September 22, 2004

A spanner in the search engine

Fellow music dorks in my readership will probably already know that redesigned its interface not so long ago. I'm used to websites deciding that a whole year of having the same design makes them seem dull or something, apparently building on the assumption that the Internet has completely demolished the attention span of the world's population. What they don't understand is that people who get their information from the Internet are the sort of people who memorize keyboard shortcuts so they don't have to waste time using pulldown menus -- at least, that's my broad generalization, and I'm sticking to it. It's true for me, anyway, and that's all that matters.

What this means is that every time a site redesigns itself, I have to relearn how to use the site. If it's a site I visit with any regularity, I've built up a lot of habits. So my initial response to any redesign is always negative. That's why I've waited a while before deciding exactly how I feel about the new AllMusic site. And how I feel about it is this: If it were a flaming suppository filled with poison, Satan would hesitate (for fear of being too cruel) to stick it up anyone's ass except Hitler's.

Perhaps I exaggerate. But I really do hate it. Here is one reason why.

When I tell the AllMusic search engine to look for an album entitled "You Forgot It in People", one might think the sensible thing to do would be to deliver me to the page that contains a review of that album, instead of bringing me to a search page which suggests that perhaps I am looking for the album "You Forgot It in People", or maybe "With Young People in Mind", or "Got Live if You Want It", or -- who knows -- "Canada: Songs of the Inuit People". Hmmm. I wonder which of those is the album I'm looking for. Thanks for your help, AllMusic.

Posted by Francis at 04:01 PM

Now really. How are you going to broaden your musical horizons if you aren't exposed to alternate choices? (Mind you, this is coming from a guy who thinks he's probably heard something by Yes, but couldn't tell you what or when.)

Posted by: David. at September 22, 2004 05:06 PM

Francis, Francis, you poor naive creature. Allow me to explain how the web development process works.

Step 1: Marketing Fucks It All Up

First of all, the site doesn't redesign itself. There is a lengthy process involving marketing weenies whining at the techies that the site doesn't do what they want, and then the techies get tired of making annoying changes to the site that please only the marketing people, and eventually someone decides that the only way to fix things is to throw the whole thing out. Usually this happens when there's a new logo/identity system, as there appears to be for

Step 2: Marketing Makes a Smart Decision, Then Fucks It All Up

Then what happens, if you're lucky, is that someone hires interaction designers to figure out how the thing should work and how people expect to use it. Assuming this actually happened, then the most likely explanations for the crappiness of the search (and I agree, it is stunningly crappy) are a) the interaction designers sucked, and/or b) the engineers could not or would not implement the good recommendations that the interaction designers made, and/or c) the marketing weenies came through and fucked it all up again.

Step 3: The Techies Fuck It Up Because Marketing Has Fucked It Up

The techies desperately try to meet the marketing weenies' increasingly hopeless and arbitrary deadline. They do this by cutting out "useless" features like "not showing pointless 'were you looking for ...' suggestions when it is blatantly obvious that you have the right answer in the database."

Step 4: Site Launch, aka Panic, aka Marketing Takes All the Credit

In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to meet the unreasonable deadline, the techies band-aid over everything they can and hope no one will notice. Marketing, because they are technical ignorami, doesn't notice any of the flaws. Also, they never bothered to read the helpful feature specification from the interaction designers, so even if there were an incredibly helpful and critical feature missing, e.g., a decent search results UI, they won't know. The site launches and Marketing receives much praise for all their hard work from the CEO. The techies are thanked in the postscript to the email.

Step 5: People Notice the Site Is Fucked Up

You're in this state right now, so you know how it feels.

Step 6: Marketing Notices the Site Is Fucked Up

But they don't fix anything. Not for a long, long time. At least not until it's time to go back to Step 1.

Posted by: debby at September 22, 2004 05:24 PM

Even better than the lame search engine is the fact that if you're reading a review and see a link to another album, clicking on that link also brings you to the search engine results screen instead of delivering you directly to the album referred to in the review. That's just intolerable.

Of course, to get to that review in the first place, you will have had to click on the "Discography" tab once you got to the artist you were looking for (and perhaps clicking on one of the subhead tabs if the album you were looking for was a compilation, for instance). Of course, that's only sufficient to read the first few sentences of the review. To read the rest, clicking "more" is required, because of course it's much more convenient to make all your readers click an extra link than to have the track listing appear several lines lower on the screen.

Posted by: Francis at September 22, 2004 05:41 PM

Apparently MT ate my last response yesterday. Oh well, here it is again.

There's a reason why the link to the album brings you to the search engine page: laziness. Someone, probably one of the engineers, decided that making a database call to the search engine to find the right album was functionally equivalent to sending people to the album page. WRONG, buddy. That's a convenient approach from a programming point of view, but a crappy one from a usability point of view.

I blame Marketing for the second problem, though. Odds are some weenie found a site that used JavaScript to display more content on the same page when the user clicked a "more" link. Said weenie thought this was a nifty-cool thing and insisted that it be used on the site regardless of whether it in fact served user needs. (These are usually the same weenies who insist, incorrectly, that people won't scroll through text pages. Dude, it's 2004, not 1994. True, most people still don't grasp horizontal scrolling, and true, you should have your most important information in the first "screenful," but people will scroll if the content is compelling.)

Now, what's interesting to me from a technical point of view is that they used a non-JavaScript way to implement the "more" feature. Nice for those people who don't use JavaScript, but it's still a pointless addition to the site, and now you've wasted engineering time building something pointless.

Speaking of pointless, please don't get me started on the alternative nav system floating up near the logo. Just don't.

Posted by: debby at September 23, 2004 09:19 AM

Tell me more about the alternate nav system, Debby! (^_^)

Posted by: Francis at September 23, 2004 10:31 AM

Aaaaah, bite me, Francis ;-)

Okay, the alternative nav system: this kind of UI has been floating around for years, actually. I first saw something like it at the Media Lab in the late 90's. It was pretty interesting then, but more as a toy to display relationships between navigational items than as a useful navigation device itself. Try using a search engine like or searching for "visual web maps" (or something like that) to find more examples of how this kind of approach is used.

The reason this spinning thing bugs me is that like the "read more" feature, it's there because it's a shiny object some Marketing magpie picked up somewhere. All it's doing is providing links to toolbar items that their designers couldn't figure out how to shove onto the page. That's not good user interface design; that's laziness. Between designers who couldn't be bothered to figure out how to incorporate the "explore by" feature into the page, and marketers who insist in Flash (in this case, literally) over substance, you get Bad Design.

Posted by: debby at September 23, 2004 11:34 AM

The "new, improved" would not even run on our iMacs at work. We did not appreciate losing a major pop music reference source. A complaining E-mail to allmusic received no reply.

Meanwhile, we've gotten new eMacs and allmusic does work. But I still don't like the upgrade.

Posted by: En at September 23, 2004 01:20 PM

En, I've been accessing on my PowerBook G4 (aluminum model, running OS 10.3.5) without difficulty. If your iMacs were old enough to still be running OS 9, I could see that you'd be having loading issues.

Posted by: debby at September 23, 2004 01:40 PM