NPR One: A mostly awesome news party for your ears

npr_oneThe new NPR One app has all the makings to be my new best friend. My favorite news source enters the world of algorithmically personalized streaming media apps! Public broadcasting meets Pandora! Everything a busy, smartphone-enabled NPR addict like me could want, right? Almost. It skips something important on its way to the personalization party.

The user experience begins awesomely enough. After downloading the app, a simple welcome screen invites you to “Press Play!” This cues the friendly voice of NPR regular Guy Raz, who talks you through a few on-boarding hurdles (“Let us use the mic on your phone so you can talk to us” and “You have to log in so we never play the same story twice”) while various UI elements highlight in sync.

Once you log in via Facebook, Google+ or an NPR account, the app picks your local NPR affiliate (KUOW in my case), plays a brief audio branding clip (kind of like a “station ID” only hipper) and launches into the first bit of hand-picked content. While you listen, you can “train” the personalization by flagging each story as “interesting” or skipping it.

Here’s where it felt like the friendly host of this party abandoned me at the bar. Like “Welcome to the NPR party. We’ll start bringing you drinks and appetizers and you just give us a thumbs up or down on each one.” “But, I’d like a …” “Tut tut! Not a word! We’ll figure it out.” In the rush to get me into adaptive feedback mode, they didn’t ask me anything about what I want to hear.

Now, I’ll grant that this is a step up if you’re coming from the traditional on-air broadcast experience. Just turn on the “radio” and start listening, only now you can steer it! But for those already immersed in digital media services (which I expect the app’s early adopters will be), the big draw of digital media is the ability to pick and choose what you want, when you want it, not just tuning in, sitting back and letting the broadcaster drive the experience. That’s what I love about the current NPR News app. I’m sure that over time, NPR One may do a better job of picking those stories than I would, but not inviting any explicit personalization risks annoying an important beachhead audience.

This design choice is all the more surprising given that it’s the norm in streaming music apps, which typically ask you to “seed” the algorithm by picking a few genres or artists. This can be done without sacrificing the app’s super simple user experience. “Tell us what you’re interested in, or just start listening.” Not doing so feels like a missed opportunity to leverage existing listener loyalty and help them “own” the experience from the start. Instead, it feels a bit like you’re a lab rat being dropped into a maze.

But overall, there’s a lot to like here. Some other high points:

+ So far, it’s doing a good job of picking interesting content for me.
+ The blending of local and national content is great. For example, it automatically followed the national newscast with local headlines from KUOW. That’s harder to do in the current NPR News app.
+ News stories are occasionally interspersed with interactive promos for longer stories, which you can hear by tapping a “Listen Now” button.
+ The “Feedback” button takes you to a Facebook group where you can discuss the app with other listeners and folks from NPR. Major kudos for that. If you have a complaint, do them a solid and don’t just post a bad app store review.
+ Apple Watch integration!
+ “Interesting” is a good choice for the positive feedback button. It would be weird to “Like” a story about refugees fleeing their homes.

A few shortcomings or nice-to-have additions:

– It really needs a “Listen Later” button in addition to “Skip.” You don’t want to be down-voting a story just because you don’t want to listen to it right now.
– Some control over story length would be great. Ideally, I would love the app to ask me how long I want to listen for and select a set of stories to fit. Am I walking to the office and want ~15 minutes of news, or am driving out of town and want an hour+ of longer pieces?
– Asking for microphone permission up front is a little bit creepy, and the benefit is not immediately clear.
– Asking for log in right up front is also an unnecessary barrier. Apps can save user preferences and history without this.
– According to other users, the local news experience varies depending on how the station feeds their content to NPR.

I will say that NPR One is growing on me. It’s polished, professional and has personality. I still use the NPR News app when I want to hand-pick stories (and see what I might be missing in NPR One), but when I’m in a hurry, I’ll fire up NPR One. It’s simple, usually picks an interesting set of stories, and occasionally opens my ears to good ones that I wouldn’t have picked. It may not be a perfect party host, but I’ll stick around.