Gadget guys use technology to bridge people and Pandora
Pandora’s Carl Edwards and Jason Tusman had never even touched an Apple Watch when they first tried to get their company’s Internet radio service to function on the device.
But that’s what they do. Edwards and Tusman lead small teams of product designers and engineers whose job it is to fit Pandora onto as many new gadgets — real or imagined — as the world of consumer technology can throw at them.
“My job is to bridge technology with people and Pandora,” said Edwards, director of device engineering. “That’s why I find this exciting.”
Edwards has worked on more than 1,000 devices during his decade at the Oakland online media company, which in its early years struggled as a Web-based service that couldn’t be accessed without a connected desktop computer.
But the service took off when the 15-year-old company’s audio stream became available on a wider variety of wireless devices, especially on mobile phones and in cars. For the first quarter of 2015, Pandora reported 79.2 million active users who listened to 5.3 billion hours of music and other audio programming.
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“We wanted to be on every device because Pandora was trying to grow the audience,” Edwards said.
But each device is different. Some are small, like the touch-screen Apple Watch or the button-controlled Pebble smart watch. Some offer more room to play with, like Microsoft’s Xbox One gaming console — on which Edwards and Tusman included larger album photos and subtle animated transitions.
“Some devices have a really simple UI (user interface) so it’s pretty easy to navigate, whereas others ones have a lot of buttons,” Edwards said. “So you have to find the level of people comfort. Even for them picking up a remote and knowing what to do with it varies from device to device.”
Then there’s Amazon’s Echo, a $200 cylindrical-shaped, wireless speaker and personal information assistant that doesn’t even have a viewing screen. The device is controlled by voice commands.
But Edwards and Tusman have been working with Amazon to make sure the key parts of Pandora’s normal controls function on the Echo, which activates when users say a keyword like “Alexa.”
During a recent demonstration, Edwards, who leads a 15-person team, had a “conversation” with the Echo:
Edwards: “Alexa, play the Beatles on Pandora.”
Alexa: “Should I add the Beatles Station to your Pandora account?”
Alexa: “OK, I’ve added it. Here it is. (The song “Here Comes The Sun” begins to play.)
Edwards: “Alexa, thumbs-up.”
Alexa: “Sure. Ratings saved.”
Pandora engineers are still in a learning phase with the Echo but are getting plenty of hands-on time with the device.
But that wasn’t the case with the Apple Watch. App developers had little or no access to Apple’s first smartwatch before it went on sale online in April.
“We were designing before we had the watch,” said Tusman, who leads a four-person product design team. “We were just going off of instinct and what our core fundamentals are for how we design Pandora.”
Instead, they used a computerized emulator and a software developers kit provided by Apple to simulate how Pandora would operate on the gadget.
Tusman said Apple intentionally limited controls and functions available on the watch because of its size, “which in this case was really valuable.”
With too many functions, “then you have a really tiny, itty-bitty screen that does not have a lot of real estate,” he said. “You can shove a lot of controls in there and a lot of content that isn’t valuable toward the core experience.”
They designed Pandora’s app for the watch as a remote control for the main app on the still-required iPhone.
“It’s the same information, but a different input method and a different pattern to the layout and design,” Edwards said.
“There is no real value to having the album artwork,” Tusman said. “It would chew up a lot of the real estate, so we removed it.”
Still, Tusman and Edwards had to rearrange the app’s controls when their team finally got hands-on time during a session at Apple headquarters. Through it all, they had to keep in mind “basic human reactions,” which is how they approach all new devices that come through Pandora’s door, Edwards said.
So while having Pandora controls on a refrigerator door might be frivolous to many, it might make sense for person who spends a lot of time in the kitchen socializing and cooking.
“We do see different devices becoming remote controls for wherever I want to consume my audio,” he said. “So the question is what’s next. Do I need Pandora on my dryer now?”
Tusman said each new device “has its own challenges,” but he always wants to make sure what he designs is easy enough for his mom to use.