Remote working, iPhone cases, and Spotify’s UX: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade tackle three very different reader questions. In the first, they outline Postlight’s remote working culture and the tools they use — most notably, Slack — to help everyone stay on the same page. Next, they talk about the iPhone as a design object — and our desire to immediately cover it up with a case. And finally, they go in on Spotify’s clunky user interface when asked: if Spotify was your client, how would you fix it?
Paul Ford Hi! You’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight! A digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. We built your web apps; your mobile apps; and we build the platforms that power them. And we think we’re pretty good [music fades out]. You should get in touch: postlight.com, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rich Ziade We kill it. You do this every time, Paul. We’re more than pretty good. That’s—that’s—it’s the best tasting Greek yogurt you can buy.
PF Look, the way I talk about it is: I’d hire me.
RZ Ok. My name is Rich Ziade and I’m the other co-founder and co-host of Postlight.
PF I don’t think I ever introduced myself. I’m Paul Ford, co-founder and co-host . . . Rich, we get letters.
RZ We sure do.
PF We don’t actually answer enough email! We have to do better.
RZ We gotta do better—
PF So we’re gonna do better starting today.
RZ Not love letters.
RZ I haven’t gotten a lot of, “God, your podcast just makes my week.”
PF I think people know that we actually don’t even want that.
PF Nah, I think we would find it uncomfortable.
PF So we have three big questions to answer. First one’s about remote working.
PF Second one is about iPhone cases.
RZ [Chuckles] Ok.
PF Third one’s about Spotify.
RZ Ok, that’s a—we’re bringing it all together in a wonderfully themed podcast.
PF That’s right. The theme is questions.
RZ Yeah, exactly.
RZ Alright, let’s go.
PF So let’s answer some questions. Let’s start here. This is from our friend, Simon King, and he says, “Would you consider doing a Track Changes episode on remote working. I know that some of your employees at Postlight work remotely, so perhaps that could draw from personal experience. What makes it work well; how to avoid pitfalls; how to make it work for roles that aren’t engineering. I’ve read the boosterism but would love to hear your take.” So, the boosterism, right? Like there’s books like—
RZ What does that mean? Boosterism?
PF Well, you know [sighs], there’s a lot of people who are like, “Hey! Working remotely is the best thing ever. Remote teams are very productive and very effective.” Like 37signals has that.
RZ Ugh. I got lectured by them for like eight years.
PF They’re ok. They are what they are, right? They have—that’s a web agency that has a lot of stuff going on, and they [they’re very talented] wrote a book called Rework, they built Basecamp.
RZ There’s like some guy—one of them—
PF Jason Fried.
RZ He’s a good looking guy.
PF Look, they’re fine. This is the thing [Rich laughing]—There’s no—
RZ No, he’s a really smart guy actually.
PF There’s no problem with 37signals [sorry]. They tend to—they believe what they believe and they talk about what they believe.
RZ They’ve been pretty influential actually.
PF Yeah, and you and I we change our thoughts with the wind, right?
RZ No, yeah, yeah. We—
PF You know, we’re like, “What needs to happen here?” And I think like—
RZ Yeah, “What’s trendy?”
PF Yeah, that’s us.
PF Real buzz wordy. So, alright, let’s roll that back and talk about remote work. So, first of all—
RZ Give the breakdown of what Postlight looks like in terms of percentage of our company being remote workers.
RZ And how many.
PF Postlight has around—a little over 30 people and about—what? About 15 of them are engineers.
RZ I think that’s right.
PF And I would say about a little more than have of that is remote.
RZ I think yeah, I think that’s right. It’s seven or eight people.
PF Now I think—and then we also have designers and product managers, and they are not remote. They are here.
RZ We consciously decided that.
PF We have worked with excellent remote people, especially on the design side, but it’s very hard in a client service context, people are paying you lots of money, and for some reason it doesn’t seem to work as well to have somebody on a Google Hangout . . . telling them about a graphic design approach, as it does to have that person in the room.
RZ Correct. And our clients prefer a high touch—
RZ . . . situation.
PF It’s a challenge for an agency. However, people don’t wanna touch engineers as much as they wanna touch designers.
RZ Even though they’re wonderful! And important!
PF I think it’s a more abstract and also they’re larger teams very often. Sometimes we have projects with one or two engineers and they are in the room, and they are part of the meeting [mm hmm] right? And sometimes we have projects where there’s eight engineers; and there’s one person who’s in—sort of the central contact person and lots of other people who are contributing, who are engaged, who are on Slack.
PF And talking. But so I think there’s one thing that does make us very unusual too which we should put down before we talk about what works and doesn’t work with remote culture is that our Director of Engineering, who is a person named Jeremy Mack, is in Tennessee.
RZ He’s remote. [Yeah so—] The leadership of engineering, even though it’s pretty dispersed and the majority are New York. Our head of engineering is in Tennessee. Which was, you know, we debated it. And said, “Well, that’s kinda weird. I don’t know if I’ve seen that.” But it works! It works really well actually.
PF I actually think in terms of an engineering leadership if you’re gonna have a culture where remote employees are valued as much as local employees [mm hmm], the leadership being remote makes a big difference.
RZ I think that’s right.
PF I think Jeremy is very aware. He stays connected to everybody in the same way, whether they’re in New York City or whether they are remote. And he’s incredibly committed.
RZ He’s got nobody near him.
PF No, that’s right.
RZ It’s not like he’s got a couple nearby.
PF Well, he has a spouse, and he goes for walks.
RZ I meant engineers, Paul.
PF Yes, that’s right.
PF I think that that’s key! I think that leadership having tremendous empathy and awareness of remote employees is a big deal. The other thing we do that’s critical is we have people—There’s two programs. One is we just have Remotes Week twice a year.
RZ We bring everyone in, to New York City.
PF Fly them in, nice enough hotel, like a very pleasant New York City hotel not too far from the office. Everyone is roughly introverted and we force them into extroverted situations for about a week.
RZ Shhh—they really wear you down.
PF They don’t get the monitor that they were using at home. They don’t—like they have to use—
RZ The two monitors they were using at home.
PF Or the four monitors. Like—you’re just kinda—it’s like going to a clients or being on vacation or whatever—
RZ For a whole week.
PF And we tend to do events and outings and like it’s a chance for everyone to sort of be in the same room. It’s very important.
RZ I think it’s important.
PF I find it—as management, I find it really important because I want remote employees to stay as present in my mind as people who are in the office.
RZ This isn’t only about you, Paul.
PF No, but just in general like if I’m gonna be a good manager here at Postlight—
RZ I’m being ridiculous but yes.
PF No, I know but like you have to remember . . .
PF And out of sight, out of mind is a real problem.
RZ It really is and there is an anxiety that I pick up amongst remote people that is driven by like, “Ok, even if I do good work, even if I do exceptional work, are they gonna pick up on that?”
PF And I think the most profound signifier there is that managers in engineering are both—first of all, the leader of the whole department department is in Tennessee. Second of all, other managers are remote as well.
RZ That’s right.
PF There’s a signal that’s really clear there and it was based on experience and drive and all sorts of things.
RZ Well, it’s personality and performance driven. Like we’re a hyper merit based place. Like I’m proud to say that we’re a fairly apolitical org, like people get sort of repulsed by politics.
PF People get very touchy now about the word merit but I agree with you, what you’re talking about is performance. This person has checked in—it’s not like what—
RZ What? What’s wrong with merit?
PF Don’t, don’t. Just don’t do it.
RZ What’s wrong with merit?
PF Just leave it alone; leave it alone.
RZ Is this a Medium post you stumbled into while on the bus?
PF I can’t—can’t do it right now.
RZ I’m gonna say merit. I wanna say it. [Paul sighs deeply] Alright.
PF The issue—ugh it’s a long story involving GitHub and meritocracy—they had a rug made that had the word meritocracy. It just gets real bad [Rich laughs]. It gets real bad [alright]. Actual careers were—died.
RZ Oh! I actually want to hear about this.
PF No, no, this is like a horrible scab with all the wounds of our engineering culture.
PF All the things that we have tried not to let happen at Postlight.
RZ We’re performance driven. By the way there’s a rug that’s made out of the word performance at Postlight.
PF [Over Rich] Stop, stop, stop. [Rich laughs] That’s right. That’s right. No look I mean—
RZ We are very performance dirven and actually the reason a third of—or half of engineering or a third of the shop is remote is we just looked for the best people. I’m very proud to say: the bar is really high here.
PF Well and I think it’s worth noting, too, like it’s not a search for a bargain. The people who are working remotely are in the United States and they, roughly, you know, their salaries are roughly the same as those in New York City.
RZ Oh! Absolutely! And—and—
PF Which is sometimes a little bit like, “Wait a minute, we have to pay rent here.”
RZ The cost of living is different in other places.
PF But nonetheless, engineers can demand—
RZ Which is fine. I mean some of them own Ferraris but that’s cool. You can do whatever you want with your money.
PF That’s great. I’m happy. Um so how do you enable this culture, right? You bring people in to visit. We also have a program called Star Week.
RZ Oh man.
PF Yeah, I know, but we gotta bring it up, so Star Week is you name someone The Star. It’s very arbitrary. This is not based on performance, it’s based on just who’s next on the list?
RZ Pick somebody!
PF You point and you go, “That person’s The Star.”
PF In fact, one of our interns is the next Star.
RZ That’s right.
PF She’s about to be celebrated for all the good work she’s done and her interness and all sorts of things. She gets a star balloon; she gets a happy hour which I don’t know if she drinks, so that’ll be interesting.
PF And she gets like a—
RZ Lunch. She gets to pick the company lunch that week.
PF That’s right, she picks the company lunch for Wednesday and where it comes from. And she gets lunch with the two co-founders and anyone from the company of her choosing.
RZ That’s right. There’s one more thing!
PF What’s that?
RZ She controls the playlist, the office Sonos system is powered by The Star.
PF So, what we noticed from—we were doing three remotes trips a year and it was like the remotes were getting kinda tired of ‘em.
RZ They were pretty exhausted; they were socially exhausting and you don’t get a lot done and it’s different.
PF And to be clear, these are not competing with your vacation. Like these are just fully qualified work weeks.
RZ Yeah, you’re coming to work in New York.
PF But it’s the transition from living in a nice, rural environ—or a semi-urban environment and coming to New York City for a week and having to like be on good behaviour—
RZ It’s pretty jarring.
PF—and talk to the bosses and all of that stuff. Like we noticed that people were leaving like limping out of the office [Rich laughs] and so what we did is we switched it up, we made it so that remote people could definitely be stars and they would—we were making sure that like remote people will fly in and spend a week at the office, and just kind of be here with everybody, normally.
PF And hang out. And that’s been great. Actually, you get to know people a little bit. You and I definitely have time because of that lunch to sit down with them and—
RZ Which is nice.
PF So there are numerous communication channels and we haven’t even gotten to Slack yet, right? But there’s numerous communication channels and opportunities to interact [yup]. The same set of privileges: if you wanna go to a conference; professional development budget, we offer—there’s 2,000 dollars a year. Like all the things that are normal parts of the job here in New York City apply.
RZ Look, I think the general message here is that we’re really wary of having a situation where the remote person feels kind of adrift and not connected to a place.
PF Well if they disconnect from the work—
RZ It’s a bad scene.
PF Well we start to lose quality.
RZ Yeah, and I think that affects people that are in New York, too. I think it just starts to weird things out and that’s not cool.
PF And, look, the gratification of working in an agency like this is that you get to really hone your craft on multiple kinds of projects.
PF You’re doing lots of things over the course of the year, you’re working closely with talented people, and you are focused on improving what you are doing. And it’s the sort of natural, organic side effect of the place, everybody’s on a curriculum, and everybody is fairly mutually supportive. And [mm hmm] if you—you know, this sounds like self praise but if you watch the Slack channel. Right now we have a place where I think people can say like, “I don’t understand. I don’t know how to do this. What’s the best way to do this?” And people step up to help.
RZ Yup. People are pretty open, too.
PF That’s right. That’s right.
RZ So Slack.
PF So Slack is the number one enabling—or chat—
RZ Well let’s talk about Slack for a minute.
PF Slack is the number one enabling technology of our remote work culture.
RZ By the way, just a quick note: Flowdock used to be our thing.
PF It was good.
RZ It was good and I don’t remember how it happened. I think someone just installed Slack and said, “Hey! I’m also over here.”
PF No, you and I installed Slack and were like, “Hey guys, Slack seems to be going a little further along than Flowdock,” and that was early, early days of the company and all the people went, “Under no circumstances. Will I ever move off of Flowdock.”
RZ Which felt kinda good. It felt good to not have like this, “Oh my God, they pulled a power move.”
RZ So it felt nice but eventually we gave in and went to Slack.
PF Slack won. Slack just won on its merits.
PF There were a series of Slack transition channels to help people make the move.
RZ Mm hmm. And there are many dimensions of how Slack is organized for us. It’s by discipline, so there’s an engineering Slack and there’s a design—
RZ Then there’s the clients. So for many of our clients there’s a client Slack which we—
PF Some of those client Slacks.
RZ Let’s call them channels.
PF Channels. Some of those client channels are actually open to the client.
PF We bring the clients in, invite them into our Slack so they can communicate.
RZ That’s worth noting, I mean the communication setup between us and the client, every client! When they’re talking to us, they’re like, “Well how am I gonna know how you’re doing? Like are there weekly check ins which is, you know, pretty typical.”
PF Well, here’s also what happens is the clients often are committed to a certain like version of the agile methodology for software development. We don’t have a specific process that we follow.
RZ No, we don’t.
PF We just work it and chat and put the code in, into the system, and it gets done. And I know that stands horrifying to senior engineering leaders from all kinds of Fortune 100 companies.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF But I swear to God we have really good code quality and stuff gets out the door ten to 15 times faster.
RZ I think we’re unusual in that case.
PF Well we got to a point where like a standup is redundant. You literally are talking all the time [yup]; chatting; talking about code, doing pull requests and people are looking at your code and so on. And so then you’re gonna just stand up and say, “Well, you know, I did that. And you helped me do it. And now I’m gonna do this which we already said I was gonna do.”
RZ Yeah, and it’s very effective. I mean, for us and the culture that’s taken hold, it’s very effective.
PF And people are able to pull back and not chat all the time, too. That’s key.
RZ Yeah, I mean, there’s no requirement. If you need to go in, you got a question. If you’re struggling with something, you need to communicate to a client. Fine. We’ve heard about rules with Slack, like don’t sidebar. We heard that from a product manager at Giphy.
RZ Which is really interesting to hear, in that look, you can talk directly to someone in a one-on-one chat but don’t go off four people and start your own thing and talk, which is—
PF Can I make an observation as someone who’s just been around in the world for some decades?
PF You can’t enforce and create culture by telling people how to use software.
RZ I think I take it a level—I do agree with you and I take it a level up which is you can’t tell people how to socially connect. I think.
PF No, you just can’t.
RZ Like that’s a heavy thing to sort of lay down. It’s like, “Oh, I could get in trouble. I’m not gonna bring another person into this discussion.”
PF Well and then everyone starts patrolling: “No sidebars. No sidebars.” You know? It’s just like—
RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF That’s what—that’s [sighs]—
RZ It’s a little odd. We don’t wanna—Look, we like Giphy! I sent probably five or six of ‘em earlier today.
PF I hope they—I’m sure their Slack rules work for them. It’s just basically our approach is everyone is an adult who knows how to communicate respectfully. And as simple and doofy as that sounds, it’s highly effective. And—
RZ Everybody’s an adult. I think that’s the crux of it.
PF People can be goofy but they kinda know that if you wanna really goof off you go over to the Random channel.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF And, you know, every now and then someone will be like, “Maybe this is better for Random.” You and I are terrible abusers because we’re not always in Slack. And so sometimes like I’ll post stupid stuff into the General channel that should probably be in the Random channel. So there’s a little bit of like self-segmenting that way but there’s no—no one yells at anybody else. It’s just sort of like—
RZ No, it’s very peer-driven and it’s very—we have a couple of channels that are honestly just like, “I saw you in the hallway and I have a joke to tell you.” They’re just light, ridiculous links get dropped, and people just take a break and hang around for a bit, and it’s light, and it’s social, and I think that’s important for the remotes. Incredibly important. So.
PF There’s no specific profile either. We have very young remote employees; we have older remote employees with families; we—I don’t think that even if they’re kind of shy, people sometimes like your average remote employee is sort of paradoxically someone who’s pretty good at sitting down and talking with someone else [mm hmm]. Like, a truly shy person will actually have a harder time being a remote employee. Cuz they need to reach out to people without a lot of context and with less confidence.
PF They don’t have the time that you get when you’re physically in a room for everyone to get used to you. And so I think it actually favours people who are a little more confident and outgoing. But I mean not—there’s no specific range. I think our employees range from well under 25 to, you know, much older. We’re not supposed to talk—
RZ You’re not supposed to talk about age, Paul! It’s an HR thing.
PF I know. I know. I know. I know.
RZ I think those are the tips we can share. It’s just worked really well. Look—
PF Leadership I think—
RZ We didn’t say, “Let’s go get all these people.” It’s something that sort of materialized out of the place because we stuck to a particular philosophy of what Postlight’s supposed to be, and it just happened to take hold that way.
PF Also, an experienced, remote leader who makes sure to sort of calmly, quietly advocate for people who are remote to have access to the rest of the—to aspects of the organization that are local [yup] is key. You know, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that remote employees receive less information about what’s happening on the ground than people who are walking around the office.
RZ Yup. Yup.
PF You know, they don’t get the free lunch every Wednesday where everybody’s sitting around the table [yup yup]. That said a lot of Hangouts too. That’s the last thing. We didn’t mention it but like we have it pretty down to a science, every room, every TV has a Google Chromebox. If somebody’s gonna get online for a meeting and sorta be on the screen, it takes a few seconds. It’s not—it’s very low impact.
RZ Which is hugely such a pain in the ass.
PF That’s the thing. So—making it very simple for someone to join and interact in a meeting in the office so that there is no friction, there’s no—like I would never not schedule a remote meeting because it’s a pain. It’s just super easy.
RZ Yup. Obviously really important. Sometimes that’s with the client; sometimes it’s a problem we all have to get in the room and talk through, and Slack’s just not efficient for it.
PF Well and also management. I mean just like management meetings with leaders in the organization involve a lot of Hangouts.
RZ That’s right.
PF So I think that’s it: it’s leadership like anything else, like everything and every organization, it comes down to leadership and having good advocates for the remote people.
PF And good tools that are fast.
RZ Yes. Tools that just pretty much become part of the org and part of the culture. Where they’re outta the way, frankly. And we don’t think about ‘em.
PF You know the last thing too is engineering lines up pretty well. Like GitHub commits function as links that get posted into the Slack channel. So the way the engineers work: the progress can be shown as links that get automatically pasted into chat, and that actually can kind of drive and shape the conversation. So it’s very—in some ways—like engineering mindset and engineering work has led to a set of tools that match pretty well to a large distributed remote team.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF So I think that’s where we’re at. I hope that helped answer the question.
RZ I think we answered it beautifully but who am I to judge? . . . We’re gonna do another question, Paul.
PF Ok, you ready, Rich?
RZ Let’s do it.
PF This is from Jason. Ready?
PF “Hello, hello, I have an iPhone and I’ve always they were pleasing to look at. They’re a truly beautiful piece of design. So are other phones: Samsungs, I’m not partial, I think a lot of them are fine pieces of modern design. So isn’t it such a shame that we wrap them up in these protective cases for the real fear of them being broken? I guess I don’t have a direct question or comment, just a stray thought that I think is an interesting problem. Because we all see ads for new phones. They sell them for how good they look but everyone knows as soon as you get that iPhone 7, it’s going to go straight into a five pound OtterBox [Rich chuckles]. Anyway, thanks for the podcast.” [Rich inhales deeply] Hey, you’re welcome!
RZ I can make a psychological observation.
RZ It’s like your baby. It’s like you’ve got a baby, a fragile little baby that you paid a lot of money—I mean emotional—
PF Have you ever broken a phone screen?
RZ I have.
PF It’s a colossal pain in the ass.
RZ I don’t think it’s utility, Paul. I think it’s people just cherishing and loving the shiny thing that’s gonna really be beautiful and amazing in their hands and have the game and the—what do you call that game? That annoying game with the sliding.
RZ No [chuckles]. The really popular one—what is it? Three in a row?
RZ Not Dots. You’re being smart about it. Like the one that’s ridiculous. What do you call it? Candy Crush!
PF Oh. Ok.
RZ Yeah. Like it’s just the world to them!
PF Oh Bejeweled!
RZ First off, Apple knows how to connect—how to create hardware, like steel and glass.
PF Samsung devices are beautiful too.
RZ Everything’s beautiful.
PF Your brother loves Samsung devices.
RZ They’re extremely expensive, and they’re beautiful and—but I think more—
PF People don’t know that your brother listens to every podcast and yells at us.
RZ After every one.
PF Every single one.
RZ Every single one.
PF It’s just, “You guys, my God.”
RZ Yeah, “You’re idiots.”
PF And he has a Samsung phone—he always has every notification turned on on his Samsung phone with like one of those Edge phones.
RZ Yeah. It’s just non-stop.
PF Yeah, just a waterfall of nonstop data.
RZ Buzzing at you, yeah.
PF And it’s in a little brief—like a little folding case. He’s got one of those going. [Rich laughs] What do you have? I have a Ballistic which you can drop from like a hundred feet.
RZ I’ve dropped this a lot!
PF I dropped mine probably—
RZ I wanna be real cool about it and say I don’t care about my phone, I just don’t want it to break cuz it’s a pain in the ass [yeah]. And it’s true. I’ve dropped it a lot. It would have broken. But I think for a lot of people, I really believe it’s just, “I have to protect my cherished object.”
PF I guess so—
RZ I think it’s part of it.
PF I dropped my phone 30, 40 times a day.
RZ I drop it a lot.
RZ There’s also another bit which is it’s a bit of fashion. It’s not just black cases for a lot of people, it actually is, you know, good looks—
PF Yeah, mine’s not.
RZ They’re colorful and stripes—
PF I pull mine out and people are like, “Hey Dad, does that clip on your belt?”
RZ It’s really ugly. You have an ugly case.
PF But I have a bad tendency to drop ‘em.
RZ That case is protect—
PF Big old ham sandwich fumble fingers!
RZ Remember those Panasonic laptops that are really designed for construction sites?
PF Oh yeah those are great.
PF You could chew ‘em.
RZ That’s what yours looks like.
PF That’s right.
PF It looks like it clips onto something.
RZ I think that’s why they do it. I think they are in love with it and the things you’re in love with, you take good care of, like the way you hold a baby.
PF Here’s—I had a friend, a late departed friend who I loved very much. Her name was Leslie Harpold and she had a great line once. I was asking her about phone cases, ten, 15 years ago, like early days of cell phones [mm hmm]. Or of cheap, easily flexible cell phones. And I was like, “Are you getting, you know, this kind of case or what are you doing?” And she just went, “You know I don’t like to buy stuff for my stuff.”
RZ That’s a powerful quote.
PF That is a powerful sentiment.
RZ Yeah, it is a powerful sentiment.
PF Yeah, “I don’t like to buy stuff for my stuff,” and I think about that a lot cuz you buy stuff and then they’re like, “Well you need the stylus. You need a little briefcase for it. And it’s gotta wear a hat.”
RZ Well it’s a sales tactic, right?
PF It’s just endless and we live in a world—and then apps make it seem like—you know they’re virtual, you don’t see ‘em, but you’re still buying—you’re always buying stuff for your stuff.
RZ I mean the purchase of a three dollar app or cheaper is there’s zero invested in terms of the thought process. I’m like, “Ah, I don’t care. This might be garbage.” 85% of the stuff I pay two dollars for is garbage.
PF Yeah I mean I think—
RZ Except like Cadbury’s.
PF If you [chuckles] looked on your phone, it’s like, how many apps are on there? It’s probably something like 16 hundred.
RZ You know you can create little folders for your apps now?
PF Oh I’ve done that too.
RZ I have a folder called Rare.
RZ That has all the stuff I never open but, you know, I don’t wanna—
PF You’re not ready to let go.
RZ I don’t wanna admit that I was an idiot buying them so I put them in this box.
PF 250 note taking applications.
RZ It’s the same as like the reason there are storage units, the storage businesses out there.
PF Anyway, so, here’s what I would say about the iPhone is it is kind of annoying but we live in a you buy stuff for your stuff economy. [Mm hmm] And you have to cover up its skin because otherwise it—
RZ It’s fragile.
PF It’s fragile.
RZ And it might break.
PF And they pretend it’s not. But it is.
RZ It is.
PF We all know it is.
RZ So there’s utility and there’s psychology and there’s fashion. I think that’s kinda the best way to sum it up. I mean that’s a kickass breakdown right there.
PF Yeah, that’s great. That’s really good work. We’ll just put that big block quote in the Medium—Medium [Rich laughing] you can like make things bigger.
RZ Oh that’ll be faved.
PF Yeah. Yeah. [Rich chuckles] This is all—get a couple extra hearts.
PF Alright, Rich—
RZ We have that segment Paul, Can I Tell You?
RZ This email question dovetails beautifully into that segment. Go!
PF “I have—” This is from Tom in New Jersey. “I have a usability question for you. I love Spotify and the service that they provide and happily pay for it every month. However, I find myself increasingly frustrated by their apps lousy user interface. Just when I think that I’ve finally mastered the nuanced differences between liking a song, saving a song, adding a song to a playlist, it seems that they changed the interface, moved features around, or dropped them altogether, and very possibly redefined those aforementioned confusing terms. In past shows you’ve griped about Spotify’s lousy interface and you pitched Postlight as the answer to these sorta problems. So fix it. Or pretend that Postlight got hired to fix Spotify’s usability mess.”
RZ Fix it is interesting, right? There is this kind of scene out there where people unilaterally go ahead and redesign stuff.
PF It’s always horrible to watch.
RZ It’s always horrible to watch. It’s the equivalent of like fan poster art [yeah]. You know there’s a whole scene around movies.
PF Yeah, it’ll be like, you know, R2D2 in the style of Casablanca. Right?
RZ [Laughs wheezily] Exactly, exactly.
PF “Visit Star Wars!”
RZ “I don’t like LinkedIn! Here’s what it should be!” And it’s just this—
PF Well and it’s always surface, right? Because the actual design work to fix LinkedIn, which Microsoft did quite a bit of when they bought it—
RZ There’s a lot of change.
PF But it’s still—it’s—Microsoft did that great job of rebooting LinkedIn but it’s been a couple months now and the seams are really showing.
RZ Yeah. We’re back to square one a little bit.
PF Yeah, you just sort of feel—it’s like in Inception in that when you’re way inside the dream and all the buildings are crumbling.
RZ That’s right.
PF That’s LinkedIn. But we’re not here to talk about LinkedIn, we’re here to talk about Spotify—first we should make clear . . .
RZ They are not a client!
PF They’re not a client. They should be. The Spotify interface is from the last time I read about it, it’s created by lots of different teams, and assembled into one master build.
RZ It’s fascinating from an engineering—
PF—playlist logic and—
RZ It’s the equivalent of—you know when you get going—get catering going for your party and it’s just charcuterie and it’s just all sorts of cheeses and hams and crackers.
PF Sure! Very relatable. Everybody has this experience.
RZ [Laughs boisterously] Oh my God. This reminds me of that David Brooks sandwich op ed piece.
PF “You know when you have a swimming pool installed . . .”
RZ [Laughs] No, you can get this from Costco.
PF Alright, everybody—All you had say was like, “You know how you get a cold cuts board?” You just blew it with ‘charcuterie’.
RZ [Laughing] Alright. Let’s move on.
PF New York City media elite. Ok, so—
RZ We’ve complained about Spotify in the past, that’s the thing. You wanna keep going?
PF Yeah, the issue with Spotify is that we use it everyday. I use it constantly.
RZ I mean let’s throw a hat tip out here—the breadth of the catalogue is just incredible.
PF Mazel Tov for their licensing division. And the core streaming product is good in that I can listen to a song and I can’t tell you the last time I couldn’t listen to a song.
RZ The quality of the stream, and the speed in which it gets going is really impressive.
PF They nailed it. That stuff is unbelievably hard, it’s very easy to take for granted [yup yup]. But now let’s talk about the—
RZ I mean, can I make a point about the breadth of that catalogue? You found an album of Brazilian soccer announcers screaming, “Goal.”
PF Even better! It was a sound effect album of fake goals.
RZ And it’s amazing.
PF From the Brazilian World Cup.
RZ It cheered me up.
RZ If you’re feeling down, if you’re feeling down, just play those.
PF It is true. We’ll put a link in. So, the issue with Spotify, from my point of view, is the uncanny valley problem which is everybody has designed this kind of like their part of the product [mm hmm] and then someone else goes over and designs their part of the product, and they use the widget toolkit and follow all the approved things but because there’s not like Gestalt manager who is watching and making sure everybody gets the rectangles right—
RZ This is the tyranny of Steve Jobs example that I’ve given in the past.
PF Sure. There is no one—it doesn’t seem like an evil person is saying, “It must be this way.”
PF Yeah. When you sit down to use Spotify, you are sitting at a conference room table where everyone has a voice.
RZ Well and they’re talking at the same time [laughs].
PF Everyone’s talking, you know, there’s no like man or woman who puts two fists on the table and says, “We are done.” [Yes] First of all, they have committed to this interface that looks like some sorta bad dashboard from a database in 1999. It looks like an MP3 player.
RZ It’s really weird.
PF Yeah it’s just words everywhere and you can’t tell what’s up and then you go in mobile and it’s a whole nother world. And it’s just bad. Ok.
RZ And, by the way, this is an unconventional attempt to get Spotify to hire us. We can do this for you Spotfiy; we’ve insulted you constantly but you know what? It’s a tough love thing. Come on over.
PF Well, it’s not just that—
RZ We care about this app so much that we—there’s a coupon code that would be right there with the contract.
PF Let’s be realistic here, first of all, the issues with the design are absolutely—they reflect genuine institutional concerns that we are probably only privy to and can only imagine about ten percent of them.
RZ Oh you’re gonna get empathetic now.
PF Well, no, just like I know if I was at Spotify listening to this and someone was completely trashing my work, what I would be saying was, “They just don’t understand how hard it is.” Now I wanna say something to that person: I do. I know exactly how hard it is and you’re not doing good work . . .
RZ Yeah. I mean. Yeah.
PF I mean, I’m sorry. I can’t—I use it every day. I spend my money—
RZ I’m not buyin’ it, frankly.
PF I’m not buyin’ it either.
RZ Fold it all in.
PF It’s been awhile! Where’s anything? Where’s a single search bar that makes sense or just [exhales sharply].
RZ Let’s reference our legacy podcast.
RZ Which is—
PF Deep intertextual web of references to podcasts—
RZ There’s a lot goin’ on which, by the way, may increase listeners.
PF That’s right.
RZ We’ll see. The legacy podcast, one of the things we talked about, is just the power and the inertia of the older thing and how hard it is to get everybody to line up.
PF Look, if I’m Spotify and I hear these two guys bitchin’ and moanin’, and I’m gonna sit there and go, “Look at my valuation. What’s your valuation, little boy?”
RZ Let’s go inside. Let’s say I’m in Spotify and they hire the Chief Design Officer whose job it is to bring this all together. I’m gonna dig in and defend my little world, my piece, my island will be defended.
PF It’s not just that, we have a strong engineering culture. We, you know, those guys have that rectangle, I got that rectangle. It’s been working. You wanna blow it up?
PF [In deep voice] Blow it up.
RZ Please blow it up.
PF Please. My God.
RZ You know what you could do?
PF We literally have people writing to us to complain about Spotify.
RZ [Laughs] We’re at that point.
PF Ok, that’s where we’re at. And this is not to say that I’m not coming for Google Inbox. There is a day when Google Inbox—
RZ I don’t know why you use that crap. Whatever.
PF And there’s gonna be a reckoning. Because—because every time I login to Gmail it’s like, “Hey Paul, we’ve updated the mail experience.” And I got tired of it. And now—
RZ You just gave in.
PF Ah man they just like jammed that cookie into that cookie hole and you just can’t get away from it [Rich laughs], right? So Google Inbox is about to get the treatment way in access of Spotify but there is a part of me that’s just like, “Why is it this bad all the time?”
RZ Just go do it.
PF Billions of dollars, don’t make it so bad.
RZ Is there an end to end API for Spotify do you think?
PF There is.
RZ If there is, then you know what you do? Hire an island team and let them take a crack at it, don’t replace anything. Let’s call it Spotify Green or Spotify Blue, like codename it.
PF They have an open API. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were five or ten of these that are at some significant level of effort.
RZ It’s like in a folder somewhere.
PF Nobody wants this. Nobody wants this. Somebody’s sayin’ no. Cuz everybody knows.
RZ Somebody is saying no. I think that’s right.
PF Look, I think there’s a very easy argument for them to make that it’s working.
RZ It’s a beast. Actually, Spotify is a machine that we need to get out of the way of.
PF Yeah, I mean, you know, are we—we’re advocating—we could be advocating, you and I, this very room—
RZ And I pay 14 dollars a month for the family plan.
PF Yeah, I mean, we could be advocating that they do something that costs them business and impacts their revenue.
RZ Right. You know what I didn’t do? I didn’t jump onto Dr. Dre’s bullshit.
PF Oh yeah that thing.
RZ I don’t even think it’s even around anymore.
PF Well, no, it was Apple Music or Beats Music—
RZ It folded all in.
PF Yeah, who knows, but Apple Music is another beast.
RZ It’s a beast but Spotify is a monster.
PF Spotify—yeah. Spotify’s got me with lockin and I just have so many opinions about it but look: here’s what’s wrong with Spotify—
RZ Fix it!!
PF Yeah. Every little widget is its own little world; there’s no idea of like saving; and every time they fix it they make it worse. So it’s [they keep touching it] time. You gotta fix the culture. Whatever the culture is around design, building, and shipping—
RZ Maybe you can’t! Maybe it’s rude in Norway. Where is Spotify?
PF Dutchland. Norwegia.
RZ [Laughs] I think I said Norwegia once.
RZ Just fix it. I know it’s rude. Let a New York team fix it because New York wouldn’t tolerate it. And, by the way, we’re on 101 5th Avenue [laughs] in New York City [that’s right] and we’re called Postlight.
PF And if you wanna get in touch with us, Spotify . . .
RZ hello . . .
PF @postlight.com. Talk about emails we’re not gonna receive.
RZ Don’t hesitate.
PF Don’t even.
RZ I’ve met a couple of—they’ve been at little kids’ birthday parties at my house, and I got a weird look.
PF Well they always do the thing where they’re like, “Ok, I’m glad to hear your feedback.” And then you start in and their eyes get wide.
RZ And then they just stare down at the birthday cake.
PF Yeah cuz they just asked the worst person in the world, essentially, like, [Rich laughs] “Oh this is nice. This guy is a really passionate user of our product.” And then it’s like you open your mouth and they look in and they see the fires of hell and there’s a little devil with a pitchfork, and you’re like, “Ahhh.”
RZ I have another friend, by the way, who was on the label team and she’s kickin’ ah—I mean, label relations at Spotify! They’re conquering the world!
PF You know what though?
RZ And then I start complaining to her about buttons and levers! And she just looks at me and says, “Well, I’ll see who I can talk to.” [Laughs]
PF It’s just this like beautiful backend but with like a Windows Vista level frontend.
RZ It’s a rough scene.
PF Alright, well, look [music fades in] that’s us driving our company into the ground.
RZ Can I Tell You!!
PF Can I Tell You?!?
RZ And that ends our podcast, Paul.
PF Well, let’s get back to work, Rich.
RZ Alright, enjoy the week everyone.
PF Bye! [Music plays alone for nine seconds, fades out to end.]