Respect The Consumer: Building For An Intelligent User

“Users think they’re up against a machine that thinks it is smarter than they are, and that is keeping them from doing what they want. Some could argue this is a design feature, that adding friction is a way of controlling the amount of interaction with customer service agents. But, the net result is frustration for the consumer.”

-DJ Patil, Describing the user experience of an IVR system (interactive voice response system) like the one that answers the phone when you can an airline

I am currently reading Data Jujitsu, a short and informative (and free!!) read on the Kindle. It’s by DJ Patil, a data scientist at Greylock, and explores many fundamental principles of data application in the startup/internet space. So far it has been a fascinating read that I highly recommend. However, when I read the quote above, I was compelled to stop reading and write this post.

I’ve been watching The Newsroom lately. As a moderately informed 21-year-old, never have I been so intellectually challenged by a TV show. Despite the events The Newsroom references taking place within the last few years, I am often lost and overwhelmed by the depth of content and analysis. I find myself constantly pausing episodes to open Wikipedia tabs, just to read up on these events, so I can be on Sorkin’s level of understanding.

The Newsroom challenges me, the audience. It assumes I am intelligent. It panders to no one. Because of this, I respect it. The Newsroom does not assume an unsophisticated viewer (or user). Rather, the show is made for a highly intelligent, informed one.

Many user interfaces, unlike The Newsroom, do not assume an intelligent user. Instead, they pander. They pander like an ABC Comedy.  The pander to conserve resources. They pander because they are profitable, so why care? The pander because their customers do not have alternatives.

If the user interface is like the IVR system referenced by DJ Patil, which seemingly tries its hardest to hide customer service agents from callers, than why even provide the contact number? The reason someone is engaging in such a service is to speak with an agent, not struggle with an automated service!

Build for an intelligent user. Always. Even if doing so requires additional resources (having more customer service agents, spending more money on design, etc.) or slight compromises to the simplicity of your interface design. Allow the user to find the route that works best for their specific needs, and do nothing to inhibit them.  Whatever your service, don’t inhibit the user. Assume they are smarter than you.

When a product is built that respects the consumer’s intelligence and time, they will in turn respect the service. This is vital!

I realize this comparison is a little abstract, but….I respect The Newsroom because it assumes my intelligence. The show is very smart, but the writing and depth back it up. An IVR system like the one DJ Patil describes comes off as wise and intelligent. However, anyone who has spent any time battling automated phone services know they are poorly designed and hardly ever yield any value. There is no depth of build to back up it’s automated functions.

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Hands Free Mobile Devices

“Startups should be solving for a world where the device in our hand is more useful than the device on our desk.”

-Aaron Levie, Founder of

Ray Kurzweil wrote in 2001 about the accelerating returns in technology. Essentially, the technological progress of society to time ratio is exponentially increasing. Whether or not you think Kurzweil is a joke, the fact remains that in modern society, the half life for technologies is shrinking. Vinyl Albums, Tapes, CDs, and Ipods all lost relevance with a decreasing shelf life. Now Ipods are dying as our music players and phones have converged into one device.

I find Aaron Levie’s quote to have a lot of relevance. He is an extremely accomplished individual, and we both have distaste for our alma mater (he dropped out of USC, I am a still suffering student). However, I can’t help but think that it is only a matter of time until having a device in our hands is no longer relevant. Look at Google Glass, look at the current state of nanotechnology. Shit, there are working prototypes of bionic eyes which can cure blindness.


Within 10 years, I bet that all our devices will be hands free. Maybe all our computing will be done in front of our eyes through glasses. Maybe chips will be implanted and interfaced directly into our brains. Does it seem ludicrous? New technologies often do. When the automobile first become popular, the President of Michigan Savings Bank declared, “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty- a fad.”

By his statement, I believe Aaron Levie is saying that mobile computing is the future, not that all mobile devices will be hands-based. BUT, it is still interesting to wonder… how much longer until we are truly hands free? Never underestimate the desire of humans to be lazy; people love to avoid work. No matter how little work it requires to use a smart phone compared to a desktop computer, people will continue to strive to reduce the amount of work required to accomplish tasks.


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Radio Show

Last night I had my first on air set at KXSC (USC’s radio station). I have been shadowing my friend Jason Adams on his hilarious show Multiple Personality Syndrome for several weeks, and finally stepped up to the plate. I went with a 5-song, all soul set (see below) and spoke on air several times. GOD DAMN WAS IT FUN

1. Grace Jones – Pull Up To The Bumper
2. Quantic – I’ll Keep My Light in My Window (with The Combo Barbaro)
3. Joss Stone – I’ve Fallen In Love with You
4. Nneka – Do You Love Me Now
5. Alabama Shakes – Rise to the Sun

I’m working towards having my own show once school begins, and after last night, I couldn’t be more excited. Turning the lights down in that beautiful broadcasting studio and playing a set that took hours to put together is quite remarkable. It’s a form of musical self expression that doesn’t require composition, but that only adds to the fun. Assembling a coherent set of other peoples’ music is a fresh challenge, and I look forward to doing it again soon.

It’s a bummer commercial radio is so lackluster. Thank the lord for KCRW.

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Current Trends

1. Access Points vs Content Libraries:

There are two emerging macro categories of products. One is doing much better (financially) than the other. The one I have labeled access points, are what we use to access content. Examples are Iphones, laptops, Kindles, Ipods, etc. Another form of access point (with a slightly different result field) would be Google. Through Google search, most users access the web.

Access points often take the form of hardware, and in that sense, they can be extremely successful financially.

The other category is Content Libraries.

Youtube, Facebook, Netflix,, Wikipedia, Spotify, etc. In these different products lie a majority of the content people consume. People reach these libraries through their different access points.

There is also a sub-trend emerging within Content Libraries. User generated content libraries vs. premium content libraries. Premium content providers (often the premium content is intellectual property) can justify charging for access to their libraries. Though many of these products are struggling in the Internet age, some users WILL pay for this access online.

User-generated content libraries are harder to make financially relevant.  Youtube is almost entirely an ad-driven platform. Wikipedia is free and survives on donations. As Facebook has shown us recently (through their failed IPO), there may not even be great inherent value in having a lot of users if the only income is advertising.

Conclusion: There is money in access points. There is also money (though not quite as much) in premium content libraries, though significantly less so. The real successes however, occur when a company controls both the access point as well as a premium content library associated with it. Itunes/Ipods and Kindle/Amazon-Publishing illustrate this very well.

2. The Shift back toward Silos:

Focused excellence. Focused excellence. Focused excellence. Multitasking is becoming passe.  This can be seen by the continued failure of the mobile Facebook application (too much content, too little space, terrible interface), while mobile Twitter continues to flourish (it’s a very focused product).

Users want to pull out their Iphone, and through that, have access to a panel of focused, well built, simple apps through which any need can be met.

Conclusion: Make sure whatever you are building is simplistic, clean, works extremely well, and solves a clear problem.

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Staggered Release Dates

Picture this. You are a fan of the Temper Trap. A big fan. Big enough that you were planning to PURCHASE their new album.  You live in the US. Their new album (self titled) was released in Australia on May 19th. But, the US release date isn’t until June 5th. What are you going to do? Wait for the US release, or simply torrent it, as the album is readily available online due to people in Australia uploading it.

I understand that there are contractual label obligations behind such a decision. But, all staggered international release dates do is hurt the artist financially. If a fan is loyal and rabid enough that they were planning to purchase the album, it means the fan is probably dying to hear the finished product. A few days is one thing, but releasing an album in a major territory weeks after the initial release is foolish, for many of those loyal fans will be impatient and will download the album illegally.


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Mobile Add Ons

I love the concept and execution of Square. A free, convenient, physical add-on to smartphones that provides a mobile payment SOLUTION FOR CONSUMERS.  The true genius of Square is that consumers can attain it for free. The reason for this is that as a mobile payment solution, Square inc. can (and does) simply charge a percentage off the transactions they process. By doing this, they have removed the barrier of an initial payment for their service.


This leads to the question: what other physical add-ons are coming for smartphones? And, will they too be able to come up with the alternative business model required for free distribution of the physical product?

A Quick Analytics Anecdote…Facebook Optimized Advertising

There has been a lot made lately of Facebook’s shortcomings in terms of its status as a lackluster advertising platform (read this! The Facebook Fallacy). However, it wasn’t until the other day when I realized how much better Facebook could utilize the troves of data they have access to.  Here’s what went down…

My good friend just returned from the Birthright program. Essentially, Birthright is an all expenses paid, 10 day trip to Israel for American Jewish youth (age 18-25). This program exists in the hopes that seeing Israel firsthand will foster further generations of Israel-supporting, American Jews.

Anyway, my friend returns, and right away (as they did not have access to Internet while abroad) gets on Facebook to find 40 friend requests from his other trip participants. They are also uploading and tagging each other in many photos. He had an amazing time, and apparently everyone returned from the trip with a significant newfound pride in the state of Israel.

Some Newfound Pride in Israel

It is completely reasonable for Facebook’s infrastructure to recognize these new relationships and what they have in common: a recent trip to Israel. That pride is what SHOULD be capitalized on. If FB’s advertising platform was advanced as it could be, all of the kids on this trip would be getting targeted ads pertaining to Israeli “pride” products. Israeli flags, Naot (a popular brand of israeli sandals), and all sorts of other items could fly off virtual shelves if given the opportunity.

Experiential data is extremely valuable, as it plays to people’s emotions. Facebook should orient its advertising platform accordingly.

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Just Another Industry: The End of the Scarcity Model in Music

The following table examines the components of the music business that made it “perfect” for Internet-based disruption, and the state of those components afterward.

Business Component Pre-Disruption (Perfect Industry) Post-Disruption (No Longer Special)
Promotion Magazines pushing Record Companies’ product: Free Most music magazines have become culture based. Do not have nearly the same pull over readers. People do not need recommendations. They can sample and judge for themselves.
Promotion Radio pushing Record Companies’ product: Free Still relevant, but does not have nearly the same pull over listeners as before. Decentralized by emergence of Internet Radio.
Promotion Television: MTV: Free Advertising Now industry must pay for television advertising, like all other industries.
Promotion/ Distribution Physical Distribution. Chains of independent retailers whose focus was selling Record Companies’ product. Now only physical distribution is big box stores (Target, Walmart, etc.) or Mom & Pop indies. Physical is waning anyway. Digital distribution is not monopolized.
Distribution Controlled by Record Companies: Oligopoly. Distribution now flat. Internet is an equal space, any random musician can have worldwide digital distribution without Record Companies.
Listening Technology Records followed by CDs. High Priced. Cheap to produce. Not copyable. Wears out (must be replaced). Digital copies cost nothing or are cheap. They are easily copied. They do not wear out. Unlimited consumption streaming services like Spotify are emerging.
Costs of Production Used to take enormous sums of money to make a commercially viable album. Now solid albums can be created cheaply with virtual instruments and home studios.
Popularity Principle: Reinforcing Just had to get Album into Top 40 charts to create more sales: Consumer rationale “Must be good because it is selling!” World of niches. People can sample for free, will only buy what they personally like.
Cool Factor Music defines people over long periods of time. Still relevant.


Just Another Brick…

I miss my Facebook wall.  Timeline is a fascinating and impressive function. I like having two profile pictures, especially the huge new one (the more of me, the better!).  But, what problems does Timeline really solve? I liked having one centralized place where people could write on my profile.  That still exists, but it is convoluted and doesn’t load instantly as I scroll down my FB.  Searching for past posts is difficult, and I liked having a clean interface between different sections of content on my profile.
Timeline is well built (the timeline function anyway), a cool concept, and I believe it would make an outstanding additional function to a user profile.

However, no one I speak to uses Timeline for it’s actual purpose….looking at their friends historical Facebook presence. People only use timeline as an augmented wall (or as a stalker tool),  and rarely scroll downward past the first section.  I would wager a bet that posting and interaction between users is down since the introduction of Timeline, as Timeline’s build simply does not user promote interaction like the wall.

The recording of history is an important aspect of Facebook. But, despite the fact that “Twitter is where news breaks; Facebook is where news goes,” (John Herman-Buzzfeed), it can’t be ignored that Facebook is still a marvelous tool for social interaction, and that should be where the emphasis of the service lies.

Bottom line: I don’t care nearly as much about my online past as I do about the present.  Timeline makes my online life harder, not easier. More work for me as the user=worse product. Doesn’t matter how cool of a feature it is.

P.S. My birthday was last week, and timeline combined all of the birthday posts I received into one small timeline box.  Maybe I am more insecure than most, but I LOVED having my Facebook wall plastered in birthday messages. It felt good. It was a fun way to show off online (what we all want from Facebook anyway) without putting in any effort. Having my congratulatory messages minimized and shunned to preserve a balanced timeline sucks, and does not play to what I as a user want my Facebook presence to be.

John Herman Article Link:

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5 Things I Wish Were Improved In Spotify

I love Spotify. I have used it since it first became available in the US. I’m a premium member, and consume most of my music through Spotify. However, there are several issues I have with the service that I would love to see improved.

1)   Playlists– I am a consumenivor (as Nick Bilton would say). I consume content online, all day, in a variety of ways.  I do not have the time or the desire for playlists. Plus, I am an unorganized person.  I want two things in my virtual music collection. One is a basic library format containing all the music I like/want/could ever dream of. The second is an easy-to-use metadata based search function (think iTunes) to navigate said library. In its current state, my Spotify music library is a bit of an unorganized mess, as I get lost in all my different playlists.

2)   The Mobile App– Just got the latest update…

Still unimpressed. I want the ability to access my play history! Plus, I want the play history to be synced between the computer and the mobile device. How else can I remember music as I discover it?  Take the time and hassle to organize it into playlists… while on my phone?!? Not happening. Also, the process of searching for and playing music while on a mobile device is arduous. This App will only serve you well if you are a playlist person.

3)   Sharing– With the latest Spotify update, I have a huge column on the right side of my screen. It is supposed to be filled with people who are my “favorites.” So far, it is empty. Yet, I can’t minimize it!. This “favorites” column is taking up 1/5 of my window and is empty. Yikes. Stop trying to make me share through your service, or at least build a less intrusive function.

Look at all that wasted screen space!!…Plus, I really struggled over what music was in the background…I want to seem cool (see #4)

4)   Facebook Integration– Not everything I listen to is cool and hip. I am not very cool or hip. Facebook is all about presenting a finely honed version of yourself to your online community. Unless out of sarcasm, no one wants to look foolish on Facebook. The audience is too large.  But, when my listening habits are broadcast to the world through FB, I feel an uncomfortable pressure to only play what other people will not judge me for.  That is extremely hard, as everyone’s musical tastes are different. Just another barrier between Spotify’s paradigm and an at-ease listening environment.

5)   The Vibe of Its Updates– Every time I download an updated version of Spotify, it feels as if the service is moving further and further away from what I as a fan and as a music consumer want.  The core advantage over alternative music-consumption methods, cheap access to quality streams of most artists’ catalogs, remains strong. However, many of the ancillary features feel as if they are advancing the value of Spotify, rather than my consumption experience. (Example: Facebook integration. I feel my privacy is being violated. They gain huge amounts of exposure to untapped music consumers).

6)   Lack of Integration With Services I Use– I know I said 5, but this one just came to me. Why can’t every song I Shazam be instantly added to a “Shazam” playlist??

I just tweeted #6 one at Daniel Ek. Maybe he’ll use it.

P.S. I love Spotify, and use it incessantly. But, that is not because it is an unbelievable product, but because it is simply the best that currently exists.