Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Browse Music Globally
Boy, it just makes me itch when people blow a great opportunity to make the world a better place. And I hate having to go negative, too: I already spent much of today's reserve of bile on The Hitchhiker's Guide movie, and this post was going to be the big palate-cleanser that proves to the Jingo Public that Neddie ain't all about the vitriol.
First Make Nice: The folks down at the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage have put together a web site called Smithsonian Global Sound, an online shop where you can download 99-cent songs from their Folkways Records -- some 2,500 album titles of ethnic music dating back decades. Their announced intention is to "encourage local musicians and traditions around the planet through international recognition, the payment of royalties, and support for regional archives."
All very laudable. An iTunes Store for field recordings of music from around the world where the artists (theoretically, at any rate) get paid -- what's not to love? The free streaming radio is truly great, you don't know what wonderful weird thing's going to come out of it next -- this afternoon I've listened to harmonium dance music from India, a capella gospel from Alabama, a Japanese jaw-harp artist, Polish-language polka from Milwaukee, a Congolese drum troupe, and Brahms' Hungarian Dance #8 played on a bizarre hammered-dulcimer-looking thing called a Cimbalom. Jack Radio for the Alienated Intellectual!
If all you wanted to do was plug into the site and launch the Radio, it would be perfect. That's mostly what I have it bookmarked for. But if you're actually trying to find something specific to download, say Balinese gamelan music or Appalachian shape-singing, you are going to butt your forehead against a byzantine bit of information design -- the sort of thing you point to as a negative example when teaching a youngster How Not to Design a Web Site.
You know you're in trouble when you click something and nothing appears to happen, and you click it again and nothing appears to happen, and then finally you notice a little bit of instruction text in the left rail, about a hand's breadth from where you'd been clicking fruitlessly, that says "SCROLL DOWN to see the results of your selections." Oh dear.
There are huge flaws all over the place -- what am I to make of a button labeled "Browse Music Globally? -- but I think the most egregious flaw is their regular flouting of the Interactivity Designer's Golden Rule: Always allow a user to correct an error, to back out of a wrong choice. Once I've begun a trek down a pipe that ends in an unexpected result, or a style of music I didn't intend to investigate, there's no quick way to start over again -- besides your browser's Back button. Phooey.
And what, please, is the difference between Browse by Instrument and Browse by Geography? What (that is to ask) is the difference between Lebanese psaltery music and psaltery music from Lebanon?
No, I hope the Smithsonian folks have big plans for Version 2 already in the works, because it's appallingly evident to me that they didn't do any usability testing on Version 1 -- I've designed enough of these things and watched, humiliated, behind one-way mirrors while test subjects flail impotently with my designs, to know that that browse mechanism would fail miserably on the average home user.
(Folks, I'm gonna say something that might be interpreted as slightly inflammatory, OK? Come on, lean in here so I can whisper it, so it's just between you 'n' me, right...? OK, here we go: Don't ever, ever, EVER, under any circumstances, I don't care if tsunamis will be unleashed and comets will crash into earth if you slip your deadline, never -- that's NEVER, OK? -- let a goddamned software engineer within 6000 yards of user-facing UI design. 'Kay? That's it. Lesson for the day. Clap the erasers and empty the trash. Class dismissed.)