A few years ago I was on a journey that took me to the mall. I rode the escalator up to the second floor of Barnes and Noble and navigated my way through the shelves, overlooking the bargain tables, until I found the lonely corner I needed. Tracing my finger down a row of waxy book spines, I located the one book that brought me here: Podcasting for Dummies.
I had already read what felt like a million blogs and Medium articles about best practices with bullet lists of must-haves, must-dos to make a successful podcast. I needed something meatier, with more context, to give me a real nugget to hold. So I flipped through the book, and as I read the chapter titles, call-outs, and summaries, I was surprised. It wasn’t here — there was no succinct guidance for efficiently making a professional podcast.
My task was to help an early-stage startup create a solid user experience for quick and easy professional podcast creation. Their premise was strong — They knew there was a need because the complex weaving of audio and publishing tools required in order to make a solid, subscribable podcast wasn’t accessible to most people. “A professional podcast in an afternoon” was what they were after, and while the concept sounded simple, I knew I had just unearthed a massive design problem. There was no framework for the design I was employed to create — only a set of values I suspected needed to be delivered.
I shelved the book and took the escalator back downstairs. I gave a glance or two to the plush Totoros as I thought of my daughter, who loves that film. Then I picked up and paid for a blank sketchbook, knowing that it would play a key role in my design process for this project. My journey ended at Auntie Anne’s because, as I always say, when in Rome, eat a mall pretzel. 🥨
It was already functional
My startup teammates were working on this problem long before I arrived on the scene. They created a basic prototype consisting of the core functionality. For example, a podcast creator could record separate sections such as an opener, intro, and teaser. The recordings would be automatically leveled and stitched together. The development team was focused on perfecting the automation process. They did what plenty of developers do: build the functionality needed to complete a task. However, that doesn’t guarantee usability or intuitiveness and they knew they needed user experience design.
I often remind my technical development colleagues that “if you build it, they will come” does not apply to software applications. However, startups are a tricky business, and we needed to begin working with early adopters quickly. So I did what I could to help clean up the prototype, which involved minor restructuring, user-friendly language, and stylistic changes. Following that, the real work began.
Initially, I was asked to take an existing application and make it look nicer. However, what makes software great isn’t about how you color the buttons or where you put them on the screen. So if you find yourself spending the bulk of your time dragging button components around a Figma canvas, recognize that this is only on the surface of what user experience designers can do. Dig deeper. More on this later…
The formula for research
I knew that creating a professional podcast in an afternoon was a monstrous task. I came up short in my search for simple answers. Still, I needed to fully explain to myself and everyone else what made it so challenging. So I conducted interviews with podcasters of all skill levels and professional podcast production engineers. In addition, I ran a survey asking people who wanted to start a podcast to identify the common mental hurdles.
Through the research, I found a critical formula for choosing my direction:
- Define: What makes a podcast “professional” according to the professional producers? (Ex. They must include these segments, typically recorded in this order)
- Identify: What values do everyday business owners, entrepreneurs, and potential podcasters need in a podcasting platform? (e.g. Quick, easy, for non-technical users) What hurdles stand in their way? (e.g. “I don’t know what to say”)
- Distill: Given the two things above, what does the design need to do to provide value for the user, smooth away the hurdles, and qualify as a “professional” podcast?
Two common themes emerged. One was that the audio quality needed to sound good without burdening the podcast creator with the need to buy expensive equipment. The technical team addressed this in their work to automatically level and produce the recordings into a podcast. The second theme was that the creators needed to know how to structure an episode and make the best use of each segment or element with content that grabs listeners. This is where I drew inspiration.
A spark in the dark
What happened next was the pursuit of creating light in a very dark place. Creativity is fluid energy that searches for its place in existence — having an idea is one piece, but then you let it roll around until it takes shape and holds meaning. The research was enough for me to decide on a proper workflow for planning, recording, and publishing a podcast that could all be done within an afternoon.
So with paper and pencil, I began sketching out wireframes from the idea forming in my mind. The experience needed to be concisely constructed, leaving out the technical complexities of audio engineering and the distraction of endless choice-making about what to say. Not all the bells and whistles but just enough of them. The ideas fell from my mind onto the page: a specific stage for planning and writing the episode, a separate step for recording it, free music for intros.
I erased lines and added them back as quickly as my hand could manage. I made wireframes that contained each step of my proposed workflow. Then, I clicked through them with the gummy eraser on my pencil. I quickly iterated the same screens into XD files and ran them past my team, the professional podcast producers, and a few potential podcasters. I got the positive feedback I needed to move forward with visual designs. The lead developer quickly got to work on the project’s new design, as we aimed for a beta test in 5 months and a V1 release in just 8 months.
The payout was in the process
I don’t have space in this article to detail everything that happened in those short months. However, I can tell you that the launch was successful. We gained nearly 1000 new users following the launch. Of course, no design is perfect, and during the beta phase, we learned of a few pain points that we worked to resolve. In addition, we uncovered problems we didn’t know existed yet and quickly worked through fixing those as well. But, overall, the platform’s core value, the process, was functioning well for users. We understood that what made it so innovative was the experience itself. It was new, and it was what was best for users in achieving their goals.
The startup won a grant following the launch to explore the potential for a patent. The product team was asked to round up all their working materials and to present them to a group of experienced patent attorneys and writers. Several of them had thousands of patents under their belts, and needless to say, I was pretty intimidated by the inquiry. I doubted that my contributions would be considered relevant. I assumed the conversation would be dominated by technical elements, snippets of code, and automation tools. However, as the questions started to emerge, they were becoming more and more focused on the flow of a user in first planning and then recording a podcast. They saw potential in the process. They found the spark that I made in the dark.
While the patent application was not the biggest highlight in the grand scheme of the project, it was a pivotal moment for me in my career. It was when it fully hit me that what I do as a user experience designer isn’t about the look and feel of products but the how and why. Innovation held a distant relationship to my identity as a designer until I realized that it was no different at all. Design in our digital era is often about making things better, but it can also create new things. Throughout history, the champions of this effort have been brainy, risky (well-funded and primarily white, male) engineers. Now that I am a firm believer in the innovative power of user experience design, I know that can change.
My time with this startup, while brief, gave me a boost of energy as a designer. The company made an exit, acquired by one of the largest podcast hosting companies in the world, and we all went on to other jobs. However, now I am aiming to do a lot more innovating, and this fall, I began working on a doctorate of design (D.Des) program at North Carolina State University to further my goal.