What Did The Dynamite Say To The Fuse?

A little over a year ago I decided that it was a bit odd that I’d never experienced the other side of podcasting. I helped build Pocket Casts, an amazing app for listening to podcasts that’s available on iOS, Android and even the web. I had also made guest appearances on quite a few podcasts for interviews and commentary. But I’d never actually edited a podcast, seen one submitted to iTunes or experienced the regular week in, week out life that podcasters all over the world live.

I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but somehow Jelly and I got together and decided we wanted to try to make a podcast together. I had met Jelly previously at a conference in Melbourne, and he had me once or twice on the Mobile Couch podcast. Long story short Topical was born. Our original idea was that we’d each take opposing sides on a topic, and debate it for no more than 30 minutes. For whatever reason Topical turned into another kind of show altogether, with episode 4 probably being the closest we ever got to that vision. I learnt how to edit a podcast, what goes into publishing a podcast and all sorts of things about microphones, background noise and sound proofing.

It was a great ride, I still remember how much fun it was to record things like Shower Thoughts. Or the time we unveiled Myke Hurley’s killing spree. Casey Liss joined us to talk emotions. Wendy Zukerman (who has the best voice in podcasting, bar none) talked Science Journalism with us. But as with every ride, it had to come to an end one day. In true Topical fashion the episode aptly named ‘The End’ wasn’t the end, the Epilogue was. It’s worth staying right to the end of that one to see what transpires in the future for Topical.

So to anyone that ever listened to our fun experiment, I thank you. I had a blast doing it and I think we ended on a high note. Also if you’re reading this in the future and robots have indeed taken all our jobs, please don’t tell Jelly, I can’t bare the indignity of him being right about that one.

 

Discovering Discovery

As a member of the Pocket Casts team and an app developer who has been in the podcasting space since 2010 I have come to learn a lot about this industry. It started for me in a small bubble in the tech world, specifically on Twit.tv. Over the years though I’ve come to appreciate that podcasting is far bigger than tech, it’s also far bigger than me or the team behind Pocket Casts. I see a lot of commentary on podcast apps being the new ‘UI playground’ and to some extent that’s definitely true. There are new podcasting apps released almost daily on iOS and Android, each with their own take on what a podcasting app should be. It’s amazing to see the variety out there, and the different ideas that developers have. There is however a but coming. A ‘but’ so big it needs a new paragraph.

You see, what constitutes a ‘Discover’ section in an app seems to be neglected, almost universally in these apps. This is odd, considering the only reason a podcasting app exists is to play podcasts. Your app can’t exist just to show off your skills in building a User Interface. It can’t exist just for you to mess with technical doodads. Its very existence in fact depends on an immense catalogue of free content provided by podcast authors. So surfacing that content, making it easier for authors to get noticed and grow their audience should be a key design consideration in each and every podcast app. This to me at least, should be a universal truth.

Just a quick note here before we continue: my intention here is not to criticise individual developers of competing apps. I’m friends with quite a few authors of various apps and I consider them almost universally to be great people. That said I think we all can and should aim to do better on this front. Ok, disclaimer aside, let’s explores some interfaces.

Downcast and Castro 2

Downcast and Castro 2

In both of these apps you can search. This is good for podcasts you already know about, or have heard the name of. Outside of that you can browse categories. If I’m being honest this isn’t great. How would I discover new podcasts whose categories I don’t know about ahead of time? It feels like a developers solution to a human problem. Now the authors of these apps may well say “well we see discovery happening outside of the app, Twitter, Facebook, etc”. That’s fine, but that discovery is going to happen whether you enable it or not. I feel like we owe podcast authors more than that.

This then is a slight improvement:

IMG_0486

Overcast

We have a slightly more visual representation and the top part appears to be things the user of the app are actively recommending. It’s still not great though, suffering from two fairly large problems. Firstly if all you’re surfacing is things people are already listening to, what hope do new podcasts have? Secondly the categories seem to be heavily related to the developer of the app, his friends, and things he likes. That’s not great for diversity and introduction of new voices and new podcasts.

I could go on, there are literally dozens if not hundreds of apps in the iOS and Android app stores that suffer from similar problems. To me it stems from the nature of what we’re like as developers. We want to build cool UIs. We want to try new technical things. We don’t really curate or recommend though, that’s not a thing developers do. Ironically for me, here’s the gold standard of podcast discovery:

Apple Podcasts

Apple Podcasts

I say ‘ironically’ because I find the Apple Podcasts app somewhat hard to use and little bit buggy. The discovery section though is, I feel, second to none. It’s constantly refreshed with new shows. It’s bright and colourful. It features a variety of topics and voices (hint: try to spot the 2-3 white guys talking tech podcast on this page. It’s there, but it’s way down there). It doesn’t instantly force you into picking categories, it enables discovery. How is this achieved? I suspect mostly with human curation. An actual human being talks to podcast authors, listens to podcasts, curates lists. Probably more than one. Podcast authors are excited when they are featured in here. They constantly ask listeners to rate their podcasts in iTunes in the hopes of being noticed in this app. It makes a difference.

This is what we’ve been trying to get closer to for the last few years in Pocket Casts. More human curation, more surfacing of diverse and new podcasts. The results of this experiment are very interesting. As of about 12 months ago, we now feature a new podcast twice a week. Every week thousands of people open our Discovery section to see what’s new. Of those people over 15,000 open the featured podcast to see what it’s about. What does this do for authors? The results are amazing: a feature for them results in getting anywhere from 1000 to 10,000 new subscribers in our app. Some of those authors were destined to become big with or without us, but there have definitely been some proud moments where we literally put a new podcast on the map, finding it before anyone else and getting people to talk about it. How did we go about this? Well we put the same level of care and thought into podcast discovery and featuring that we did in the rest of the app. We also went one step further. If a good app requires great developers, then good curation requires a good curator. So we hired one, full time. We employ two developers, we employ a designer, so if we really, truly care about curation we should employ a curator as well. The result is that our discover section is vibrant, it’s alive, and most importantly we’re giving back to the podcasting community to which we owe so much of our success.

Pocket Casts

Pocket Casts

I don’t want to praise us too much, I feel like we still have a long way to go and we have a lot of plans around discovery for the future. That said, If you’re building a new app in this space by all means consider the UI. By all means spend time on the technical aspects of the app, but consider spending equal or greater amounts of time on content discovery. Also be mindful of how your personal tastes in podcasting might be harmful in terms of growing the medium and getting more voices heard. It’s time for us as podcast app authors to do more than the next iteration of shiny app to wow customers with, it’s time for us to give back to the people we owe our livelihood to.

Digital Touch is the New Floppy Drive

Should the analog headphone jack remain on our devices forever? If you think so, you can stop reading. If not, when?

– John Gruber, Headphone Jacks Are the New Floppy Drives

Will your car always have wheels? If we agree it won’t, then why don’t we remove them now? This argument makes literally no sense. Neither the lightning port nor bluetooth are superior replacements for the standard headphone connector. Then again this is from the guy who brought us this unforgettable gem. What a revelation that digital touch on the Apple Watch turned out to be, bringing 16 year olds together the world over.

I literally can’t wait for my Twitter stream to be filled with “What’s the big deal, just buy an adapter” tweets come September.

Google Goes One Better

Now Google plans to up the ante at its app store: It will also move from a 70/30 split to 85/15 for subscriptions — but instead of requiring developers to hook a subscriber for 12 months before offering the better split, it will make it available right away.

Not to be outdone, Google has their own 85/15 deal for subscriptions, but doesn’t require you to wait a year. Interesting. Can we please continue this competition until the revenue split for paid apps is also 85/15? No? Come on, a developer can dream…

App Store Changes

Interesting blog post from Apple today: https://developer.apple.com/news/?id=06082016a. Covered on The Verge and Daring Fireball

Search Ads is an efficient and easy way for you to promote your app directly within the U.S. App Store search results, helping customers discover or reengage with your app, while respecting their privacy. Starting this summer, you’ll be able to participate in the Search Ads beta and see the ads in action.

Awwww hell no. App Store search is broken enough, the last thing developers need is paid ads. This is pure and simple, a way for Apple to make more money and that’s ok, they are a business after all. The App Store search page must get a crazy amount of hits per day, why not make some money off that? It’s a perfectly reasonable move on Apple’s part, but Apple Press for the love of Zuul please let’s stop pretending that they are some kind of Shining White Knight of a company that eschews this sort of thing. There’s nothing good here for developers or customers, this is just Apple helping Apple.

We’re opening auto-renewable subscriptions to all app categories including games, increasing developer revenue for eligible subscriptions after one year, providing greater pricing flexibility, and more.

This on the other hand is a big improvement to subscriptions. The 70/30 split is dropping to 85/15 after one year of a subscriber being on your system and they are expanding the list of apps that can use subscriptions. The Internet is all abuzz with what this means for us lowly indie app developers, but honestly this seems more geared at things like Netflix & Sketch than it does to apps like Pocket Weather and Pocket Casts. My one fear is that desperate developers will jump on this and try to turn every app into a paid subscription. If that happens (and it’s a big if) it could easily lead to customer fatigue and all sorts of blowback. This will be something to keep an eye on for sure.

Finally, Schiller says that the App Store has been speeding up app review times — to the point where 50 percent of submitted apps are now reviewed in 24 hours, and 90 percent are reviewed within 48 hours.

Let’s end on a high note. This is a MASSIVE win for developers. I’m willing to ignore the fact that we took 8 years to get to this point just because it makes me so happy to see Apple publicly saying that these review times are here to stay. Just this week I submitted an update to Pocket Weather that was approved in about 16 hours. That’s game changing vs the 7 days+ we used to have to wait. My eternal gratitude to whoever solved this one, hopefully once and for all.

It’s a Design Language World

Fellow Relay FM host Jason Snell wrote an interesting article comparing Google in the naughties to Microsoft in the 90s.

Open Google Docs for iOS and you’re whisked into a Material Design world. To create a new document, you must tap a large red circle at the bottom right corner of the screen. The options icon is three vertical dots, rather than the three horizontal dots favored by Apple. Menus display in Material Design style, white cards on a gray background.

Full Article

He argues that much like Microsoft was in the 90s, Google is now pushing a design language that is common across platforms and that in contrast Apple isn’t (as evidenced by Apple Music on Android). While I agree with some of what Jason is saying, I feel as if he’s so dangerously close to an epiphany. I’d argue that all the big companies now have their own design languages that they push across all their platforms, and that Google is the only one to actually give it a name.

Allow me to elaborate. Every time I head to iTunes Connect or iCloud.com I’m presented with web apps that look like iOS apps. We have iOS launcher style icons on blurred backgrounds, we have iOS style navigation, heck we even have pop-up boxes to notify you of events and errors. Everything about these ‘web apps’ screams iOS. So it would be easy for me to pen an article about how Apple doesn’t respect the web, or Windows. But they respect Android, right? Their music app changed 2 icons on the player screen! It turns out Apple actually have a huge sample size of 2 apps, which we can look at to see if they respect the Android platform. Here is the second one:

Fits right in on Android. Totally.

Fits right in on Android. Totally.

Yes readers there’s nothing the least bit iOS looking about that app. At all.

The truth is that Apple has a design language that they have chosen and they are applying it everywhere too. They haven’t named it ‘Apple Design’ or ‘TiLTOWB’ (Tiny Light Text On White Backgrounds) but it’s there, everywhere you look. Microsoft does the same, they have their ‘authentically digital’ design aesthetic that you see on Windows 10, Xbox, iOS and elsewhere.

So yes, Google is trying to apply Material Design to all platforms, but so is every other big tech company out there. Apple does it. Microsoft does it. Spotify does it. Facebook does it. As to whether they actually should, or each company should develop a unique aesthetic for each platform, well that’s another debate entirely.