Whatever your feelings about Apple as a corporation, former CEO Steve Jobs is rightly credited with exploiting the intersection of technology and fashion. The iPhone, for example, was not simply a revolutionary device, it quickly came to signify cultural cachet. If you were obsessively checking another portable device you were a dweeb, but if you were obsessively checking an iPhone you were hip.
Because of my feelings about Apple as a corporation I have only owned one Apple product in my long life — an iPod Mini, which was received as a welcome and generous gift. In terms of music storage it was functional, in terms of sound quality it was tolerable, but in terms of design it was as cutting-edge as a device could be at the time. Unfortunately, a foundational precept of Apple’s cutting-edge design aesthetic involves obscuring and abstracting device functionality to the point of incomprehension, leaving new users in the dark about how their sophisticated devices actually function.
I still remember fiddling with my new iPod Mini and being soundly rebuffed in my various attempts to understand the interface. I also remember reading the curt instructions in the enclosed insert, and finding no information which explained how to reliably navigate the various menus. I even remember trying to fight may way into the iPod Mini menu system in the hope that there might be some onboard instructions — even a README file — but again I was defeated. Only when i logged on to the internet and conducted a wide search did I find a demonstration of the distinctive thumb swirl which was critical to the functionality of the iPod Mini interface.
As a person who always reads the instructions, the idea that a major corporation would treat its user interface like a secret handshake was mind-blowing, yet that was undeniably a core component of Apple’s brand. If you had to ask how an Apple device worked you were obviously a noob, but even then if that aesthetic had remained limited to Apple products I would not have cared. Unfortunately, because Steve Jobs also turned Apple into a massively wealthy corporation, designers across the tech industry followed suit, adopting the same intentionally incomprehensible aesthetic in order to signal corporate cool.
I mention all that as context because today I was once again reminded that the music-streaming service Pandora hews to the same design aesthetic on its web page. Specifically, at the bottom of the desktop interface there is a small, centered, five-icon menu for playing and tailoring music on playlists that Pandora calls ‘stations’. Yet nowhere on that web page is there any explanation of what those icons actually do when clicked. (The middle button is play/stop, but the effects of the other four buttons are not only not clear, the icons for the two inboard buttons might as well be middle fingers.)
Where a consumer-centric web team would have included tooltips on mouse-over — which would also be trivial to implement — Pandora chose not to provide such useful information. Likewise, where any web team would backstop their arcane symbology with a ‘help’ or ‘information’ icon on the same menu, Pandora eschews such clutter. Even when users go looking for an explanation of the menu — whether laboriously searching the Pandora help pages, or asking questions in the Pandora community forum, which requires a separate registration — it’s not at all clear what to search for or ask, because the icons/buttons have no obvious names. (On multiple occasions I have been reduced to searching for info about thumbs.)
As a Pandora customer, and as someone who spent a fair amount of time thinking about the benefits of interface transparency in the tech industry (specifically interactive entertainment), I have on more than one occasion wondered why a corporation in a highly competitive market segment would design a website which actively thwarts the enjoyment of its own service. Given what I know about corporate administration, one thing I have concluded is that the these design choices are intentional, and not the result of one person — even one leader — falling down on the job. From design to implementation to testing to deployment to assessing customer feedback, there must have been people at every stage who pointed out that the Pandora menu is not intuitive, so why hasn’t that failing been addressed?
The only answer I have ever come up with is that — like Apple and too many other tech companies — Pandora believes that being intentionally obscure makes the company cool. Well, along with generating profits at Apple, and being a consummate showman, salesman, executive, and cult leader, it’s important to remember that Steve Jobs was also a colossal jerk, whose failings were never redeemed by his success. Given that the tech industry already has multiple glaring liabilities, including security and privacy concerns, rampant misogyny, exploitative scams and magical business models, one might think that companies hoping to differentiate themselves in the marketplace would do everything possible to provide good service, yet even years after the death of Steve Jobs we still find tech firms clinging to his hostile design aesthetic.
Fortunately, the antidote is not only obvious, it’s cheap, thoroughly understood, and will make customers happier. So if you know anyone at Pandora please link them to this post, because they really do have a good product. All they need to do is get over their own legacy ego needs and put their customers first.
— Mark Barrett