Energy and Spoon Theory

In my Better Living Through Design talk, I touch on how out of balance I was for a very long time. My mind would spin up with ideas and thoughts and plans, but I would almost ignore my body altogether. And one of the ways this showed up was in how much energy I had; I would assume at the start of the day that my energy was boundless (hah!) and that I could do everything on the list. Frankly, while I was a teenager, I pretty much could.

I'm also fortunate enough to currently be able in my life, without any disabilities. I know this will change in the future.

One of the big things that made me look critically at my energy and where I use it was introduced to me by a family member with a disability. I learned of The Spoon Theory, an excellent piece by Christine Miserandino, that gives a shorthand and approachable metaphor for what it's like to live with chronic illness or pain.

The Spoon Theory set me up to be more empathetic with others, and ultimately be more compassionate with them as well.

Lists Rule

It's a harsh truth that out of the myriad things I want to do with my life – and there are a lot! – I won't be able to do all of them. Or, rather, the odds are extremely small that they will all happen. It's not due to a lack of interest on my part; it's simply due to prioritizing what's important.

I know, I know. The default response to, “How are you?” is, “I'm busy.” We've taken busy-ness to be a merit badge of adulthood, suggesting that we have so so much going on that taking on anything else is just too much and will be the one thing that will put us over the top. The truth is that I do have a lot going on... and so do you!

Letting Go of the List

For a list-driven person like me, getting to a place of letting go of the list has been very difficult. It used to be that when I set up my to do list for the day, I'd feel genuinely bad if I didn't take care of everything on that list by the end of the day. And sometimes, I'd sneak things in to my own detriment (like doing a chore in the early morning or late night before bed). This was really misaligned with what I needed but, because I felt so much self-inflicted time pressure, I knew I would feel incredibly good if everything on the list was ticked off.

So if I had that attitude for a day's worth of items, imagine how I started to feel about bigger things. The life things. Starting a family! Buying a house! Dealing with Comcast customer service! Doing a budget! Instead of plunking those on a Someday list (a prioritization) they'd sit around on this big list of unsorted, unprioritized things I was going to do, and I'd look at that list and... yes, that meant I actually had a scorecard to compare myself to! It was setting me up for the negative, and showing all the things I hadn't yet done. I didn't see it as inspirational anymore; I started to see it as a failure tracker.

Working with the List

I will probably never be someone who isn't list-driven. That, I understand about myself. But I've had to really sit with my emotions and let my brain take a breather in order to get to a more comfortable place with them. I need lists. But, I don't need them to drive me; I need to use them as the tools they are and rely on my self to guide me. A big leap! And, it requires changes in the way I feel and think about lists.

The first idea I've had to relinquish is that everything I think of can be done now, and is all highest priority. Silly, right? It was easy for me to talk about the importance of prioritizing a product backlog, but it wasn't easy for me to say that about my own needs and wants. Yet if I didn't even pretend to rank things – and I historically didn't – I felt defeated. Instead, I had to really comb through the list of items one-by-one and be honest with myself. Anything that I couldn't truly do today... I'd schedule for another day, throw into the Someday list, or – big scary one – take it off the list. (And yes, that last one hurts.)

Another very important change: I add and prioritize self-care items to my to-do list. I've also added inspirational messages to the items' descriptions. It's a small gesture but it's been a big help. I'm the only one who sees them, but it's just a nice heads-up from past me. I observe, however, that I'm still struggling with having self-care items get deprioritized or bumped. Worse, they're often the first to go for me, because my brain seems to find things that are more important to do. Definitely something I am still working on!

How to Prioritize

When reviewing my lists, here's what I ask myself about each item. And yeah, I'm breaking out a list.

  1. How much do I care about this?
  2. How much do other important people care about this?
  3. Can I see myself doing a good job of this (today/tomorrow/next month)?
  4. When this is done, how will I feel about it?
  5. Do I actually have time to do this (today/tomorrow)?

The first two work together: there are certainly things on my lists that are not of my own choosing, but other people in my life who matter are depending on them. I need to balance those priorities: it may be something that isn't terribly interesting to me (see #4!) but when it's done, I'll be glad that I helped someone else. If it's something I care about, then I should work to give it a high priority.

Question 3 is important too. If I feel I can't do a good job on something, then I ask myself if this to-do item is appropriate, really. Something like the fabled “clean out the garage” task is a bit large, and I might not be able to finish the whole thing in one fell swoop. Chunking something down gives me a better shot of doing a good job of it, which again, is important to me. This is also a prime time to ensure these actions line up with my overall intentions.

#4 is where my emotions come into play. If I simply will get the little kick from checking something off the list, that may be enough for some items (“Unload dishwasher.”) But for others it won't be. I try to imagine how I'll feel and react on the other side of that item. Will I be relieved? Stressed? Pleased? Proud? Sad? Thrilled?

And the last question: is there actual time to do this. That's where my calendar comes into play. I find it very helpful to actually schedule time on my calendar This puts my brain at ease and answers the, “But when will you do this?!” question. If I can't do it today, I notice a tinge of regret, but plop it onto a day when I think I can do it.

The End of the List

While I'm still a list fan, there are plenty of times and days when I give myself permission to go off-list and not do anything on it. When I first started this practice I felt immensely guilty, because I wasn't being busy nor productive. But now I see it as time to simply be, to simply exist, and let other parts of me take the helm for a while. This has given me a little more balance, a little more flexibility, and has improved my relationship with lists.

Constraints

After my WebVisions talk last month, there were quite a few fantastic questions from the audience. One of them was, “When you're figuring out what you want to do with your life and how you want to be, how do you take into account the needs of others - like family?”

I clarified by addressing “children” in that “family” bucket, although it can apply to families of all types, really. But my initial answer was this:

All the best designs work within constraints.

I do not have unlimited time nor energy. My wife, son, and other family members all have their needs and wants too. So as I'm planning my days and choosing how to exist in this world, I must take them into account as well. Because, frankly, if I don't, then I'm not being truly myself.

What happens when specific goals or actions conflict with each other? I'm working through this right now: my wife and I made a number of choices that are super important to us, but other people in our family are less comfortable with them to the point of completely disagreeing with them. My old default reaction was to turn around and question my own decision – all in an effort to please the other person, putting my own joy and happiness aside.

But, that's not where my heart is anymore. Now I know these decisions – the ones that I feel are best for me and my family – lead to really uncomfortable conversations and possible consequences. I can't predict how other people will react, even with lots of experience, so my wife and I talked about a few possible outcomes and how we'd feel about them, and how we'd react as well. (This was instrumental, and really soothed the part of me that likes to plan everything out.)

This is a constraint, but an important one. Our decisions and actions have consequences, and how we handle them is also indicative of how we are in the world. No matter what I face, I remind myself of my intentions and work to apply them.

Compassion in Tough Conversations

Recently, I was talking with a person who knew exactly how to press my buttons. We were talking back and forth about something big in the news — a heated conversation — when the topic shifted. Suddenly, I started hearing things about me: I had made bad choices, I had done the "wrong" thing, and I had disappointed people. I was now in an argument, and I was the one who felt attacked.

What do you do when you're under attack? My first instinct was to defend myself. I felt blood flowing through me at a faster rate; fight or flight was kicking in. Adrenaline was powering me through this. I couldn't just leave the conversation so I had to stay.

And I unleashed. I was angry. Everything I heard from the other person wasn't true or, at least, wasn't as I intended. But my actions were being twisted and changed into something far worse, something malicious, and something hurtful. Parts of me chimed in, “But... that's not me! That's not. I'm not a hurtful person! You're wrong!” Lots of defense. Lots of shielding.

The conversation was messy and did not end well. Both of us walked away at the end of it feeling hurt and angry. It did parts of us a world of good to vent and complain and attack like that, but other parts of us were left on the sidelines. We just couldn't be present in those moments. Right?

The illusion

This very driven and heated conversation stirred up our emotions and the bits of both of us that we had each been sitting on for a good long time. Heightened emotions and heightened actions. And yet, compassion and empathy were out the door in this case. Make no mistake: these are really hard instances in which one can practice these things but it is not impossible.

Setting aside our ego and our defenses in order to listen and be compassionate with that person can open the door to greater understanding, care, and connectedness. And yeah, yeah, it's something that I know, but in those moments? Way harder to tap on that. So much of me wanted to respond in kind... and I chose to do so. Of course, it's normal to be angry and pissed and upset in the moment. But we need to keep our ears open and working and present, and truly listen, even when a part of us saying, “Noooooooooo!”

How we respond is a choice. It always is, even when it feels like we have little say in the matter.


Dig this post? Come see me speak at WebVisions Chicago on September 26th! Tickets are available, and code MCALEER gets you 20% off. Register today.

The Qualitative Self

In July, I ran a tremendous amount (for me). I ran the most miles ever in a month, the most miles outside in a month, and the longest distance I ever ran in a month. It was fantastic. At the end of July I felt amazing. I felt great. I felt proud of what my body could do. I had spent some time scheduling out when I would run, and also kept it a little loose so if I missed a day, I would do it the next day.

After my great July, I decided to take a break. "I'll give myself a week," I said. A week went by, and hot weather returned. "I don't want to run in the heat," I told myself (which has always been true, and I don't have a treadmill.) Soon, I looked at the calendar and it was the end of August. I had not run for an entire month.

I noticed that I felt really bad about this, like I had done something wrong. I wasn't noticing how my body felt through not moving as much; rather, I was noticing how my mind interpreted my actions. I felt guilty, bad, and shamed about it. And then other parts of me chimed in and soon, I had put myself into a bad place with exercise again: feeling that I needed to do it… or else!

About that relationship

I started running about 4 years ago. Part of what has fueled this path is the fact that I've been tracking my runs with Nike+. It's a fantastic app, and it has definitely kept me encouraged along the way. I've felt stronger and better because of it, and I know I feel really good when I look at my numbers at the end of the run and make a few comments on my progress.

But in recent weeks, I realized something: all of this tracking, all of this quantitative work, had taken a lot of the fun out of running for me. I started to see it more as a chore and more as a thing that I had to do and, well, I tend to not enjoy things I have to do as much. (Working on that.)

It put me in a difficult place because, here I was, feeling really good about my own physical activity and my body. And yet, any time I wasn't running I started to feel bad about my physical activity and my body. Any time! And that's a lot of times. I got in my own head, as they say.

The new approach

I'm not walking away completely from the idea of tracking my runs. But I'm trying something new during September: I'm running on a very loose schedule and I'm not tracking my runs.

Yep. I'm not tracking them. Nothing goes in the Nike+ app. I listen to music, and that's it.

Based on my runs so far, I've noticed something: I feel way less pressure. It feels more spur-of-the-moment, and I notice that the guilt component is falling away. I notice that I do enjoy the runs a little bit more. I'm not tracking distance, pace, time, or any of that. When I feel I'm done, I'm done. And I work to forgive myself if my internal critic says, "YEAH BUT YOU RAN A 5K AT THE END OF JULY! GO GO GO!" When I'm done, I'm done, and when I can push myself, I will push myself.

It's a new aspect to the relationship, in other words: rediscovering the fun in it, and not just relying on the numbers to tell me I'm enjoying it.

I trust there will be a time when I track things again; I'm still strongly considering doing a "real" 5K in November. And at that point, yeah, I'll want to focus on improving things a bit more. But for now, just enjoying physical activity is a healthy place for me to be.

May Contain Editorial Content

Oh, hello everyone from the internet! This post has been updated as of October 21, 2014; see the epilogue section below for a follow-up and an important correction.

I love podcasts so much that I started one. And I'm also terribly picky about UX and UI, as you can imagine, so I was excited to give Marco Arment's Overcast a whirl. Downcast was my mainstay: its feature set was fine but it was just... kinda... ugly.

Overcast offers a free version, and one can pay $5 to unlock a number of features. The features include things like a smart equalizer and downloads over cellular. And like most podcast players, if you're new to the genre (or just looking for something new), it offers a directory. Overcast offers both a straight A-Z searchable directory as well as a curated selection of programs, called a “Starter Kit”. The curated selection is what I want to talk about.

The Starter Kit is broken up into categories. As I was scrolling through these lists, I noticed something: there was a severe lack of gender diversity in almost every category.

I was curious if it was just me or not. So I went into each section and identified any hosts or co-hosts whose names are traditionally female, and verified those that were socially associated with either gender. If a description did not include any names, I chose to count it as not having female hosts or co-hosts. Here's where things netted out as of August 27, 2014.

  • In the comedy section, there are 9 podcasts, and 1 with a female co-host (Helen Zaltzman).
  • In the tech section, there are 10 podcasts, and 1 with a female cohost (Gina Trapani).
  • In the stories & variety section, there are 7 podcasts, and 1 with a female host (Ophira Eisenberg).
  • In the public radio section, there are 8 podcasts, and 1 with a regular female host (Terry Gross). Notably, some shows such as BBC Newshour have rotating hosts of all genders, and some shows in this section routinely feature contributions from women.
  • In the pop culture section, there are 7 podcasts, and 1 with female co-hosts (Claudia Dolph and Audrey Kearns).
  • In the philosophy section, there are 8 podcasts, and 1 with a female host (Krista Tippett).
  • In movies & TV section, there are 9 podcasts, and 2 with female hosts (the Verity! podcast with Deborah Stanish, Erika Ensign, Katrina Griffiths, L.M. Myles, Lynne M. Thomas, and Tansy Rayner Roberts; Erika Ensign once again, on the Babylon 5 podcast).
  • In the games section, there are 8 podcasts, and 2 with female cohosts (The Indoor Kids with Emily V. Gordon, and Isometric with Brianna Wu, Maddy Myers, and Georgia Dow). (Please see note in Epilogue below.)
  • In the business section, there are 8 podcasts, and none with female hosts.
  • In the turns out section, there are 8 podcasts, and none with female hosts.
  • In the politics section, there are 6 podcasts, and 3 with female cohosts (Emily Bazelon, Brooke Gladstone, and Arianna Huffington).
  • In the health section, there are 9 podcasts, and 2 with female hosts (Jillian Michaels and Monica Reinagel).
  • In the Apple development section, there are 8 podcasts, and none with female hosts.
  • In the Relay.fm section, which is a podcast network, there are 5 podcasts, and none with female hosts.

Note: after I initially wrote this in early August, the “retired greats” section (with 6 podcasts and no female hosts) was removed and replaced by Relay.fm. 

So, out of 108 distinct podcasts (2 Relay.fm shows are listed in two places), only 15 feature women in a regular host or co-host capacity. The Verity! podcast has the largest roster, with 6 female co-hosts (and all talking about Doctor Who? I subscribed.) This is a disappointing number.

The Obligation

Overcast written by a prominent person in the Apple dev community - Marco Arment, in this case. I also couldn't help but think about Vesper, the note-taking app headed up by John Gruber, also prominent in the Apple dev community. With these two apps, at least, there is a common ground: they have editorial points of view.

All apps entail design decisions, but for users they've typically been confined to the feature set or aesthetics. Vesper didn't have syncing for quite a while, and some people were quite upset by that. Overcast can be criticized for its feature set or its pricing model, but since Overcast includes editorial content in the form of this podcast directory, it can also be criticized for its podcast selection.

The main issue here is: is Overcast obligated to present a diverse list of podcasts? I say yes. Here's why.

The directory screen opens up as soon as you hit the “add” icon to subscribe to something new. Thus, lots of podcast show art shows up right away. It's visual, it looks great, and it has a prominent position. It has a lot of power. Thus, it blows the opportunity to expose people to ideas and shows that they might not have otherwise heard. A lot of these podcasts do sound like they could just be Marco's favorites - there's a lot of Apple nerdery and so forth. That starts to feel insular.

Most importantly, a Starter Kit or directory is a natural tool to help with that insular nature. As I was noticing this problem, I also took a look at my own list of subscriptions - it was all white (!), and mostly men. So where would I turn to next, logically? The built in directory! And yet the tool let me down there.

I must note that searching, which is a feature in Overcast, does help with this a bit - doing a search for “women” or “black” brings up quite a few podcasts from people of color and women - but this is something I must actively seek out. The directory can help and should help, particularly given this app is written by a fellow white guy.

Notably, I tweeted @overcastfm about the origin of this list but did not receive a response. I also contacted Downcast, and was informed that their directory is sourced straight from the iTunes RSS feeds.

Making this Better

So, how can this be addressed?

One thing I must point out is that it's quite possible that the podcasting community writ large is white male biased. I haven't seen any research on that yet so, if you're aware of any, do let me know. If it's true, that doesn't excuse an app like Overcast from promoting and encouraging diversity amongst its user base.

The most visible and supportive idea is to seek out more diverse podcasts from Overcast users and feature them in the directory. This is good for Overcast and the podcasters too. For Overcast, it starts to shift the editorial voice to one of discovery and diversity instead of (arguably) insularity. For the podcasters, they get a bigger audience (so Squarespace will pay more for ads!)

Another way is to not have a Starter Kit at all. This feels like a miss, but it's also an option.Without a directory, no one is steered in any direction. Notably, the directory also makes assumptions about its users - like that they'll be interested in Apple development podcasts. This may or may not be accurate of the population as a whole.

One other idea: smarter categories. Something more customized would be great; Overcast could learn that I give a shit about women's rights and start recommending great podcasts for that.

Finally, the nature of placement in the Starter Kit is unclear; Relay.fm is an entire podcast network and has its own entire category. So another option is to offer paid placement and then get a diverse podcast category in the app that way.

Cloudy

I criticize Overcast because I think the app is good. It's not great, but it's good. I haven't been compelled to pay $5 for the full feature set, and a lot of that is actually due to this editorial decision - not the missing features. But that's the risk with apps that have more of a voice than just a feature set: some people may love it, and others may not.


Epilogue

I'm very happy to share that the great Erika Ensign, co-host of the Verity! and Babylon 5 podcasts, shared this article on Twitter in October 2014:

Shortly afterwards, it got to Marco Arment – the aforementioned author of Overcast. Details emerged, and soon the Overcast Twitter account put this call out:

That tweet was RTed far and wide and as such, the responses to that tweet have been pretty amazing on the whole. However, there have been a few people debating the usefulness of including women based on this article.

The great news is that the Starter Kit, as of yesterday (!) already has more women's voices represented. That's a good thing. It's good for Overcast listeners, it's good for the podcasting community, and as I joked above, it's probably good for Squarespace too.

I deeply appreciate the thoughtful responses from Erika, Marco, and Jason Snell (who compiled some of the Starter Kit), and of course, all the listeners. Here's hoping this is a first step towards a more diverse and more inclusive community for people of all genders and races.

Correction: The original article did not include Isometric in the gaming section, and I apologize for the oversight. That was an error on my part, and the original numbers have been updated above to reflect this.

It Might Hurt a Bit

On the past couple of episodes of Designing Yourself, Whitney and I have discussed some great stuff - how we handle stress, and how we recharge ourselves. The great thing about these discussions is that they've provided context and perspective for the work I've been doing on myself over the past few years.

Let me be direct: I have spent a lot of time being "busy" in an effort to avoid dealing with feelings, identity, relationships, and a shitload of other things. Collectively I feel like we have made the notion of being busy too simple to attain and boy, there is a part of me that feeds on that. I can always catch up on Twitter, watch a complete series of a TV show, and plug away at that never ending to do list. But what does that all mean? What does it get me? When does the well-organized person organize in some downtime?

Now, downtime is something I define differently than you do. Sometimes downtime includes zoning out reading blogs or shopping for clothes. Sometimes it means lots of activity with my family, and sometimes it means being very alone. Often, it's an independent thing though - breathing, slowing down, and being observant of the world instead of my busy-ness.

Without downtime and work on the self, I experience profound avoidance. Gang, it's hard to work on emotions and relationships and intentions. It is extremely emotional. I have had lifelong assumptions about myself challenged, and moving from a place of observation to action can be downright terrifying. But it is also profoundly freeing. It is both. And that's where, historically, I have walked away from the challenge.

I've walked away because it's beyond logic and beyond my brain, which has been a driving force for a significant part of my life. I've walked away because I don't know how to do it. No one told me how to best manage this stuff, or not manage it, and just... be with it. Be with myself, be me in those moments. There's no manual. And even then, it delves into the very definitions and notions of who I am. Not trivial, ultra challenging, huge stuff.

I've put some ideas around this. and will be sharing these tools at WebVisions. It may be great for you, or it may not, but it's working for me. I sincerely hope that you can find something that works for you, no matter who you are, in what I share.

Because what I've discovered, nearly by accident, is that my imperfect and wonderful brain can only take me up to a precipice of fear. It's a combination of all my parts, and my support system, that can truly push me through it.

Onward.

Growing Up Digital: Raising Tech-Savvy Kids

My son first used an iPad about 2 years ago, when he was 2 1/2. He was fascinated by the thing but, more impressively, he figured out the interface within a matter of days. Soon he scaled that knowledge up to apps, calling people (via phone and FaceTime), sending texts, and playing Angry Birds. He enjoyed using the camera and timer apps almost more than anything else, though: these acted as a view into his world and understanding what was happening around him.

Last year I met Elysse Zarek via Twitter, and we finally had the chance to meet (and enjoy tacos together!) earlier this year at SXSW. Elysse is the project manager and producer at Bloom Digital, a Toronto-based startup that promotes healthy childhoods. Their first app, Long Story, is an episodic game targeted at teens. It explores dating, gender, bullying, and all of the incredibly complicated stuff of growing up. It is a great game.

I got to talking with Elysse and her coworkers about technology and kids and how different it is for us, as parents, than it was for our parents. Most importantly we yearned for something beyond the whole, "How much screen time is 'too much'?" debate. It was frustrating, because there are bigger issues to explore around how this aspect of parenting changes you, too. For example: if you set up your kid with a Twitter account, when do you hand it over to them? Can she delete all of your "cute" tweets about things she said at the age of 3, or 4, or 5? How do you introduce the positive aspects of tech? In essence, how do you design your life to support a healthy relationship with technology for you and your children?

Elysse and I are proud to share our SXSW proposal with you. Our talk, Growing Up Digital: Raising Tech-Savvy Kids, will explore these topics in depth. Here's our SlideShare about it.

You'll be hearing more about this talk during the SXSW 2015 voting period, which ends on September 6.

But most importantly, if you'd like to see us at SXSW 2015, then you should vote for this talk right now. We hope to see you in Austin!

Beats Control

This is a post in a series evaluating streaming music services. Have a peek at Me & Music, and cold Rdio.

I'll be honest with you: I had used Beats a bit prior to their acquisition by Apple. But once Apple bought them, I thought I'd give them another go. I was also simply interested in using different things day-to-day just to gain other perspectives.

Beats is better than I remember. It's excellent for music discovery - probably the best discovery experience I've had since Pandora 11 years ago -  but it is missing a couple of features I care about. It's delightful enough to use and has so much personality that I'm very tempted to use it anyway and just forgo the rdio features I really want.

The Sentence

Easy to love.

Easy to love.

By far, the best thing about Beats is The Sentence. It's a Mad Libs for your music, basically. I can choose a sentence like, "I'm in the car and feel like chilling out with myself to vintage soul & funk." This works way, way better than I expected.

I had come to rely on the simple love/hate ratings of rdio and Spotify, but felt they weren't really doing anything. Beats offers that too. But instead of a radio devoted to an artist or genre, The Sentence is the main way into a radio-like interface. (There are other ways, and they're pretty good too.) With this entry point and the love/hate, I feel like Beats actually kind of understands my musical tastes. This, despite having almost few items in my collection (never bothered) and going solely on ratings and an initial "tell us what genres and artists you like" with one of the most awkward UIs in the world.

The Sentence has introduced me to loads of deep cuts and songs I just haven't heard before. Whereas with rdio, it's gotten so good at predicting me that it just doesn't surprise me anymore on radio stations - even "Paul FM". Beats definitely tries more. Sometimes it misses, but sometimes it introduces me to artists I've never heard before - like Quadron. And then it's all worth it.

One nice touch to note: one rainy morning I started The Sentence, and each of the first five songs had "rain" in their title and/or in their choruses. I don't know how they did that or if it was just a coincidence, but damn, it was a nice touch. It at least gives the impression that there's a person out there on the other end.

Not everything is amazing with The Sentence. It's got a somewhat fidgety UI. The "blanks" for the Mad Libs are limited. And, I can't just save a Sentence for later use. Despite all this I love it anyway.

Silence in the Library

Well hey, at least the pause button is big.

Well hey, at least the pause button is big.

When it comes to using my library of music, Beats foists a good-but-not-great UI and listening experience on me. This is the area where Beats could do a lot better.

It gets simple management right. There's the ability to download tracks for offline use. I can love and hate songs and tracks. I can follow artists (meh). I can add things to a playlist. The interface carries over the "voice" of The Sentence and discovery features. This is polarizing. On the one hand, it's nice to see a different approach to the Now Playing screen. On the other hand, you can't see the album art easily, so too bad. You can see that most of the controls are as expected and stylized. Even though I have grown quite accustomed to seeing album art and only album art on the play screen, this is surprisingly functional.

Overall library management in Beats is nothing to write home about. I prefer to sort by artist, and I can do that. Each album and song is readily available to play and shuffle. It's table stakes.

Not Present

Beats falls down on a number of little, annoying things and a couple of great big things. First, the little stuff:

  • The music isn't equalized across songs. Some tracks will be VERY VERY LOUD and others whisper quiet. I thought we solved this years ago?
  • There's no way to pivot from an artist or song to a radio filled with recommendations based on your selection. (I see this as a philosophical choice, but I still miss it.)

But here's what keeps me from just using Beats all the time: the lack of a play queue, the fact that almost no one I know uses it, and on everything but a phone the experience is pretty shitty.

Let's talk play queue: this is elementary stuff. I should easily be able to line up a few tracks together and then tell the thing to go. I shouldn't have to bring in a playlist construct for this. rdio does this perfectly: you press a song, a menu pops up, you choose "Play Later". Done. It's perfect. In lieu of having a play queue, I didn't bother making playlists or anything of the sort; I simply listened to more music via The Sentence, or album tracks sequentially.

I rarely use the social features of rdio or Spotify, but I missed having something like that here. "Following" people on Beats is a part of the social aspect but it seems half-baked. And when doing a search against the people I follow on Twitter, not very many came up as options to follow; this isn't the case on rdio. (Clearly, I run with an rdio crowd.)

Let's talk about something that rdio gets right that I feel is so, so important: its seamlessness.

I can start a song on my phone, pause it, and then hop over to my computer and finish it. Or, I can control the phone remotely from the computer. This is glorious and is exactly how a streaming service should work for me. It's about the music, not the device; it transcends the technology.

Beats doesn't offer this. Worse, its player options on non-phone platforms out and out suck. The laptop version is a Flash-based (!) web player (!) that doesn't allow you access to your library (wha?) And, the iPad version is straddled with the same limitations. It's almost the opposite of rdio: the seams are showing. Beats is a phone-only service.

To get around this, I'd usually just forego control of Beats on my Mac or iPad. Inconvenient.

Missing Persons

When August rolled around, I concluded my time without rdio and signed up for the service once again. And you know, I missed using Beats right away.

A few weeks prior I dipped into rdio just to check if something was there, and its interface stood in stark contrast to Beats. rdio is clean, simple, and beautiful (even with its flaws). Beats, by contrast, was more brash, helpful, and opinionated. The color choices, the language in the apps, the interactions... these all contribute to an app's personality. And frankly, Beats just makes me feel cooler. rdio feels more perfunctory by comparison: if I was going to build a streaming service and hire a good designer, I would expect to build rdio. Beats is what would happen if I hired a great designer who really understood her subject (music!) better than I did.

Beats is simply more interesting. Despite its missing features, despite its terrible non-phone clients, despite its bugs, Beats got me more excited about finding new music than rdio almost ever has. That's all worth something to me, and even though I'm back with rdio for August, I'm not sure if I'll still be with it come September.

Cold rdio

This summer I chose to use other streaming music services in lieu of rdio, my favorite forever and ever. I wanted to do this mostly to see how good the other options were, and if I was really getting the best service for me.

Writing comparisons like this is hard. I don't want to book into checkboxland, where I'm just comparing features. On the other hand I've been let down by other comparisons that throw their hands up at the end and say, "Well, that's it! You pick one!" With that in mind, here's where I'm coming from.

How I Listen to Music

I listen to music daily. I listen to a mixture of music and podcasts during my lengthy work commute. I listen to music during my runs. I listen to music when I'm folding laundry and doing chores. And lots of times I listen to music, of course, when working at a computer. So for me, being able to access music on multiple platforms (iPhone, iPad, Mac) is a requirement. 

I like to think that I have a collection of music available anywhere, anytime. In short, if I think of a song I'd love to be able to type it in and play it without delay. I'd also like to have a body of songs and artists as "mine", so a collection or library is a must.

My listening habits gravitate towards either entire albums, or a bunch of random songs. For the latter, I enjoy having radio options - particularly if they provide all the controls I expect (including jumping to a previous song). I also really love a queue, because I might think of a dozen or so songs I'll want to listen to in a row, and then play them all.

When I'm listening to radio stations, I really want a mixture of stuff I know and stuff that I will like. Thus, a service needs to start to learn and understand not just what I like but why I like it, too. Plus it has to surprise me! Throw in something left-of-field because I'm okay with that.

Social features aren't important to me, but seeing what my friends and colleagues are listening to (like rdio offers) is fine.

I expect everything reasonable except The Beatles to be available, and I also know some artists won't put their new stuff on streaming networks. For them, I prefer to buy MP3s direct so they get the most profit.

When I started this experiment, I decided to try Beats Music for two reasons: 1, a lower price than rdio when purchased annually - and discounted at Target; 2, I had used Spotify a few years back and hated it. However, I chose to add Spotify to the rotation as well and give it another go. Note that I used the paid subscriptions for each of these services and not the free, ad-driven ones when available.

While I didn't tell myself I'd never use rdio during this experiment, I essentially didn't.

Cutting to the chase

rdio is the best. Yes, it offers the features and library I want but most importantly, it's a pleasure to use.

In spite of its significant flaws, Beats is my second favorite and a very close contender. The Sentence is far and away the best music discovery tool I've seen on these services, and the whole thing has a distinct personality.

Spotify is, well, fine but it's not for me. It feels perfunctory. It's improved a lot since I last used it, but using it largely felt like using nothing to me - in a not-good way.

What you should get

Now the hard part. I know what I should get. Between these three services, what should you get?

If you care about social features or want the biggest service, just get Spotify. If you want the best all-around service, try rdio and Beats.

Next up

In future posts, I'll break down each of these services and talk about what worked and didn't work for me.