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A user’s experience in a world of endless updates: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk about the changes tech giants and digital publishers make on our mobile apps and on the web. Topics covered include our apps’ constant stream of small updates, user-experience disconnect on major social media platforms, publications’ redesigns and the ultimate aims of publishing on the web, and the lack of — and the need for — software criticism.


Paul: Hi, this is Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. I’m your co-host and co-founder Paul Ford, and I’m joined by my co-host and co-founder —

Rich: Rich Ziade.

Paul: Rich, how are you?

Rich: I’m doing well. That was very subdued and PR.

Paul: Well we just got back from lunch. I’m a little…I’m feeling a little…the term is low-GI. That’s the actual…

Rich: Is that the term?

Paul: It’s one of the terms that people use.

Rich: Yeah you gotta —

Paul: A little slow.

Rich: You gotta pick it up. Pick it up.

Paul: Let me dump this bucket of coffee down my mouth —

Rich: There we go.

Paul: And perk the hell up!

Rich: Paul.

Paul: Yes, Rich?

Rich: Tell me about Postlight.

Paul: Ah, you know, you ever pick up a mobile phone and use an app?

Rich: Yes…

Paul: Well that’s the thing we do.

Rich: We do more than that, but…yes.

Paul: Well, what we do, let’s be clear: inside that app, there is a view that is, like, a web view.

Rich: OK…

Paul: Often? Like that app is powered by the web, even if you don’t think so, it is.

Rich: Right.

Paul: We build that part, too. We build the back end and the front end and the web app and the mobile app and the web mobile app —

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: We do that, that’s a real thing, everybody: web mobile apps are a real thing.

Rich: Yes. We help you design, architect, build, and ship platforms and the apps that ride on top of them. I just came up with that. [laughter]

Paul: Just, riding is…

Rich: You liked riding?

Paul: Stallions!

Rich: Yeah!

Paul: [really shocking stallion whinny]

Rich: Right.

Paul: [equally shocking neighing sound]

Rich: Exactly.

Paul: That’s exciting.

Rich: So Paul…

Paul: Yes, Rich?

Rich: There is a phenomena that has been…I don’t know if I’d say bugging me, I’m kind of fascinated by it, because part of me, as a, as a…

Paul: Well there are phenomena, and there is a phenomenon. So you have to choose one of those.

Rich: There is a phenomena.

Paul: No. There are phenomena, and there is a phenomenon.

Rich: Oh, is that true? I’ve been saying it wrong the whole time.

Paul: [low exhale of breath]

Rich: There is a phenomenon that I wanna talk about.

Paul: Postlight is about learning.

Rich: And here we are.

Paul: What is the phenomenon that you wanna talk about?

Rich: There are a handful of apps that I use far, if you charted it out, there are, like, five apps that I’m in 90% of the time, and then it tapers off, and over at the end is, like…the wine app…

Paul: Sure.

Rich: That you take a picture of a label, like, you just open them much, much less frequently.

Paul: Candy Crush.

Rich: I don’t have Candy Crush on my phone.

Paul: Bejeweled.

Rich: No, none of that.

Paul: Doodle Jump?

Rich: No.

Paul: Cut the Rope?

Rich: Cut the Rope…Cut the Rope and I have a history.

Paul: OK.

Rich: Uh…which we’re not gonna get into on this podcast.

Paul: That’s fine, that’s fine.

Rich: So the phenom —

Paul: Actually is there a casual game that you’re fond of?

Rich: Uh…yes. There are a couple, but I haven’t played them in a long time. I like the puzzle games. I like the word puzzle games.

Paul: Right.

Rich: I don’t wanna play socially. Like, I don’t wanna —

Paul: No. I do this alone.

Rich: I don’t wanna talk to anyone.

Paul: Not with friends.

Rich: Yeah. So there are a couple. So here’s the phenomenon that uh, just irks me, and I think…this has kind of always been going on?

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: But Uber, I feel like, accelerated it, and that is the apps change. Constantly. They change fairly dramatically, constantly. We’ve gotten to the point where the update is no longer this event.

Paul: You know what’s weird, is the update — so the update comes across now with all these notes? And it happens, it could be daily.

Rich: That’s right. And now the notes are even generic. They’re sort of like, “We’re always improving your application for…your enjoyment.”

Paul: Well and then there’s, the more nerdy development shops will have kind of tongue-in cheek notes, or —

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Little more — but what’s strange is the app update itself has become a kind of media object. It’s like a form of news?

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And uh, that’s, we’re, we’re living in that world, now, but it’s not like, it’s still crappy text notes —

Rich: Yes.

Paul: That tell you that’s something’s changed.

Rich: Correct. And what’s happening is it’s more and more frequent.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: And I would even venture to say that Uber has taken it even a step further.

Paul: And there’s Uber — Facebook updates constantly.

Rich: Facebook updates constantly.

Paul: You know what’s weird —

Rich: Messenger updates constantly.

Paul: When you see that view of all the apps that wanna update, and you’re like, “I did this two days ago!”

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And there’s like 24 apps…

Rich: Well they’re just happening now automatically, too.

Paul: They just wanna get in there.

Rich: If you turn it on, like, I think they just update

Paul: Right.

Rich: And Uber, I think, takes it a step further. There are definitely portions of the Uber app that don’t even need the update.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: They’re just…either they built a functionality and it’s sitting latently, and through their servers they can flip switches.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: So the update isn’t even there. I’ll give you an example: Uber was trying to expand its fleet in New York City.

Paul: OK.

Rich: And de Blasio wasn’t having it. De Blasio’s the current mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio.

Paul: Kind of not an Uber fan.

Rich: Not an Uber fan. Most mayors, I don’t think, they sort of grapple with Uber, but it’s a challenge for them.

Paul: Right.

Rich: And they went on a bit of a campaign to convince New Yorkers, essentially, or Uber users, to complain to New York City. And what happened was, if you opened the Uber app…Uber provides a few different riding options. There’s Uber, uberXL for a larger vehicle, there’s UberBLACK for a town car.

Paul: UberPOOL for lots of people at once.

Rich: UberPOOL. So they added de Blasio as an option, and if you tapped on it, you got the chance to write City Hall, if I’m not mistaken.

Paul: OK.

Rich: And so you just had to, you had to just do it in the app and they took care of it. Either sending paper or bombarding their email. And if I’m not mistaken — I know for a fact, whether it’s this one or another one, those kinds of features get flipped on and off on Uber all the time.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: They’re experimenting. I think, look, the motivations are clear. One is, let’s learn.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Like, we are no longer the end users. We are the focus groups. So they’re learning, they’re taking data, like Facebook does this incredibly well. They love to get, gather that usage data and understand more about what we like and don’t like. The problem is, they’re moving stuff around all the time and you get comfortable. Look, here’s the thing about interface and user experiences: even though it might not be the best, we get good at it.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: And we get good and proficient at it, it feels really good to users. Users like to get good at something.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: Even things that are poorly designed, sometimes we just get good at them. And we don’t want you to touch it anymore, because I invested the time to get good at it.

Paul: Well this is, this is a rich part of the history of software, right? Like, WordPerfect was a word processor that had all these command codes, and it had a little overlay on the keyboard.

Rich: That’s right.

Paul: And you got really, really good at them if you used it all the time, and that was a kind of mastery. Because it wasn’t obvious, it wasn’t intuitive.

Rich: It was a true skill.

Paul: It was. It — and legal secretaries used WordPerfect all the time, because it was really good at legal footnoting.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: And that was a part of the job, was being masterful at like —

Rich: That’s right.

Paul: Revealing the codes, fixing the issues —

Rich: Yup.

Paul: It was — it was more akin to programming, in some ways, than typical word processor usage.

Rich: It really was.

Paul: But then as Word and then a graphical user interface comes along, those skills are much less relevant.

Rich: Correct.

Paul: And it’s — that’s been the, every five years there’s a new thing, where your talent at a particular platform or toolkit becomes irrelevant. You can see that in programming, too.

Rich: Yes. And look, there is one card that they can always use, which is security.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: Like if there is a security issue out there and they need to plug it up, they need to plug it up.

Paul: Well that’s every Apple update, right? Like, “Improving your experience on, on Mac OS.”

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And they’re just like, “Oh, no, it’s more secure!”

Rich: Improving your security and…yeah, all of that.

Paul: It’s always like, Bug 475.

Rich: You’re kind of frightened. You’re like, “Oh God, let me get this…”

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Right?

Paul: Because Slovenians wanna break in.

Rich: That’s right.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: That’s right. So who’s doing this? Facebook, Facebook Messenger, for a long time, had a GIF button.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: You could tap it and put a GIF into the chat. And like a month ago…six weeks ago from this, from we’re at the end of April right now, when this podcast is being recorded, they took it out. And it freaked me out.

Paul: Oh yeah.

Rich: I went and got the Google keyboard add-on for iOS.

Paul: And Twitter was always putting “Moments” in there, too. You know…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Get that Moments button in. These orgs, like…they just drop it in there.

Rich: What are you doing? I was using this all the time. You took it out. And by the way, two weeks later, it was put back in.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: So whatever they learned, and whatever they saw happen…

Paul: A high-pitched screech arose from the world.

Rich: And they put it back in with a new interface and now it feels more like, there’s like all kinds of Snapchat-y features in it…it just doesn’t sit still. The application does not sit still.

Paul: Can I make a sort of broad observation here?

Rich: Yes.

Paul: OK, so these apps get updated all the time, right? And they come out with their notes, and there’s a little, like, you know, “Good security.” “Improvements to the GIF stuff.”

Rich: Yes.

Paul: So over the last five, ten, but really the last, like, five years, there’s been a tremendous focus, enabled by technologies like GitHub…

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: Which is a website that lets you track all the changes to the source code in a program.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: But there are many similar technologies that let teams work together in a very agile way, put code into the system, and then release the software, which used to get released once a year —

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Every day.

Rich: Well let’s go back in history even more so, right, like if you had Microsoft Word 5.

Paul: OK.

Rich: There was no avenue —

Paul: It came on, like…

Rich: To get you…

Paul: It came on four floppy disks.

Rich: It was a box. You got it from the store.

Paul: Well you would literally mail in a little card that said, “I own this now,” and then they would send you a letter.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Saying like, you know, “Would you like to…” They might actually send you an update disk six months later.

Rich: To do little things, yeah.

Paul: Or they might send you a note, that there’s a new version.

Rich: Correct.

Paul: But it was…you’re talking on the order of 6 months, a year, 18 months between versions.

Rich: Exactly. Down to days. Days where you’re not just getting features that are very subtle, very latent, it doesn’t say, hey, would you like to try the new experience. It just happens, and you just open your app, and it’s just a different thing.

Paul: Well so what’s happened is that app releases, apps are now giant. They represent an enormous sort of surface in our culture. App stores are big, and they drive billions and billions of dollars.

Rich: Right.

Paul: And so app updates, and app news, and things that are happening with apps are kind of aggregate media, like, it’s almost like reading a newspaper every day, when you look at all the things that are happening on your phone…

Rich: Yes.

Paul: To the apps that are installed on your phone. Now we haven’t culturally started to deal with this yet. There’s no way to, like, it’s hard to get a good newspaper about what’s happening on your phone today.

Rich: Correct.

Paul: You have to just kind of intuit, based on, “Oh, Facebook’s up to this.” And people —

Rich: If you’re curious. I think — look, we’re geeks, right? We like to open…

Paul: Well people do report on, like, if Facebook does a big update, they’re like, you know, TechCrunch or somebody will go in and poke around.

Rich: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

Paul: But, or you know, or ArsTechnica or a number of different places keep an eye, but no, there’s hundreds and hundreds of apps. Nobody’s keeping an eye, and there’s no —

Rich: No.

Paul: Really clear disclosure responsibilities here.

Rich: No. Especially it’s a…look, the biggest violation, every so often it happens, and Spotify’s guilty of this: they break it.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: They literally went in, as of this podcast, the iPad version of Spotify, it broke. It still works, it’s just the interface looks like a stretched-out iPhone interface?

Paul: Sure.

Rich: Instead of what they did beautifully for the iPad.

Paul: I mean, Spotify gets up to stuff with its interfaces.

Rich: Spotify… [laughter] is it’s own podcast, man.

Paul: It is such a great tool, and it is such a…

Rich: It’s an amazing service. Let’s park that…

Paul: The data and the service are wonderful, but the interface has always been a bizarre set of compromises that are puzzling to use and every update is an exciting new exploration adventure. [laughter] Defining your playlist…sometimes all the songs you locally mirrored to your phone are gone.

Rich: It’s just…

Paul: I pay more for that than any other app that I use.

Rich: Yeah, it’s a bad scene.

Paul: I pay $120 a year to use it.

Rich: It’s a bad scene.

Paul: But it is a mess.

Rich: I just imagine designers sort of…late at night after a couple bottles of wine saying, “Why don’t we give this a go?”

Paul: Well the Spotify design process is very decentralized.

Rich: Is that true?

Paul: Famously so, yeah.

Rich: OK.

Paul: The web app is built by different teams, and each…the web app is essentially like a lot of little web browsers running at once.

Rich: Right.

Paul: And I think that that, that probably applies throughout the app. So there’s no unified product vision where someone is, like…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: You know, sitting there with a cattle prod saying it must be this way.

Rich: You get the sense that the customs around the web are quite — I feel like, The New York Times is working on a new design. They’re just gonna be very careful about it. You just get the sense that they’re just not gonna drop it on everyone, and they’re not gonna try to drop another one on everyone two weeks later.

Paul: In the past they haven’t, right? They’ve been, like, “Check out a preview,” and then they opt people in…

Rich: It was very…

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Very cautious.

Paul: Yup.

Rich: In stepping forward, and I think, I feel, I think that’s still the case.

Paul: It is and it isn’t. It used to be that any change on anything really required a lot of notification, but I feel that the world’s changed. I think that people are just like, “Ah, they’re gonna hit me in the head with that!”

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: “That’s a pretty big stick! I didn’t expect to get hit in the head with it, but…well, that’s what it’s like.”

Rich: Right. And look, a lot of this is driven by, I mean, there’s no doubt, Facebook is driven by growth…

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: And money, and they have to keep doing stuff!

Paul: Look, people have opinions on Facebook, but I don’t feel a sense of ownership over it. I just feel that they’re gonna give me what they wanna give me.

Rich: Yes. Yes.

Paul: And so I think, like, “Oh, here it is, another 250 MB of BRAAAAAARRRRGH!”

Rich: Right.

Paul: And I guess I’ll use that, God help us, I have to open up Messenger now. Let’s see what they’ve done. What fresh hell has been unleashed.

Rich: Well what they’ve done recently, and has been a big, big part of what’s happened to Messenger, is Facebook hedging against Snapchat.

Paul: Right.

Rich: A huge chunk of new functionality has been poured into Messenger over the last 60 days or so that is essentially Snapchat-y sort of, you know, I can put bunny ears on my head, and write stuff and it just sort of overlays over pictures and all that. It is, if you swipe down the whole instant messenger interface, you get this fancy camera.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: That does all these things, like, that’s how prevalent it is in the experience. And that’s not driven by users saying, “We’d love to have this.” It’s just driven by Facebook saying, “All right.”

Paul: Well what they’re saying is, “We’d love to have this,” meaning, Snapchat.

Rich: Yeah. Yeah, you got a player here that seems to be sucking some of the oxygen, and we’re subject to that.

Paul: Well it’s our oxygen.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Look, here’s what, the point I think to make about all this stuff is that this is a really big world, and it happens all the time, and…it’s actually very, very hard to keep track of. Like, you and I are people who are obsessed with this world, and…

Rich: I can’t keep track of…

Paul: You see glimpses.

Rich: You just hit it on the head two minutes ago, when you said, “I don’t have any control over this.” There is no, there is barely a settings tab in these apps.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: I can’t turn off the Snapchat camera. I can’t turn off or turn on very much

Paul: Well, and everyone will tell you, well that’s not — consumers don’t want settings.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: They want simplicity.

Rich: Right.

Paul: But I, just, it’s fascinating to me that these are experiences that are shared by hundreds of millions of people, and the app updates go out to hundreds of millions of people every day.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And we kind of get them, and figure them out, and just go on to the next thing, like, this is…a part of our culture that everyone’s come to accept. It barely gets media coverage at the level at which, you know, like, if this happened with network TV, like, they moved the news around, and…

Rich: Right.

Paul: You know, or…

Rich: Right, right, right.

Paul: NBC renamed the Nightly News into the Fortnightly News, or whatever the hell, right?

Rich: I think even more dramatically than that. If you, what’s happening here is even more dramatic, which is, like, Lester Holt goes into audio-only.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: And there’s a ticker across the top, and the reports bleed into each other in some new way.

Paul: They brought Dan Rather back, but he’s in a coffin. [laughter] Right, like…?

Rich: That’s the new feature…

Paul: That’s the new feature.

Rich: …of CBS News, right?

Paul: So look, I don’t think, there’s no conclusion we’re getting at here, it’s just that this is another one of those giant mysterious things that is always happening.

Rich: Yeah, and I’m gonna draw a conclusion, I’m gonna draw, not a conclusion —

Paul: Get in there!

Rich: An opinion, an opinion about it, which is, I don’t think it’s good!

Paul: No, it’s not good.

Rich: You’ve got teams of designers that keep fiddling with stuff, and your users, who are trying to become really good at a thing…

Paul: I think they’re just beaten.

Rich: Who’s beaten?

Paul: The users.

Rich: I think that’s right.

Paul: They’re just like, “Ugh…OK.”

Rich: I don’t know what’s coming.

Paul: Here’s another one…

Rich: That’s right, that’s right.

Paul: And I feel like there’s no kind of coverage of this, there’s no story about it that people can talk and complain…you know what doesn’t happen, and this has been a thread throughout my career, there’s no real idea of software criticism in the same way there is of music criticism or film criticism.

Rich: Film…yeah.

Paul: Where it really should be, somebody should be doing, like, an almost art-style review.

Rich: Mmmm.

Paul: Of that Facebook app, from the user’s point of view.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And that should be a beat. And they could, beyond that, I would read that. If it was a really —

Rich: It would be interesting, right?

Paul: Good person, I would follow along on that, you know?

Rich: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: And it’s very hard for that to come together, and…but it’s weird, because there’s just an enormous global pressure, it’s like this weather event…

Rich: I mean, it’s a…

Paul: And we’re…

Rich: Facebook is a monster, and it’s…

Paul: And it’s just gonna rain down on us.

Rich: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. So shifting a bit to the web, I think in the middle of this I complimented the web as being a little more polite, and showing a little more tact in terms of change, right?

Paul: Right.

Rich: So I’m gonna confess something, Paul.

Paul: What?

Rich: I use an ad blocker.

Paul: Yeah, I don’t…I can’t get with that.

Rich: I know, I know. I struggle with it a little bit myself.

Paul: It’s not —

Rich: I pay, I’m not gonna mention which, which publications I pay for, but I pay for a few.

Paul: OK. So do I.

Rich: Not because I want them to remove their ads, but because I think they’re doing something important.

Paul: OK.

Rich: So I pay for a few publications, but we were recently testing a tool that Postlight Labs was putting out. And to test it properly, I needed to turn off the ad blocker for about a week.

Paul: We’re talking about our Bloomberg extension.

Rich: Our Bloomberg add-on, that’s right.

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: It’s a new feature on the Bloomberg app on mobile, and it’s a Chrome add-on. And…

Paul: Available

Rich: Available now!

Paul: For free!

Rich: For free!

Paul: So we built that thing, and you had to look at it and see it working —

Rich: To test it.

Paul: You had to turn off your ad blocker.

Rich: Yeah, I turned off my ad blocker. And I had no idea what an utter disaster it is out there.

Paul: Oh, it’s a hell of a place.

Rich: It’s unbelievable.

Paul: It’s a garbage fest.

Rich: It’s a garbage fest.

Paul: Well you know, this is one of the things: we built an AMP converter at one point, which goes to Google AMP.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: And people have lots of opinions about Google AMP, but Google AMP forces the ads to behave better.

Rich: Yes. That is the belief.

Paul: Like there are paths out of this nightmare.

Rich: There are, and…

Paul: You know, here’s what I —

Rich: There’s enormous, like, these aren’t evil people, right. There’s enormous economic pressure to just keep going and get there.

Paul: Here’s what I would say: I mean, look, what I’m noticing is we’re kind of in a funny moment, where I think that ad tech is what it is, and it is what powers media, and…did you see that the Huffington Post redesigned?

Rich: I did.

Paul: OK. So very nice redesign. Good work. New editor. They call it HuffPost now. Just a very professionally thought-through high-quality piece of work. But one of the observations I have, looking at it, is that there’s nothing drastically new or novel about how the HuffPost works.

Rich: No.

Paul: Its articles…

Rich: It’s actually familiar.

Paul: Yeah, some of the articles are longer. It should be familiar.

Rich: Right.

Paul: It should be comfortable for people to use and read. It should feel like something that’s been around for a while. But what struck me is that even at the early part of this decade, there were more weird things happening with news publications. Infographics were starting to show up —

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: There was more JavaScript —

Rich: A little more playing around.

Paul: And footnotes and annotations and shenanigans, right?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And there was a sense that, um….you know, that publications were going to drive some innovation on the web, and they still do, in lots and lots of ways, but looking at that HuffPost redesign made me think…and honestly, looking at some of the work that we do, where we’re publish — we’re about to launch an old-school global media property, we’re gonna give it a nice new digital look and feel.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: It’s coming out soon. And the work is really good, I’m very proud of it.

Rich: Yes, yes.

Paul: But we are not reinventing the publication.

Rich: No. No.

Paul: And it’s tricky, but at the same time, the type’s good, there’s a grid, there’s a real understanding of quality.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: There’s a lot of incredibly complex interactions between the different elements on the page, and dynamically arranging them so that they, they look good and operate well. Like there’s all this very subtle stuff.

Rich: It’s really nice, yeah.

Paul: Getting the line spacing right, and that’s what publishing is now.

Rich: Yes. When you describe this, that sort of predictability and sort of the…

Paul: There’s a reading experience that looks a certain way, the pictures look a certain way, things scale up and down really well in the browser or on mobile.

Rich: I gotta tell you, you know what it makes me think of? It makes me think of an assembly line.

Paul: A little bit, except —

Rich: They’re putting out 35 units a day.

Paul: That’s right. And so the design has to support that, but also look really good.

Rich: Yes. Every so often there is a thread that kicks in at The New York Times where they say, “This is a feature piece. I want interactive stuff interspersed within it.”

Paul: Let’s spend some money. Checkbooks come out.

Rich: It needs to feel different, yeah. We should talk about “Snow Fall” for a minute. That’s sort of a landmark…

Paul: That was a big moment. So what The New York Times did, they had a very big piece and it was divided into sections and filled with annotations and videos and the type was superimposed over rotating video.

Rich: Correct.

Paul: You know where I’m seeing some of that desire for innovation and exploration is showing up in 360 degree video and photography.

Rich: VR.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: VR stuff. Yeah.

Paul: That’s, people are getting excited about that as a way to innovate, but I think what I would point out here is that the goal of publishing, or of, sort of, content online right now, is you create this very good somewhat rigid system that looks good at a baseline. I give it a headline and 400 words and ideally a picture?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And it looks pretty good, and it can hold three or four ads.

Rich: And let’s face it, they gotta churn them out.

Paul: They gotta churn them out. And yet, at the same time, there’s a sort of secondary ecosystem of embeddable VR, embeddable video.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Where you can drop these components that could be — that could do anything a computer can do.

Rich: I mean, video, let’s not just gloss over that. This pattern, which you see a good amount of, ESPN does it pretty consistently, of you get to an article, but a video starts playing up top…it literally feels like I went to go read something and then somebody walked up to me and just started yapping in my ear.

Paul: That’s kind of an an anti-pattern, right?

Rich: Like it’s insane, right?

Paul: Twitter’s been throwing little video boxes all over the place, and it makes no sense for Twitter.

Rich: It’s just insanity.

Paul: I don’t…“Oh, hey, I’m here to see what my friends are angry about regarding the Trump administration, but over here is the lacrosse news.”

Rich: And look, we know a little bit about this world, right?

Paul: Right.

Rich: Video ads are incredibly lucrative.

Paul: They’re very profitable.

Rich: Very profitable. So the motivation there is like, OK, I got the guy writing the piece, but let’s just stick 90 seconds up at the top, because I can sell a Cadillac ad for 15 seconds and make really good money on it. That’s real.

Paul: That is correct.

Rich: Right? I do wanna come back to what’s happening to…you pointed out this familiarity and this sort of, these patterns that have emerged. So it’s a little predictable. A little dry.

Paul: Well I guess…another way to put it is, the craft has kind of gotten locked down. Like…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: If you know, if you, because we are practitioners of the same craft, right? Like, there is a way that a really good publication should look and work and feel online, and there’s a norm that has emerged in the last, you know, 20 years, but really a new one that’s kind of shown up in the last 4 or 5 or so, where it’s like, yes, that’s a publication.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: So it was interesting to see HuffPost, which used to be kind of sprawling.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Really all over the place, all kinds of stuff, get its design system locked down, be very clear about kind of what this publication is, and then also see, you know, and there’s room, there’s still room on the web for any kind of embed, any kind of video…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Any kind of 3D you wanna put in, you can still drop that in there.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Right, like, that still works, but we’re approaching a set of norms.

Rich: Yeah. And look, for a lot of people, they don’t know. When you visit an article — we glossed over this earlier — you’re hitting 20, 30, 50 other domains.

Paul: That’s right. There’s two infrastructures. There’s your content management infrastructure, and then there’s like your ad ops, and ad serving infrastructure, which is actually spread and very decentralized.

Rich: It’s incredible.

Paul: You’re doing…

Rich: It’s…

Paul: So the page is assembled from the entire globe.

Rich: Yes. And there are browser add-ons that will show you what else is getting hit. Ghostery is one —

Paul: Ghostery. That’s the big one. Ghostery.

Rich: All the ad blocking, uh…

Paul: Privacy Badger I think is one, too.

Rich: Privacy Badger’s another one. So if you visit HuffPost, you will find you’re also visiting, under the hood, DoubleClick, which isn’t surprising.

Paul: Sure.


Paul: Owned by Google.

Rich: Owned by Google.

Paul: Ah. Polarmobile.


Paul: Oh, starting to get bad real fast.

Rich: Zyrgent.

Paul: That’s probably part of the ZyrgNet network.

Rich: OK. [laughter]

Paul: Oh, because voice one through four were so…challenging.


Paul: Yeah, I take those to help me with my skin. [laughter]


Paul: That’s —

Rich: I’m gonna stop.

Paul: That’s how I rank all my children.

Rich: It’s kind of something.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: It’s kind of something, right?

Paul: Well, there’s 40 more to go.

Rich: There’s a lot more to go. And —

Paul: Why did I write these 40 funny lines about those…

Rich: Is this cool? Is that cool?

Paul: Dude…

Rich: I don’t know.

Paul: You wanna go down…that’s like saying, “Is Uber good?” We’re down the path.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: This is the real world…

Rich: I have to say, I mean, pure, pure, pure user experience, it’s not about just blocking the ads. It’s, like, six to eight times faster.

Paul: Oh, it’s much faster.

Rich: My browser is way faster than yours if I’ve got ad blockers on.

Paul: Yeah, I know, it’s like they’re releasing 20 Saint Bernards every time they open the page and saying, “Go get the paper.”

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I mean, it is not…

Rich: It’s a lot of, it’s a lot of pain. So…I get it. This is a business.

Paul: Everybody’s gotta make —

Rich: Do your thing.

Paul: Gotta make their —

Rich: Gotta make money.

Paul: Fractions of a cent. And it’s, and look, these are sites that are on volume.

Rich: They are. They are on volume. And look, we’re coming back to the unifying theme, which is, what’s happening to the user, right? Whether it be you’re editing that app seven times a month, and fiddling with it, and ruining it for me, or your, you know, 20 to 50 domains are hitting my browser, when I just go, I wanted to read a 600-word article.

Paul: Here’s what I see happening — I’m gonna go real meta for a sec, you read?

Rich: Uh-oh.

Paul: Mmm-K. Design, overall, of publications in media is normalizing around a set of shared assumptions and understandings. There’s a way that sites should look and behave, not just the appearance, but also the, the way that the interactions work, the kind of type, how fast things look.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: And you’re seeing that, and I think HuffPost is just a really good archetypal example of a redesign along those lines.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: And, like, good for them. People should understand that this is praise, to like, to get to that point of familiarity and respect.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: That’s praise. I think the ad networks will catch up. I think that they have been running in 5,000 different directions, and then as things are stabilizing and stuff like Google AMP starts to put pressure on the ad networks to conform and behave in different ways?

Rich: Yes.

Paul: That more consistent, less utterly-destructive-to-the-page experience ad products will show up, and there’ll be things happening with money that make it possible for everything to work together a little better.

Rich: I agree with this.

Paul: Because.

Rich: I think eventually they’re gonna have to pay the price.

Paul: Well it will increase the velocity of page load. You’ll get more traffic, more attention, more engagement.

Rich: Yeah. That’s just not the way they think today.

Paul: No, and I mean, the other thing for me is I just look at ads as the worst poss — I mean, it’s here, I can deliver anything a computer can do in a dynamic environment that is globally distributed. Great. Here’s a picture of a tampon.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I mean, it’s just, or some deodorant, or…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Like it’s…it’s just some other brand message sort of piled on, or get rid of —

Rich: Piled on, is the word.

Paul: Or get rid of belly fat.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Everything’s just volume. And then, instead you could have these experiences that are quite rich. You could do anything a computer could do, and that’s what we do.

Rich: Yeah. And I, I, I’m hoping…we trend that way. Um, I think it’s one of those that has to get worse before it gets better kind of a thing. I think there needs to be that movement. People just don’t know today.

Paul: Well I think what’s happened is that, like, the stabilizing of the overall media experience gives everybody, like, there’s a common platform emerging, where it’s like, this is what you’re gonna be advertising on.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: Not just some random pages.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: It’s gonna look like, kind of like this.

Rich: Correct. Correct.

Paul: So…this, again, very meta.

Rich: Can I close with a shout-out?

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Medium.

Paul: Yeah, Medium locked it down pretty good.

Rich: Medium, somehow gained the traction and the reach that it gained…well obviously it did it because it was, it was well-funded and had the runway to go and get that territory.

Paul: Well, and they’re still figuring it out.

Rich: And they’re st — and not only that, they went down the ad route, and they said, “You know what? We just don’t want to be this mess.” And they stopped, and they said, “We’re gonna try something else.” And look, I don’t know what that else is, and I know there’s been criticism about it, but what they’re essentially signaling out is, we don’t wanna ad to the problem here. We don’t wanna contribute to the problem. And, and, look, Medium can be exhausting. I get — the messaging in Medium can be exhausting. But —

Paul: I’m an advisor to Medium and this is an incredibly uncomfortable conversation for me. [laughter]

Rich: I just think it’s great that there is somebody out there that is showing growth and the kind of reach that they have without having, you know, magic pillow getting thrown in my face just because I’m reading an article on foreign policy.

Paul: I enjoy using Medium and have had wonderful experiences writing for it and have tremendous collegial experiences with everybody who’s there, as an advisor.

Rich: Hard stop.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Let’s close it on that, Paul.

Paul: All right, Rich.

Rich: This was a venting discussion.

Paul: Well I think that there’s something happening. We didn’t fully nail it down, but there’s something happening.

Rich: Yeah. I’d love to see this get better, and hopefully it’ll get better. This is not one of those things where you can build software to fix software, right?

Paul: No, but I think publishing could lead in unusual ways, and I think we’ll get there.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I think that’s starting to happen in ways that are a little hard to pin down.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: That’s the great thing about podcasts, is that you can just talk for a while, and you don’t have to actually back anything up.

Rich: No. Or do anything about it. You just go home.

Paul: On that note, Postlight is the best product studio that you’re gonna find.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: To do your digital products anywhere in the universe.

Rich: We ship at scale. We build stuff that goes…goes and…blankets the world.

Paul: Speaking of ads. No, you know, we do, we’re very proud of the fact that we ship.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: No matter what, we push really hard to get that thing across the line, into the app store, onto the web. The server’s running, and that is…that is a sort of, we have an orthodox ideology around the fact that if it doesn’t ship, you’re just making it up.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: So if you need to get something actually done, not just ideated, but -ated, I guess — I don’t know, what’s the…made. Shipped.

Rich: Realized.

Paul: Realized. Not ideated, but realized.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: That is what we are about.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: So feel free to get in touch. We’re always glad to hear from you. My name is Paul Ford.

Rich: Rich Ziade.

Paul: We are the co-founders of Postlight, and if you need anything, just get in touch. Give us a good rating on the iTunes store, if you are so in the mood, and we will talk to you soon.

Rich: Have a great week.

Paul: Bye everybody!

Rich: Bye.