Breaking It

I’ve complained extensively in the past about Google’schanges to their applications and how they’ve really pissed me and my wife off (in varying measures, of course). In recent times I’ve noticed that changes to certain applications or services are doing things that aren’t good – change is, on the whole great, but some times change is the worst thing to happen to something that has become built in. Change isn’t good when it directly opposes ways that services are used, and Twitter, Facebook, Google and Spotify have all done it recently, and to a lesser extent, a launcher on my phone.

The simplest, most miniscule changes, are the ones that make the biggest waves. Take my rant at Google’s single sign in on iOS. That appears on the face of it a fairly small change; I signed in once and I am signed in across all services. It’s actually quite clever when you look at it from that basic functionality point of view, and it is on the surface easier. But the issue is when people have more than one account – and, more importantly, more than one account that shouldn’t be mixed. Connie has her own Gmail account, but we share a Google Music account. She can’t have “my” Google Music account signed in on her phone because that signs her into all my emails too. So that’s that broken. Is it my fault for wanting to use my services in that way? Is it Google’s for changing?

Another example is the recent change in Spotify’s design – earlier in April they rolled out a massive system wide change to the service where the user interface was changed. On the whole, it looks better, but the font is bigger, which means my playlist’s names are truncated. Not earth shattering, of course, but the low contrast colour scheme is almost impossible to read on my monitor sometimes, and I can’t even imagine what it must be like for someone who is visually impaired. Also, they added a long requested feature – a library. You can now add albums and artists to an online library. However, Spotify hasn’t had this feature before and I've been using it for years, so I worked around out, building my own playlist based library of music. 

My browsing UI I created with Playlist Folders in Spotify

It’s brilliant, as the UI is how I want it to look – Artists, Letters, and then a playlist in chronological order. It’s perfect for me, and I don’t want to change it. So, despite this new feature, the implementation is actually worse now that I have my already time invested system of playlists, which I much prefer to the new system. This design is one of the reasons I prefer it to Google Music All Access (that and the social features).

These changes aren’t a big deal at face value, but it does highlight something else that is at play – online services are both at the mercy of the company which runs them, but also at the mercy of those who use them. This week a launcher I use on my phone changed the smallest of features – instead of a folder popping up “in place” (underneath my thumb, for example) it now opens “full screen”. This simple change means my action goes from not moving my thumb to open any of my apps to now having to shift my wrist to reach apps at the top of the screen (I have short, fat fingers, and a 4.7 inch screen). This is the most egregious example of these small changes being massive – it breaks the core functionality that I used the launcher for. Within 5 minutes of the update, I had uninstalled it and installed a competitor which allows me to replicated every feature including the one feature I liked. What this shows is two-fold – any change to a service is wholesale, and if I don’t like it I currently have no option but to take it on. I can’t chose to not have the update (or, once I have had the update, I can't roll it back). However, what I can do is chose to stop using the service, and the wealth of replacements out there is vast. If Spotify suddenly stopped supporting playlists and the sharing of those playlists, I’d be out of there in a flash. If Twitter adds it’s proposed curated feed rather than the current non-bias level playing field of tweets, I’ll quit. These changes are non-negotiable, so the only thing I can show my discontent with is my custom.

I can liken it to driving a car. You’re used to your car – you know what it’s like to drive, how it feels, or how it sounds at 30mph. Imagine, over night, your mechanic came into your car and, for free, changed the whole dashboard. The stalks were in different places, the dials looked different, and maybe even was a different colour. They also went under the hood and changed it from a 1.6l to a 1.8l, added a new electronic brake system, and then the noise of the engine changed. You’d be suitably pissed off, right? you’d bought a car – but now it costs more to insure, it’s harder to drive because of the changes, and you have no idea how to change it from BBC Radio 1 to Pulse98.4 Community Radio, your preferred station for late night Monday. It’d down right insane! Every time an application or service changes, rightly or wrongly, you have this new learning experience, and this doesn’t help things.

It’s alarming that there is no control over this; no recompense, no avenue to voice opinion directly, no consumer body vocalising discontent over change that is for the worse, either subjectively or objectively, either for the common user or the impaired user. The world we are moving into is one of constant mid-cycle updates and minor revisions to the services that we build our lives around. No longer are things static the moment we start to use them – and that is not as forward thinking as you might suspect.