How Pandora answered the most critical question facing every app maker

Pandora screenshot

Nathan McAlone

Pandora knows you come to it for ease.

Pandora is dead-simple app to use, and its design team prides itself on being able to guess exactly what you want at a given time.

But it's not always so easy to know what people want, and there was one point in particular that was hard for Pandora's team to nail, the company's chief of product Chris Phillips explained to Business Insider.

What gave Pandora so much trouble? It was the very beginning, what Pandora should give you first.
"It's one of the most fundamental questions every design team has to ask themselves," Phillips said.

His team started from the idea that they wanted to help the user find right song as quickly as possible. But then they started to disagree. Should they take someone to a list of stations, the station they were on, the last song they were playing, the exact spot they stopped listening, or even the next song in the queue?

The thinking ended up split along two lines: either you take the person back to exactly where they left off, or to a specific thing every time.

"You could argue it either way," Phillips said. That's when the team began to try and understand why both of those points of view sounded compelling. What they eventually decided on was a compromise that tried to take from both sides of the debate.

"We stepped back and said, 'What's the service really about?' The service is about making sure that when you turn this thing on you're listening to music," Phillips says. So if you haven't opened up the app for awhile, and you click on it, music starts playing immediately. People come to Pandora so they don't have to think so hard about finding new music, so the app gives it to you right away. It doesn't present you with a list of options and ask you to choose.

But, if you're opening the app up after recently closing it, Pandora trusts you knew what you were doing. You could have been in the middle of renaming a station, or checking out what things you had "liked" (thumbed up) in the past. If you just exited the app, it takes you back to exactly what you were doing.

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