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Interview with Hannah Donovan

Tom Museth

Hannah Donovan is a London-based interaction designer who led design at the online music recommendation service Last.fm for five years. Since leaving Last.fm earlier this year, Hannah has worked independently, and just recently, taken a role with the Echo Nest London, where she will continue to focus on making music better on the web.

Hannah gave a talk recently at Web Directions South in Sydney, the subject of which was “Designing Without The Browser”. It highlighted the shift in innovation away from a browser-centric sphere and into our tangible world, where everyday objects are increasingly being controlled by touch, gesture or voice. One aspect of this change was the evolving nature of audio, in particular music, on the web.

What’s your background, Hannah?

I did a Bachelor of Design at the University of Alberta. It was very graphic design-focused, which was a great foundation, but I fell in love with the continually changing nature of the web, so I taught myself web design along the way. As soon as I finished my degree I moved to Toronto and worked for an agency, taking over most of their web design. Right around the time I was about to move to New York and max out a line of credit on grad school, a role for a creative director came up at Last.fm and a friend who worked there suggested I go for it. I went to London, met the guys at Last.fm and fell in love with the product. Luckily they liked me too, and I decided grad school could wait ­– that’s something I could do anytime – this is happening right now.

I was there for five years, and left Last.fm in February. I took some time off to travel. Working for a start-up can be a real roller-coaster ride, so you do need some time to remember what life is like outside them. Since then I’ve been freelancing.

You’ve been in touch with the music scene online in a period of amazing evolution. What are the challenges for music on the web right now?

Something that really frustrated me while I was working for Last.fm – well, frustrated and excited me at the same time – was that we had all these charts and numeric representations of data which were a cornerstone of the service and its design. I love information design, but I’m also a very visual person; I like textures, pictures. I like to look at the way music sounds, and this is just not something charts can do. This frustration led me to think about the potential of editorial, of hand-picked audio, and ways to wrap that up in more clever, sophisticated ways ­– using all of the computer smarts around music recommendations I’d been immersed in at Last.fm.

So, in terms of a current challenge, I still don’t think we’ve explored the possibilities of creating richer musical experiences based on a user’s hand-picked tastes – especially since we all know the best recommendations come from friends. I don’t see anyone doing this at the moment, and it’s something I really want. Something I haven’t actually had since … Myspace …

Who would’ve thought … it’s still with us.

It’s still around, sure, but what I really mean is Myspace circa 2006. Yes, it was a shitty user experience in many ways, but also really incredible in terms of what it did to our digital culture – pop stars were born, design trends came out of it, fonts, aesthetics. I’m thinking in particular of MIA’s album cover (Kala). When I first saw it, I thought, “What is this!?”, but look at the Myspace customisations and gig flyers in the comments and it all made sense. That’s the creation of culture; people making things and choosing the things that change pop culture.

But what happened right after Myspace, of course, was Facebook.  It went in completely the opposite direction, and got its users living within these really austere, information-centric designs and profiles. Nobody was making things on Facebook; the ways in which you could choose to express yourself were very limited.

I’m focused on a world where I’m making rich content, and I want to be able to choose that content, express myself through it, and ultimately discover other people’s. And I also want help with the making, choosing and expressing, because not only do I not want to think through my entire digital music pile, but I can’t see it –music has become all the more searchable and identifiable, but ultimately less tangible; and I need help with this. It’s the next problem we’re going to have to solve.

I believe there are ways we can help people shape culture and in turn shape their own digital trails, not just lazily fill in blanks or “like” things. That’s what I’m really interested in right now – how do we strike the right balance of ease of use around making, choosing and expressing with the computer smarts we have to grease the wheels of discovery?

How do we begin the move to a world of culture creation?

We need to build some stuff and see what happens! I’m a doer. Nothing makes me more frustrated than sitting around talking about making stuff. One experiment I’ve already started on with the folks at the The Institute for the Future of Music (The Echo Nest London outpost) is www.thisismyjam.com.

But a shift like that doesn’t seem simple to map. Trends often just seem to occur, taking on a life of their own.

Trends are all reactions to the thing that came just before. If you look at most of cultural history, it’s just the pendulum swinging in the other direction. Considering the recent impact of Facebook Music, the focus on polished music streaming services like Spotify and Rdio, the fascination with infographics – I think we’re ripe for some seriously messy, personal, emo editorial in the music space.

Also, you just don’t know until you try. Google is a really good example of this way of doing things. They’ll just make stuff, throw it out there, see how people use it. Then they’ll attempt to refine it – though I don’t think they’ve done a great job of this design-wise until more recently. But they will figure out if it fits into people’s lives and how, and if not they will move on. I respect this messy, made-in-the-labs style approach.

The times I used to visit Myspace to check out a new band, I was generally overcome by the rawness of the design and layout; the amateur approach to presentation. And yet those factors didn’t totally alienate, because the potential of the functionality, and what new technology meant for interaction with music, overcame them.

Right. I think you know you’re doing something right if users are willing to overcome such odds to participate in an experience that they were clearly getting so much out of. MySpace made you look cool, and people will go to extreme lengths to look cool.

To use a music metaphor, it’s not that far off from underground raves or warehouse parties. If you were lucky enough to get a flyer for one, it didn’t tell you anything – you had to find some dude, text his mobile, drive for hours to some field and then … all of a sudden you were part of an experience that was shaping culture. People were willing to overcome a ridiculously difficult user experience to participate in something that made them feel like part of something new.

Curation is the future (although I sort of hate the word “curation” because it seems to have become a buzzword). Curation is something that makes us look extremely cool, and we’ve got a lot of music data to look cool with – we just haven’t figured out how to represent it online in meaningful, human ways.

What about the entrenched attitude that music these days is just “free”? Less than a generation ago you had to “go” to your music, experience it in a certain environment – a stereo in a room, in a certain format, that cost you money and time. Now it moves with you, and you can get it for free, legally or illegally.

First of all I think we should examine the word “free”. There are two things going on there – one, that some people think they shouldn’t have to pay for music at all, which I don’t agree with; and the other aspect is that music shouldn’t live in one particular medium; that it should be free to live in all these places where I want to listen to it.

I buy a lot of music, but it pisses me off when I have to buy the mp3 version and the LP version – I’ve paid for a lot of music three times, four times over, just to have it in the different places I want to have it. When you talk about the latter definition of “free”, absolutely – it should be free across all mediums.

Beyond the obvious draw of music being free of charge, I think that the “freedom” of music – that is, the freedom of it being in digital form, and what you can do with it in the digital medium –  is one of the main reasons piracy happened. It was a revolution in which people said they wanted to be able to sample, discover, remix, create, curate and do all the incredible things they do with music today that would never be possible with a CD. It was chaos, but that’s what revolutions are – chaos.

Right now, we’re living with the messy problem of the money shaking out to the people who are still entitled to it. Artists need to get paid.

Whether people were consciously angry of the sheer difficulty of discovering music when it was controlled by radio DJs and major labels, at the mercy of what the small-town WalMart stocked, or just enticed by the possibility of what they could do with it if it were “freed” through its digital format – this is what fuelled that revolution.

The music industry was very slow to catch on to this revolution, and why not? They’ve spent the last 50 years doing precisely what I just complained about – selling people the music they love in yet another format: LP, tapes, CDs, box sets … But I think we can say it’s definitely changed now. Music is becoming decentralised, labels are learning they can’t fight digital, and that they have to learn how to leverage it.

Another important factor in this change is that consumers have finally come around to the idea of sharing instead of ownership. Paying for a subscription to access music in the cloud seems viable. And it’s not just music that this is happening with – people drive without needing to own a car, wear a designer handbag without having to buy it, watch films and never fill up their shelves with DVDs. The focus on ownership is shifting to a model that is cheaper, easier and more accessible. When you can either pay £10 a month for Spotify and listen to whatever you want, or £10 for one CD, it’s a no-brainer.

So is the aim to make technology as convenient as possible?

Sure – as long as you care about the impact you’ll be creating on society with that convenience. And that’s something we still have the chance to influence with digital music and technology.