I picked up an iPod Shuffle recently, partly to test my own theories about the thing. It’s also a hugely seductive piece of product design of course. I’m generally loving it – it’s virtually weightless, which is extraordinarily pleasing, and fits with the idea of having bespoke products for particular tasks (my 15 minute walk to work in this case).
But while I’m delighted with the Shuffle’s general functionality in terms of playing music, I’m shocked to discover what I consider to be a massive oversight on Apple’s part in terms of the more advanced product design. Simply put, to drive costs down – and perhaps, dare I suggest, due Apple’s lack of understanding of community/social software-orientated services – the iPod Shuffle comes with no on-board functionality for storing a record of the tracks played. Seemingly, no internal clock, or capacity allocated to reflecting the basic details of what’s just happened on the device. I first noticed when using Audioscrobbler, the excellent music service which builds meaning from aggregating music listening patterns, from iPods amongst other things. I posted to a development forum there, and noted a few others had started asking the same questions. And then the apparent confirmation:
“I just spoke to someone at Apple tech support who confirmed that the iPod Shuffle does not have a clock and therefore probably wouldn’t update the Recently Played list the way we’d need it to do. So everybody’s right, and everybody’s sad.”
Note: We could of course be entirely wrong about this, but it certainly seems to be the case, and even if it isn’t, Apple must have buried the functionality so deep as to be essentially non-existent.
So, basically, when you dock and sync your iPod Shuffle, it doesn’t seem to update your Recently Played playlist, meaning iTunes (and Audioscrobbler’s plugin) can’t infer what you’re been listening to on the Shuffle. The need to keep costs down I can understand. However, arguably the most interesting things about the products and devices emerging today is their ability to create or contribute towards a sense of self – both in terms of the product and the owner. As products get smarter in terms of being aware of their behaviour – in some senses, becoming reflexive – and as their raison d’être gets increasingly close to personal, social functionality – in some senses, becoming involved in presentation of self and the behaviour of the users – there is huge potential to build devices which become increasingly, personally meaningful, which can adapt to personal context and preference like never before.
This was the basis of my talk at Design Engaged. (Which I will write up one day, honest.) I discussed how informational products could become self-centred (or, hello America, ‘self-centered’) in the best sense i.e. built around a sense of self, the focus being social and behavioral, and becoming personally adaptable. At the most basic level, this requires that the products have some ‘understanding’ of both their own behaviour – essentially, tracking their behaviour, usage patterns, and context wherever possible – and are built by both designers/researchers who understand ‘the social’ in depth, and can ultimately be adapted by their own users. It strikes me that the basic condition for these products is to be essentially self-aware – in this specific case, that the iPod Shuffle should be able to keep a track of what tracks the user has played on it, and communicate that information such that that metadata can then be transferred and combined with the overall iTunes Music Library. This ecosystem of music experience software and hardware can therefore keep a track of what tracks have been played (track, album, artist etc), when, on what device, and by whom. Upon this basic usage data, we can build a panoply of useful, interesting services. Look no further than Audioscrobbler for some inspiration.
When I spoke about this in November, I paraphrased and extended Naoto Fukasawa’s quote: that design is dissolving in behaviour, and products are emerging from it. I believe this to be a potentially powerful message in informational product design, and I’m disheartened that Apple have not seen that even their low-end devices should be part of this world. I’m not sure how easy it is for Apple to change that, either. I apologise to all concerned if I’m missing something basic, and the Shuffle does do these things and more, but at least it’s forced me to articulate this idea of reflexive, social products within software systems increasingly focused on representation of self.
As noted before, I’m generally surprised that Apple haven’t taken advantage of their groundbreaking work by building applications which extend functionality and services based on the rich data they’re collecting around user behaviour. They could just be keeping their powder dry, but by not making the Shuffle self-aware in any way, I’m not convinced they’re seeing the opportunities.
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