Our Users, Ourselves: Being the User in the Story

As designers we specialize in building things for others — but what’s it like to make something when you’re also the user?

Thursday, December 4, 2014. Even though it was well over a year ago, I can easily recall that morning at Upstatement without looking back at my calendar. The office was quiet — quieter than normal, actually—but our #radio-talk Slack channel was buzzing with activity. We were also unusually excited for lunch. Why? Because over buffalo chicken wraps from Metro Cafe, we would be discussing Sarah Koenig’s latest revelations on the podcast Serial.

This scenario wasn’t specific to our studio. Nationwide, everyone (it seemed) talked Serial theories over their sandwiches. For those who hadn’t previously been avid podcast listeners, Serial cracked open the world of spoken-word audio. A lot of people were introduced to, or reminded how fun listening to a well-told story can be.

Alongside a newfound love of listening came a harsh reminder of the sad state of web-based audio experiences — auto-playing, pop up windows, audio that would stop if I clicked a link. It was pretty bleak. However, unlike all the other Serial listeners, I could actually do something about this.

In between trading theories about Adnan & Jay, or discussing the latest episode of StartUp, we were ramping up on an ambitious site redesign project with WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. Not a newcomer to the broadcast scene, WBUR knew something special was happening in the world of audio at the time. They produce a couple successful podcasts of their own, and were looking to add more to their catalog. With the wealth of content they already had and more on the way, it became clear that a standout audio experience had to be the cornerstone of the new site. Perfect! Rather than just throwing shade at the state of web audio, we could actually make it better — for ourselves, for everyone. The user stories wrote themselves because we were the users.

Rather than just throwing shade at the state of web audio, we could actually make it better — for ourselves, for everyone.

The ideas started to flow immediately: How about an interface that would let you share or comment on a specific chunk of a show or podcast? A world where you save your favorite episodes or curate a playlist for all-day listening? Or what about an audio experience where you start listening on your phone during your commute and seamlessly pick up an hour later from your computer at work? We fell in love with a lot of these ideas — and some might be making an appearance in the future — but there was one feature we knew we HAD to have from the outset: persistent audio. It’s the bedrock for an awesome audio experience on the web, and that made it our obvious starting point.

Have you ever been listening to something and had to constantly remember to open a new tab or run the risk of cutting off your audio stream? Yeah, us too. We wanted users and listeners to be confident when they clicked on a link that they could still hear Bob Oakes’ voice in their earbuds. We wanted to completely eliminate the fear of the click. That’s what persistent audio is — it follows you around the site, and gives you control over your playback experience from any page. It doesn’t just let you click — it encourages you to do it.

Using persistent audio on the WBUR beta site changed the way I listen to audio on the web. It feels natural to start my morning listening to the top of the hour newscast while browsing the latest headlines, or to listen to On Point while skimming related articles. It’s satisfying to see your project come to life, but it’s even better to experience that work not only as the creator, but as a fan. It helps to remind us that user stories aren’t just projections or abstractions. We’re creating an experience for actual people, including ourselves.

P.S. — If you haven’t already checked out the beta, make sure to give it a spin and let us know how we can keep making this audio experience great.