Understanding more about Amazon Cloud Player and storing music in the cloud

Last week saw the UK launch of Amazon’s Cloud Player, a service enabling Amazon users to play their music stored in the cloud (through Amazon’s Cloud Drive) from any computer or Android device connected to the Internet. The service was launched in the US back in July, and now Amazon’s UK customers will be able to experience the same service. These are the main propositions that the Cloud Player is promising to offer:

  1. Your Music. Everywhere. – Seamless access to one’s music is rapidly becoming a ‘given’ when it comes to offering music services. Irrespective of the device one is using – smartphone, tablet, PC or ebook reader – users expect to be able to access music wherever, whenever. No surprise then that this is the main underlying promise of the Cloud Player: your music is available on a range of devices (e.g. Android, iPod, iPhone, Sonos, etc.) and the experience will be consistent across all of these devices and platforms.
  2. Import your music collection – Like iTunes Match and Google Play, Amazon’s Cloud Player will enable users to upload their own music collections, with Amazon matching the music on your PC to their 20m track catalogue. This means that music purchased from Amazon or iTunes or from ripped CDs will be matched against Amazon’s catalogue, upgraded (to a better audio quality where possible) and made available through the Cloud Player.
  3. Secure and easy to use – Amazon promises that for all the MP3 songs and albums users purchase or have purchased in the past will be automatically saved to Cloud Player, which means you’ll have a secure backup copy of the music you buy at Amazon. The ‘secure’ and ‘instant’ aspect are key to any service of this kind. I haven’t used the Cloud Player yet but this would be main challenges to any product or service which promises a great user experience. Is is easy to use? Does is ‘just work’?

I haven’t yet tried the Cloud Player, but reading user and expert reviews gives an interesting insight into this new service. The main thing that struck me is that users are restricted from buying songs through the Cloud Player app on Apple devices (think iPhone, iPad and Mac). This means that one can use the Cloud Player for listening and streaming on an Apple device but not for buying music. I know I’m biased (since I work for 7digital, a competitor of iTunes and Amazon Music) but this defeats the purpose of using a service that promises to work ‘everywhere’.

Main learning point: I guess the main caveat to this blog post is that, as I say, I work for a (smaller) competitor of Amazon in 7digital. At 7digital, we always try to concentrate on a consistent user experience that ‘just works’ irrespective of the device or operating system one uses. Services like Amazon Cloud Player are good solutions for anyone who wishes to ‘consolidate’ his/her music collection. I guess the main downside of using the likes of Amazon and iTunes is that they are pretty ‘vertical’ which means that their products only work totally seamlessly and as intended on their own devices and operating systems, which has bearing on the overall user experience.

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Learning about creating a good product vision

Over the past few weeks I have been learning a lot about ‘product vision’, creating a mission statement for a product or an overarching vision for a product portfolio. It made me wonder. Is a product vision always a future, pie-in-the-sky idea of where one expects a product to be? Are you allowed to make a product vision more tangible, more concrete? How can one best tie in a product vision with the overall objectives of a company? And finally, how does a product vision differ from a business strategy or a mission statement?

Digital giants like Google and Apple all have great sounding vision statements that seem to underpin every aspect of their products. The late Apple founder Steve Jobs is often seen as product vision genius, someone who could envision us using products like the iPhone and the iPad long before we did. In my day job at 7digital, I manage the life cycles of both B2C and infrastructural products and I always find it very helpful to establish a product vision early on in the process, which can then evolve along with the product.

I guess the main question that I have been asking myself is: “What makes a good product vision?”

  1. It should answer a question or solve a problem – At the most basic level, I believe each product manager or designer should start by asking the question: What user problem is the product trying to solve? Is this product providing something that consumers will find valuable?
  2. Does is it translate into a set of beliefs that can be tested? – Does a product vison need to have some foundation in the sense of underlying assumptions about consumer needs or behaviour? I think it’s really important to have some initial assumptions which can be tested, validated and adjusted if necessary. This approach prevents businesses from launching products that no one has asked for and helps one to adjust the overall direction of a product based on consumer feedback and data. People like Eric Ries and Steve Blank spend a lot of time advocating this ‘lean’ approach to product development.
  3. Does the product vision fit in with the company values? A good product statement does tie in with the overall direction or product strategy of a business. The related company or brand values provide a framework within which one can create and adjust a product vision.
  4. Let it evolve – Don’t be afraid if the initial product vision sounds a bit vague at first, it will evolve and crystallise sooner than you think! I learnt from product people like Andrew Levy and Joseph Puopolo that a product vision will almost adjust itself as you launch a product and you learn about how the public engages with it. Data and direct consumer feedback are in my view absolutely crucial in this respect. Some of the bigger, more corporate organisations use ‘values’ or ‘principles’ to help guide the direction of a product or a product strategy (eBay’s and Firefox “values” are good examples in this respect).
  5. Where do you envisage the product to be in 3 years’ time? – I spoke to a senior product manager at Google who describes himself as a “storyteller” and explained his ability to tell a story of a product. “What problem(s) will the product solve?” “What will the product look like in a year from now, two years from now?” I agree with him that it’s good to at least have a vague idea of where you envisage a product to be in the foreseeable future, which forms a good starting point for more concrete release planning.
  6. Don’t forget that it’s about the consumer! – Sometimes I see product visions which solely concentrate on the commercial gains for the company, completely ignoring the intended benefits for the customer. UX consultant Leisa Reichelt describes this consumer-centric approach as “designing consumer experiences.” The user experience or journey thus forms the start and end point for a business or product strategy.

Main learning point: one could argue that a product vision is only a guide, some sort of strategic direction for a production and that one’s main focus should be on the execution. However, I do believe in spending some time to work out a clear product vision that stipulates what a product aims to achieve for the customer. Especially if the vision has been drafted in such a way that the underlying values or beliefs can be tested in real-time, then the product vision can be a very useful tool for on product manager, designer or business exec.

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Book review: “Rocket surgery made easy”

Whether you are business or a user, I don’t think there is any doubt about the importance of a good user experience of a site or an application. However, the usability aspect often gets overlooked or doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In a digital landscape where one has to move quickly, the focus tends to be on ‘getting something out of the door quickly and tweaking it later.’ A lack of time and/or money are usually cited as the main reasons for not doing usability testing.

Let’s take one step back; what is usability testing? Usability testing is all about watching people actually using something that one is currently building (e.g. software, a website or a mobile app) or something that is already live. The main objective of usability testing is to make something easier to use or to get feedback from the user on any improvements which could be made. Outcomes of usability testing are usually qualitative. In my experience, you usually end up with a list of potential improvements and related user quotes to illustrate the problem in question.

A while ago I read “Undercover User Experience Design” which was all about making user testing easy and accesible. I just finished reading “Rocket surgery made easy” by Steve Krug, a well-known web usability consultant. One might be familiar with one of his earlier books, “Don’t make me think”, which is all about web usability made the easy.

The main point which Krug is trying to get across in “Rocket surgery made easy” is that usability testing should NOT be difficult, time-consuming or expensive. Krug reinforces this point by highlighting a number of (practical) ways in which usability testing can be made easier:

  1. Test frequently – Rather than doing a massive one off usability test once a site or app has been built, Krug proposes regular, monthly testing whilst a product is being developed. Getting as few as three users in for testing on a monthly basis will provide valuable user input which will inform subsequent builds and iterations.
  2. Recruit loosely – Krug argues that “doing testing frequently is more important than testing with ‘actual’ users.” His advice is to find users who reflect your (target) audience but at the same time not to get too hung up about it. Instead, Krug suggests to make allowances for the differences between the people you test with and your ‘actual’ users.
  3. You can test anything – You don’t need to have a finished site or app in order to test with users. Test as early in the development process as possible; whether it’s just wireframes or getting users to test your competitors’ websites, this should provide you with useful input into the product development process.
  4. Testing outcomes – Especially if one does usability testing on a regular basis, the ‘output’ of each round doesn’t have to be too onerous. The facilitator or any of the testing observers can take notes during the session which can then be collated and discussed internally. Ultimately, the objective is to aggregate the most serious usability problems participants encountered and to feed these into a list of problems that you’re going to solve before the next round of testing.

Main learning point: “Rocket surgery made easy” is a very useful and practical book that should enable people to do usability testing on a shoestring budget (and still get useful user feedback). I guess what I like most about Krug’s approach to user experience and usability is that he keeps things simple. This encourages people to just set up usability testing sessions and not be afraid of getting it ‘wrong’.