Everyone loves social networking, don't they? So I guess it wasn't a big surprise when Apple announced they'd be jumping on the social networking bandwagon with Ping, the new social tool in iTunes. It seems kind of natural, though. I don't know about you but I've almost always been exposed to new music mostly through the recommendations of friends, so social networking and Apple's music software sound like they should be as natural a fit as chocolate and peanut butter. So when Ping launched I was curious and checked it out. I was pretty underwhelmed but figured, hey, the service is new so I should give it a chance to get seeded a little bit. It's been a few weeks now and unfortunately I'm just as underwhelmed as I was when it launched, and I feel like a lot of that is due to a poor presentation on Apple's part. I know that it's common knowledge that iTunes isn't really up to the user experience snuff, but I expected that Apple would maybe learn from all the things they've done so incredibly well in the area of user experience with their hardware and bring some that to Ping. What I encountered, though, is a service that's barely noticeable and almost actively anti-social as far as social networking goes.

I find the service lacking; it doesn't really compel you to do anything at all. There are "Like" and "Post" buttons on artist pages, but Ping really never gives me a compelling reason to bother doing anything with them. Who's following me? Who will see when I "Like" something, and am I even going to notice that anyone cared? It's too close to Twitter's shouting-into-the-wind and not nearly close enough to Facebook's tighter social integration that promotes discussion, friend-finding, information sharing, and commentary.

When I first set up my Ping profile I figured that I at least had to do some initial seeding myself to get it going, however, so I added a friend to my Ping list when he mentioned that he'd set himself up on the service. Great! I've got someone I'm following...

...or do I?

When I click on Ping I get a page that actually lies about my Ping network.

Ping telling me that I'm not following anyone.

This is the first page I saw when I clicked on Ping. And it's virtually empty. Look at all that blank space. A big expanse of empty page is about the worst way to initiate a positive user experience, and layered on top of that is the fact that the page is a lie -- I am following someone. I'm just following someone who really doesn't do much with Ping. And this big, blank page is making me start to understand, right off the bat, why they don't bother.

No, actually, I AM following people. See?

If I click on People I see the page above. Now why on earth would Ping lie to me, Apple? That's not a great way to start off a relationship. Also, the label People is terribly vague. Is it people I'm following? People following me? People you think I should follow? I don't know because the navigation term is so vague that I had to take a guess about where it would take me when I clicked it.

There's really no reason for that big blank first page to exist in that state, unless there's some deep technical reason why it simply must be designed this way that we non-Apple employees aren't privy to. On the right hand side is a list of things that might be able to get me using the service; why aren't those things brought to the forefront for new Ping users? Here's a really (and I do mean really) quick and dirty example of what an opening page for a new Ping user should really look like, or should look like for people like me who have few friends in their list and whose few friends don't really have any new updates to display.

Give the user something to DO when they first begin using your service.

Instead of presenting the new Ping user with a big blank page of nothing, they should be presented with something to do. Here we immediately push some artist recommendations in front of them (and hopefully more correct ones than are in my own list; seriously, Apple? Aaron Neville? When have I ever listened to anything that would cause you to recommend that) and some people they might want to follow. Facebook integration really should have been a huge part of Ping's launch, but I suppose opaque red tape issues might have gotten in the way. Still, if you're going to launch a social networking service the very least thing that it should launch with is some way to recommend a few appropriate people to follow, and failing that there should be something my quick mock-up doesn't have: a very, very prominent Find Your Friends search box taking center stage on this page, not relegated to a tiny column of stuff on the right.

Ping was touted at the conference as a way to stay up-to-date on what your favorite artists are doing. You could see when they'd be releasing new albums or what shows they were doing in your area. Facebook and LinkedIn are both very good at pushing events in front of you that (a) are in your area and (b) are things you might be interested in. You'll notice in one of the screenshots above that I'm following Alice in Chains. And you might notice some tasty bit of info buried on the page after this, if you click on them.

There's some cool info in here I would have liked to have known back before tickets would have been sold out.

I had no idea that Alice in Chains was playing Key Arena tonight until yesterday. When I heard it on the radio. A device that iTunes is seriously designed to replace. I favorite'd Alice in Chains, and iTunes knows where I live -- you can see in the lower right of the page that they're telling me the band is playing in my area. Why on Earth was that information never pushed to me in a much more prominent way? There's no excuse for someone having to click three layers deep to find this information, it should be big and obvious on my Ping homepage. (Maybe, I don't know, in that giant blank space?)

There are many apps out there these days that recognize the value of leading a new user to the seed content that should compel them to use their service. One of Facebook's biggest strengths is the "You may know..." feature, and Twitter now has something similar. Pushing recommendations to build a list that will then propagate further content is essential to getting people to use your social networking service. I just don't see Ping taking off until Apple sees it more as an integral layer to the entire iTunes user experience and not just a bolted-on social network tool for the sake of social networking.

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