Sometimes You Have to Blame the Messenger:

Why iTunes Fails to Showcase Podcasts and How it Can Do Better

A Guerrilla Usability Test on iTunes’ Podcast Platform


Podcasts are great. I love spending hours on end listening to them. They allow me to learn from the people I admire — like Julie Zhuo and Elle Luna, catch up with the latest technology through @IDEOFutures, learn the ins and outs of a startup from @podcaststartup, and listen to inspiring stories about the extremely adaptable human brain from @invisibilia.

Unfortunately, the platform that is supposed to help podcasts shine, sucks. I have searched everywhere for a platform that would allow me to keep a neat library of the podcasts from stations I have subscribed to, automatically update my library daily, and also allow me to stream all of my content instead of downloading each item individually — all without having to open my web browser. Currently, the only one that fits that bill is iTunes. However, despite being the best available platform, iTunes still has the potential to be improved.

Let’s explore how we can make iTunes better.

Test Parameters

  • What: iTunes Podcast platform
  • Who: avid podcast listeners and potential new users (“participants”)
  • Where: UC Berkeley (GO BEARS!)

Test tasks

In order to observe how participants interact with iTunes’ Podcast platform, and identify both common and different strategies for navigating the platform, I asked each participant to perform the following tasks:

  1. Search for a podcast via broadcasting title or name of producer
  2. Search for a podcast according to interest
  3. Subscribe to a podcast
  4. Share a podcast episode

Process

DATA ANALYSIS

I reviewed notes taken both from observation of the participants’ interactions with iTunes’ Podcast platform as well as from interview questions posed during that interaction. I then noted and highlighted similar pain points among participants using post-it tabs. Those pain points have been re-coded and grouped into five categories below.

Partial interview and participant observation notes.

CATEGORIZING PAIN POINTS

Above is a list of the re-coded pain points each participant experienced. Each color represents a different participant according to the legend below the picture. If a user’s color is found in the space after each category, that user experienced problems associated that particular pain point. This article will be limited in scope, and will focus efforts on exploring and proposing solutions to the first three pain points.

Findings

Pain Point #1 : DISCOVERY

Potential new users were unable to find engaging podcasts to listen to while avid listeners are unable to easily find relevant podcasts according to their existing interests. Avid listeners expect to see suggested podcasts based on the podcasts they currently subscribe to.

“I don’t know how to find other podcasts that would interest me after I finished listening to all my subscribed stations…” — User # 1

Let’s take a look at the Discovery Page of an avid listener:

Let’s take a look at the Discovery Page of a potential new user:

See the resemblance? No, these are not optical illusions. This page looks exactly the same for all user across the board. The fact that the first user is already subscribed to various podcasts does not result in a customized Discovery Page. It would seem that the Discovery Page (from a back-end standpoint) has not been properly set up to create a unique discovery process for each user based on their interests. Instead, the Discovery Page is nothing more than what iTunes chooses to promote to its users during that particular period. Alas, a hint of true discovery can be found encoded elsewhere on iTunes. The mechanics for this discovery feature do exist in iTunes already. On each podcast, there is a list of “Listeners Also Subscribed To…” feature carousel tucked into the bottom of the page, as illustrated below.

Pain Point #2 : SEARCH FUNCTION

When potential new users were asked to find a specific podcast, their immediate reaction was to go straight to the search bar and type a keyword. In this case, they were asked to find the “Millennial” podcast. The participant below misspelled the keyword of the podcast, but the results below are still demonstrative of the limited ability of general search results from use of the search bar. After searching, they were lead to this Search Result page:

Search Result Page — Shows all possible result based on keyword used

There are a few things that stand out about this Search Result page. The first, and most glaring, error is the fact that one missing letter can dramatically alter the results of this search. One would expect to see, after searching for the non-existent word “Millenial”, a sweet suggestion from iTunes. Did you mean Millennial? Or, simply having the sought after podcast (which was only one letter away) come up in the results. Neither of these occur.

The “Millennial” podcast we were looking for

Second, there is significant void of information in the search results. The results show nothing other than a list of keyword matched results, with only a title and a photo for each result. In order to learn more about each podcast, the participant has to spend time and effort to investigate each podcast by clicking on each picture tile and going to their individual station page. The bare-bone structure of the search results misses out on opportunities to more fully engage users.

Tiled “See All” podcast search results contain no additional information regarding each podcast shown

Pain Point #3 : SHARING

Participants were unable to find the way to share a podcast from the “My Podcasts” page (where podcasts that the participants subscribe to are listed)

When asked to share a podcast, five participants spent the next five to ten minutes clicking on every button available on the page but could not find a way to share the podcast. Confusion ran amuck, as participants questioned the motives and the advice of this humble researcher. In his frustration, one user was frank in questioning me saying, “It this a trick question?”. Clearly, Houston, we have a problem.

Here is the typical behavior flow of a participant when asked to perform this task:

Typical user interaction when attempting to share a podcast episode
  1. Click the ellipses button that becomes visible when hovering over the episode title
  2. Click the gear setting button on the top header bar
  3. Click on the ellipses button on the top header bar
  4. Toggled between Unplayed and Feed button

At this point, almost every participant became very frustrated, as they realized that there was no clear pathway by which the participant can share the podcast episode. As one user remarked, “IT’S IMPOSSIBLE!!!”.

Defying the odds, one clever participant out of the six was able to figure out that there is an option to “Copy Podcast URL” on the right-click menu.

Copy Podcast URL ≠ Share Podcast URL

Despite technically allowing participants to share podcasts, the “Copy Podcast URL” button is not only difficult to access but also devoid of any engaging language promoting the “sharing” of something the participant finds interesting.

Curious, we began investigating how to properly share a podcast episode per iTunes’ vision. Below is the is the currently existing user flow in service:

Current flow of the sharing process
  1. Hover over episode title to activate visibility of the ellipses button and click on it
  2. Select “Show in iTunes Store” on drop down menu
  3. Arrive at iTunes Store podcast page
  4. Subscribe → Share options listed on drop down OR Get → Share options listed on drop down

This flow is problematic and frustrating because it not only that it made the assumption that ALL users know that you are only able to share a podcast through the iTunes store page, it also took FOUR STEPS to share a podcast episode.


Design Suggestions

Users want to be able to quickly discover podcasts that aligns with their interests. Some potential suggestions:

Show suggested podcast based on users’ currently subscribed podcasts

This is truly a missed opportunity. iTunes should take advantage of this existing suggestion feature and display it on the main Discover page, as illustrated below:

Users expect to be able to find what they are looking for! Some potential suggestions:

  1. Provide clickable keyword suggestion if the one currently used was misspelled to re-search using the correct term
  2. Display search results from using the suggested keyword
  3. Display search results from using the misspelled or alternate spelling keywords (if results are available)

Typo happens to the best of us. But users should not be left astray for such minor offense. Providing suggestion and alternative findings will help reduce search frustration and direct the user back on track on their search to find their next favorite podcast.

Users want to be able to find new and engaging podcasts. Some potential suggestions:

  1. Provide a short description about the podcasts on the Discovery and Search Result page at a quick glance

2. Allow users to sort search results based on several parameters, such as: sorting alphabetically, by author/artist name, rating, and date released

Users want to be able to instantly share podcast episodes. Some potential suggestions:

  1. Add a clear share button next to the ellipses button that shows up when hovering on the episode title. The use of the familiar iPhone Sharing button will help user recognize the function of this button.

2. Display sharing module view in a modal window
Users tend to abandon sharing process when they have to switch platform in order to share. To help diminish this frustration, the sharing module should be formed in a customized modal window. This will also keep the iTunes branding consistent throughout the experience.

Sharing modal view

3. Rewrite “Copy Podcast URL” into “Share Podcast Episode” on the right click menu
This language promotes and encourages sharing. When selected, this menu will also activate the modal window for sharing shown above.

Solutions for right click lovers.

What’s Next?

I would like to do A/B testings to measure the impact that the suggested design changes might have on the number of listened new podcast channels and shared podcast episodes.

Then, rinse and repeat.


I am not affiliated with iTunes or Apple. I am an aspiring Product Designer and currently working on pet projects. I listen to podcasts and use the iTunes platform everyday. I am exploring how I can make it sucks less! Let me know what you think about this article and ask me about podcast recommendations at @hi_mischelle