong data on.

On flights with no ‘moving maps’, I often wonder what I’m looking at out the window. When the pilot gets on to inform us of our estimated arrival time, our altitude, our speed, why not tell me what I’m looking at out the window? Do I really care about altitude? Do I really know how high 35,000 feet is? Or do I care about what desert/mountain/city I’m flying over?

The onboard airline customer experience is ripe for improvement.

Mar 09

Expose how things work to your customers

When collecting baggage in Brasilia airport, huge windows allow you to see what is going on outside. You can see the aircraft you just disembarked from, and the progress of your bags from plane to baggage belt. Waiting you may be, but no waiting and wondering.

Too many companies hide their processes from their customers. For example, Walgreens lock their toothbrushes in a cabinet and provide a button to press so that an employee can come unlock it and you can grab what you want.


The problem (apart from the fact that they lock up their toothbrushes) is that when I pressed the button, nothing happened. I waited and waited. I pressed the button again. What was going on? What did the button do? Did it ring a bell? Ring someone’s phone? Turn a light on somewhere? Did anyone hear the bell? See the light? Does the button even work? So I left and bought my toothbrush somewhere else.

Exposing processes to customers is good. It helps set expectations around what is happening, and when things are not happening as expected, why that might be. And it means that customers might stick around rather than leave.

Jan 09

Towards open conversations on every product/service website

Who will be the first large company to allow open commenting and conversation about their products and services on their public site? For example, I go to levis.com or toyota.com and I can wax lyrical about latest offerings with fellow interested folk.

What’s the drive quality of this car model really like? How many miles per gallon are current owners getting? Should I opt for the 1.8 or 2.0 engine? What’s it like compared to the Ford?

This site level open community feels inevitable. Currently, every website already has a latent community. All the people across the globe who are viewing the same stuff at the same time, often with the same questions. There is already a trend towards exposing these communities. Friend Connect, Facebook Connect and services like Get Satisfaction are already allowing customers and potential customers to not only converse with each other, but also with the businesses themselves. Wal-Mart already allows customers to publicly rate their wares.

By exposing these latent communities and allowing them to converse, businesses get:

- Fantastic insight into their customers perceptions and expectations of their current offerings, and also that of their competitors (as people often compare when trying to make purchase decisions).

- An opportunity to be involved in the conversation and correct inaccuracies.

- A rich body of data about consumer trends to influence what they should do next.

I’m sure businesses would be worried about too many negative conversations, but if that’s the case, their problems are far greater than any website conversation. Certainly many people are more motivated to comment when something bad happens (as they say “good design is invisible”), as a way to get their grievances off their chest, but I can see a world where brand advocates are just as motivated to get involved and stand up for a product/service that they believe in. That is also what happens on review sites like Yelp, where people are equally motivated to recommend or criticise something.

Is it inevitable that the company who don’t allow open conversation on their site are the company with something to hide?

Jan 09

Advertising $$$, before technology, before users

In interaction design, it’s critical to get the flow of actions right. This is about relative priorities. Balancing the business needs (revenue) and user needs. Following is an example of getting it completely wrong, where the business priorities are met at the expense of a terrible user experience.

RTE is Ireland’s national broadcaster. They provide video clips on their website, which are often snippets from their content first published on television e.g. a news bulletin. Video and audio is offered at the bottom of related news stories:

RTE audio video link

Clicking the link opens a new window where an advertisement is played:

RTE advertisement

I want to watch the news story, not view an ad. Then this happens:


- Breaking the flow by forcing users to watch a completely unrelated ad before the news story.

- Offering an ad that grates against the video content, in this case a cheery Christmas snack food juxtaposed against a horrific nationwide murder story.

- Making the technology work for the ad, but not for the content.

- Forcing users to download software. I’d guess that the churn rate here is easily over 50%. There are plenty of technologies available that would allow this content to play in the browser without the need to download anything.

A better solution:

- Immediately play the video, embedded in the webpage.

- Offer relevant ads at the end of the video. If the video is a tragic news story, don’t offer ads.

RTE are damaging the long term perception of their brand by meeting short term revenue goals. Not to mention the damage to their advertiser’s brand.