Podcasts: an alternative, not a replacement

This post is another of the reasons why I have been ignoring this blog: I struggled to get into podcasts at all. According to this “learning styles” test (which may or may not mean anything), I should not be averse to receiving my information in an auditory/verbal format — I fall right in the middle of the verbal/visual scale (and indeed, I often listen to the TV while I am surfing the net, cook while talking on the phone, and listen to music at work). And yet, somehow, podcasts feel cumbersome and inconvenient. Nonetheless, I managed to find this podcast describing usability testing methods and when to use them (mp3, time unknown — less than 10 minutes, size unknown), and this one about folksonomies, taxonomies and metadata (an interview with Karen Loasby from the BBC — mp3, 18 minutes and 20 seconds, 8.6MB), both from the User Experience Podcast.

So why did I find podcasts so hard? For me, I think the problem is affordances (the properties of an object that dictate what you might do with it). Podcasts are hard to search for, and it is almost impossible to tell before you listen to a podcast from an unknown creator whether you will find it interesting or not (partly because the blurbs written about podcasts are near-universally unhelpful). Of course, if I were using podcasts “correctly” (i.e. finding ones I liked and subscribing to them) this would not be such a problem but I don’t have time to listen to podcasts — and this is another affordance problem: I can read very, very quickly, and I would absorb most of the information in a podcast much faster from reading it than listening to it. What’s more, if I am listening while I sit in front of a computer, I am inclined to attempt to do other work while listening, and then I lose the thread of the podcast.

Away from the computer, though, I could believe that podcasts might come into their own; in theory I could download interesting radio shows or documentary podcasts onto my shuffle and listen to them at a time of my choosing — even away from the internet (for me, the example that springs to mind is while travelling in a car — I get very carsick if I read as a passenger). Podcasts are also useful where they contain information that users already know exists — podcasts of lectures would make a great alternative to lecture notes for visually impaired students, or those with reading difficulties, or those who simply learn better from auditory material. They could also be a lightweight way for me to catch up on the things I necessarily miss at conferences because something I want is going on in another room — these “known item” uses sidestep the search problem.

So in terms of user experience, when are podcasts a good idea?

  • When your users generally have a high speed internet connection, because podcasts are much larger than text files and users hate waiting for content to download
  • Only if you are prepared to label each with a good blurb, length, and file size
  • When the content is something that natively appears in an auditory format, such as lectures, radio broadcasts, conference presentations, concerts, etc.
  • When you know you have users who find text hard to access, and you want to offer an alternative to a screen reader
  • When your users already know your content exists so they don’t have to search for it using a non-google search interface (while iTunes’ podcast search is fairly effective it also means downloading and installing 3rd party software, which your users may not be able to do at work, or in the lab, for example).
  • When you are doing it purely for your own enjoyment, and (like so many bloggers) don’t really mind what audience you have, if any.

Used well, podcasts can almost certainly make for better user experiences for students, conference-goers, radio-listeners and the like, however for vital information, they should be an alternative way to get information, not the only way. And me? I think I prefer to read my blogs, thanks anyway.

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