As Pandora Evolves, Simplicity Battles A Feature For Everyone

Fast Company speaks with Pandora CTO Tom Conrad about the challenges of squeezing social, informational, and profile features into an app that's all about simplicity.

Pandora CTO Tom Conrad insists his number one priority is to make the best playlists in the world. But he’s also aware that users increasingly expect more than a simple music-listening experience from their music apps.

Nowhere are these competing priorities more difficult to balance than on the small screen of a mobile device. On Monday, he and Pandora will release their best attempt: Pandora 4.0 for Android and iOS.

The new apps include the extras Pandora has added to its website throughout the years such as song lyrics, profile pages, and integrations with popular social networks. But it downplays features that aren’t core to the Pandora listening experience in favor of preserving a simple experience.

Menu items such as "feed" and "profile," for instance, aren't visible within the radio listening experience. Instead they're accessed by clicking a subtle icon in the corner.

"If we’re going to make a mistake," Conrad tells Fast Company, "I’d rather meet people who say, boy I wish I could learn more about artists on Pandora, or I wish I could make a profile for myself on Pandora, or I wish I could share songs to Facebook and Twitter on Pandora, and to say, oh, let me show you how to do that, rather than lose users in that experience."

He adds: "It’s that kind of thing of making sure that the tip of the iceberg that sits above the iceberg of the water delivers the core differentiating experience of Pandora, and then having all of this ability sitting there underneath the water for people who want to explore more."

A service that puts together Internet radio stations was more than anyone had thought to ask for in 2000, when Pandora was founded. But competitors in Internet radio have since emerged with a wide range of offerings. Songza offers human-curated playlists. Subscription services such as Spotify and Rdio have plugged into social discovery. Microsoft already entered the streaming game with Xbox Music, and Apple is reportedly preparing to do the same (a Pandora representative said the company did not comment on competitive moves).

Users expect more, and Pandora would be foolish to ignore that.

"You need to understand there are 150 million people who enjoy Pandora [as registered users]," Conrad says. "Even if 10% of our audience, for example, is interested in sharing music socially, it’s still 15 million people."

Pandora’s mobile apps clock in 75% of the 1.1 billion hours listeners spend on the service each month, and adding extra features to the mobile experience had to happen. Those features might help keep Pandora in the game, but, says Conrad, they’re still not what it competes on.

"The singularity of purpose and focus of being the best in the world at delivering this personalized radio experience is really a critical part of differentiating us from the literally hundreds of music startups that we’ve competed against throughout the years," he says.

[Image: Flickr user Knight725]

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