Hearing Your Experience

Jason Caws / Wednesday, September 30, 2015


One of the first things that comes to mind when you hear the term “user experience” is a whiteboard littered with wireframe sketches. The design of mobile applications and websites has become the face of the user experience industry, but not all of the content we consume can be found on a screen. The rising popularity of audio content in the form of podcasts and audiobooks allows us to think about the user’s experience from a different angle. Designing what a person hears compared to what they see poses the question: Do people judge audio content by the same standards that apply to screen design?

An hour commute to work provides me the opportunity to listen to podcasts on a regular basis. Over months and months of listening I’ve gravitated towards my favorites because they consistently provide entertaining content. Whether its news, talk radio, or comedy, the same standards that I hold for websites and apps apply: if the content is not easily accessible, useful, or entertaining, I will most likely look for a better option. 

But engaging users with audio alone can be difficult. Because the content is being listened to rather than looked at, the user is forced to relinquish control and allow the information to be presented in a predetermined, linear fashion. This puts additional pressure on a podcast’s ability to hold the user’s attention, because if the conversation dies or the storyline becomes too difficult to follow, the listener will question their choice and look for something else. This is not the case with a website, because the user determines the rate at which information is processed and is supported by a navigation system that provides a sense of structure and orientation. The user can casually browse through various pages or click straight to the thing they’re looking for. In the case of audio, the user is forced to evaluate the content second by second, at a pre-determined speed without the ability to control the interaction. The only choice afforded the listener is to turn it off or skip ahead in the hope it will improve.

Recently, a co-worker and I began producing a podcast that focuses on company culture, during which we interview employees about their work experience and personal lives. This involves recording interviews, editing audio files, and distributing the final product to employees. In the process of editing these episodes, I realized that I was using the same methods I had applied during more traditional UX consulting projects. In considering the listener’s point of view, I found myself validating editing decisions by asking: Who is this for? What is their purpose for using it? What is the best way to meet their needs? While the modality and the rate at which the user consumes information is different, the process of designing a great listening experience is not so different from designing a great visual experience (though captivating users without relying on visuals can be challenging). As UX Designers, our job and our process remains unchanged. We elicit user requirements, even the ones they can’t express, coordinate these with business requirements and technical constraints, and create enjoyable, intuitive experiences.