Friday, 25 July 2008

The New Last.fm

I guess this post is a bit off topic. But I’d argue that Last.fm is one of the main MIR related web sites out there, and I found the launch of the new site very exciting.

Here’s a link to the main announcement on our blog (with over 2000 immediate responses from users, most of them are negative). The blog post includes links to the forums where the feedback continued after the comments needed to be closed.

Here’s a Last.fm group with over 11,000 users asking to bring back the old design. An interesting read are also the forums of that group. Some user's have even worked on ways (e.g. using greasemonkey) to bring back the old look and feel.

Here is one of many youtube videos of people complaining.

And there are even some conspiracy theories.

The negative feedback was being voiced in many different places. Including, for example, in the comment section of an article by the Times Online which focused on how the changes related to advertising.

(Btw, there’s also been a lot of positive feedback, too. For example, there are some positive comments in this digg article.)

When I joined Last.fm over a year ago there were like a million things I thought that could be improved on the site. I was bugging those in charge of the web page design on a daily basis. However, they were already aware of almost everything I was pointing out, and explained that there will be a major redesign coming, and that things will be fixed then. As time went by I started to appreciate the complications of making changes to the old site. It was a site that had grown very quickly in many different directions that weren’t fitting together perfectly anymore.

So more than a year ago my colleagues had started making plans on how they would design the perfect Last.fm if they could start from scratch. I’d also like to mention that almost all of my colleagues are hardcore Last.fm users (and have lots of friends who are Last.fm users, and spend time talking to their moms (or other less technology savvy users) about what difficulties they might have using Last.fm). I think it’s fair to say that most of my colleagues have an excellent understanding of the various issues related to the user experience.

However, at the same time the old site was still in full development. A lot of new features were being launched, integrated, bugs fixed, etc. Maintaining the old site was a full time job for a small (but quickly expanding) team, and my colleagues were spending any free minute they had on completely redesigning Last.fm. I’d also like to add that when they talked about change, it wasn’t simply the design, navigation, and structure that were being considered. A lot of changes involved some serious backend changes and new features. It really was all about making the dream of a perfect Last.fm come true.

Btw, here's an interesting podcast where Hasso Plattner (founder of SAP) talks (among many other things) about the challenges of developing the next version of a product while maintaining the previous version. I'm pretty proud of how my colleagues have mastered this challenge.

When the site went live everyone knew that there was still plenty of room for improvements, but at the same time it was clear that the benefits would largely outweigh the remaining issues. And we also knew that even if the new site were absolutely perfect from the start (which it obviously wasn't), it wouldn't be easy for those who were able to use the old site blindfolded. This included myself: there were several moments of serious frustration where I knew what I wanted to do on the old site, but couldn’t instantly figure out how to do it on the new one. (Btw, continuing to maintain two sites was not really an option.)

Despite all the negative feedback we received (and despite all the effort my colleagues are currently putting into fixing issues the Last.fm community has pointed out), there are already several indicators that the new site might be an even bigger success than we would have hoped for, and most of all it has paved the way for a lot more to come. It’s never been more fun to work at Last.fm! Btw, check out the jobs at Last.fm :-)

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an interesting article.
It kind of underscores what went wrong with the redesign effort.

Ease of code maintenance != ease of use.

I might come back to last.fm in a few months to see if you managed to fix it but nowadays I mostly just use the last.fm client to spare my nerves.

Elias said...

@Anonymous

Ease of use was the guiding theme of the redesign. I guess to some extent the focus was on making it easier for our moms because we knew that our friends (who already use Last.fm) would be smart enough to figure it out even if we'd write everything upside down and randomly rearrange links on every page reload.

Anyway, Last.fm's web team is currently working really hard on taking all the wonderful feedback we are getting into consideration... I hope you give it a second try, and if you do you'll probably notice improvements on a day to day basis.

Anonymous said...

I frequently find that as websites target less technically savvy users, I get problems grokking them. Sure, I get by and if I make an effort I might even develop some kind of seat-of-the-pants feel for the site. Mostly, though, it's just not worth the effort.

Dumbed down user interfaces mostly also means dumbed down functionality and targetting the mainstream. In the case of last.fm the site also lost a substantial amount of "feel" ("branding" is the correct term, I believe). It used to be a nice waterhole (aka "local pub") and now has the feel of an airport McDonald's.

For me, as a subscriber, I am saddened by that choice of direction. Maybe that's what bugs me the most. Once again, I was on to a good thing and yet again that will probably be "taken away" from me by the sheer amount of mainstream users that will undoubtedly have a lot of say in the further direction of last.fm.
It's understandable, of course, the customer is always right and last.fm has every right to choose which custom to pursue.

I will for sure return to the website on and off to see whether things improve or deteriorate further. I suspect it'll mostly be for reference (ie, artist pages) and not so much for the discovery sessions I used to have.

Elias said...

Some might argue that Apple had a huge success due to dumbing down everything they could...

Regarding dumbing down features: as far as I (as a Last.fm power user) am concerned all the features are still there, and there are many new ones I love (activity feed, tag pages, better and more responsive recommendations, ...). There would have been a huge uproar if anyone would have suggested to remove any feature Last.fm staffers (who as I said are almost entirely power users) care about a lot :-)

claudiob said...

Hi Elias, I'm a long-time last.fm user, and I really really really appreciated the change. The new user interface is very bright, with some genuinely genius approaches (such as the sub-menu in white on the left).

Other people I've been talking with have also liked the new style, so cheer up, it's not that bad! The most interesting objects (recommendations, library) are clearly shown, which is the most interesting part.

I think you've found a nice way to combine a social-based site (where you have friends, contacts, group) WITHIN a music-based site (and not vice versa), in the sense that MUSIC (artists, songs) are now really the CORE of the web interface, the thing the user sees first. And on the other hand, one can have a secondary (but still straightforward) view on the social aspect. You've clearly found a way to differentiate from Facebook & co., sites that miss a clear identity, while MUSIC is clearly your identity, and even more now in the new interface.

See you at ISMIR :-)
.claudio