Researcher & Designer

January – April, 2022

Dr. Chris Elsden (Supervisor)

Design Informatics, University of Edinburgh


Motivation & Initial Problem
I really enjoy podcasts and not only listen to them almost every day, but also try to produce my own podcasts. I have many friends who have their own independent podcasts. Podcasts are a very typical example of the “long tail” market, with their large number and diverse topics, reaching many different niche consumer groups. However, there are still many challenges for podcasters, especially independent podcasters, who want to make a financial profit.

While advertising is currently the most dominant way of monetisation:

1. A study published by MediaRadar in 2021 reported that the top 5 podcast companies captured a third of all podcast ad revenue in the US, suggesting that the wider independent podcast community receives very limited income from advertising, and indeed, research by Freja et al. points out that independent podcast hosts rarely get financial rewards from their work.

2. Most advertisers focus on standard metrics, which can obscure the personal and unique nature of independent podcasters, resulting in their true strengths and value being undervalued.

3. Independent podcasters are also freelancers, most of whom do not have sufficient commercial experience and skills and have weak bargaining power.

4. Advertising does not provide a stable income and can compromise creative freedom.

Data source:  MediaRadar

While Apple Podcasts and Spotify have launched paid subscriptions to some of the top podcasts in 2021, most independent podcasters still need to use third-party platforms or tools. And the challenge of paid subscriptions is also clear:

1. Due to cognitive lock-in, consumers have long considered content on the internet to be free, and it is difficult to quickly develop the habit of paying for content.

2. The threshold for paid subscriptions would inevitably lead to the loss of a large proportion of listeners, which would conflict with the open nature of podcasts and limit their ability to reach a more diverse audience.

In response to the above problem, I wanted to work with hosts and listeners to explore new ways for independent podcasters to monetise their podcasts.
Design Opportunity & Object
Some research on host-listener relationships provides the initial design opportunity for this problem:

1. Podcasts are considered to be a ‘pull’ medium, with listeners having very strong initiative over what content they choose to consume.

2. Most people listen to podcasts when they are alone, which creates a deeply personal and private intimate space for podcast consumption. In addition, many researchers and podcasters argue that one of the most important features of podcasts is intimacy, bridging the gap between physically distant hosts and listeners.

3. However, mainstream podcast platforms, such as Apple Podcast and Spotify, have failed to provide enough effective and diverse ways for hosts and listeners to interact with each other, and there has been very limited exploration of monetising podcasts.

This project, therefore, is an exploratory study aimed at designing an innovative transactional/interactive tool for hosts and listeners that reflects or enhances the connection between them and in turn helps podcast creators to gain financial support from listeners.

Also, to explore the possibilities of the relationship between hosts and listeners and how this relationship will affect listeners’ willingness to pay.
Research & Design Process
1. Secondary Research, understand the background.

2. Identify specific research questions.

3. Ideation & design.

4. User interviews, based on Provotypes (Provocative Prototypes).

5. Analyse data, gain insights and answer research questions.

6. Further design suggestions.
Understand Background Through Secondary Research
Parasocial Relationship
The unique intimacy of podcasts has led to the development of a ‘seemingly face-to-face relationship’, i.e. the listeners develop an intimate sense of connection with the hosts psychologically, but the hosts do not.

This has advantages in terms of advertising and marketing. The listeners have loyalty to the host, and the hosts are highly persuasive to the listener.

But it can also develop into a burden for the hosts. Listeners know a lot about the hosts and consider them their friends, so they will demand more responses and even intrude on the hosts’ lives. This is an issue worth considering when making designs.

Creative Transaction
The Creator Economy and Special Digital Monies

Podcasts are an important part of the Creator Economy, and this economic model, which relies on internet technology, has given rise to Special Digital Monies that can be used not only for trading but also have the potential to develop different social meanings, such as new relationships between creators and audiences. For example, in the ‘Break Kickstarter’, backers can creatively participate in the creative process of some projects by pledging money, for example to influence the length of a novel or contribute content to form a collective artwork. Another example is the Red Envelopes in WeChat, which is not only money but also represents a blessing in China.

A collective art project on ‘Break Kickstarter’.

Chinese parents receive WeChat Red Envelopes from their son. Resource: China Daily

Programmable Money

An example of programmable money is from Monzo and IFTTT, which offer users the freedom to create automated rules that connect their online accounts to other digital services in both directions. For example, users can set up savings pots for different spending purposes, automatically moving £4 out of the coffee savings pot after buying a cup of coffee, or playing a song on Spotify if they spend at a specific time (e.g. after 9pm).​​​​​​​

Monzo integrates IFTTT to provide a new service.

Ways to Interact With Podcasts
Limited attempts by mainstream platforms

Spotify and Apple Podcasts offer very limited interactive tools for hosts and listeners, with only the ability to rate or review, and only for entire shows, not for individual episodes of content.

In terms of monetising podcasts, Apple Podcasts and Spotify both offer paid subscriptions, where listeners pay for early access or more exclusive content. While Spotify also charges listeners for subscriptions with a pay-to-go advertising service, this revenue is only allocated to musicians and not to podcast hosts.

Himalaya, an audio content platform in China, has introduced a monetary incentive (reward) feature similar to that of live streaming platforms.

Emerging ways to interact

Voice interface: Yang et al. found that users consume more slowly, explore less, and select fewer long-tail items when interacting via voice compared to visual. The researchers further explained that the voice interface has narrow information channels and does not allow for skimming and scanning.

Instant interaction with live audio: Newly released in late 2021, Fireside, which combines live audio and podcasts, allows listeners to instantly give feedback with emojis, ask questions or comment. But will listeners look at their phones while listening? Do users want to give instant feedback on the podcast?

Visual interface vs. voice interface for interacting with podcasts. Source: Understanding user interactions with podcast recommendations delivered via voice

Fireside, live audio and instant feedback.

Research Questions
Main research questions:

1. What are listeners’ attitudes towards paying for podcasts? In what ways are they willing to pay for podcasts?

2. What are the possibilities for listener-host relationships?

3. What kinds of interactions could reflect or enhance the listener-host relationship? Can enhancing this relationship influence their willingness to pay?​​​​​​​
Ideation & Design
In the design, I wanted to provide more innovative ways for listeners and hosts to interact, especially ways for listeners to pay for hosts. The aim is to create a better connection between hosts and listeners and to encourage listeners to pay for podcasts.

Referring to Ideation in Service Design
In the book This is Service Design Doing, Ideation is described as an evolving, non-stop process rather than a stand-alone step. It does not aim to find a killer idea, but rather to ‘mix, reorganise, filter and refine’ from the large number of ideas generated at different stages, and the process is not done in one go but may be cycled several times.

As an exploratory study, this philosophy has guided my design and research process, i.e. Ideation is present throughout the project, from start to finish. Even at the end of the project, the idea of a transactional/interactive tool for podcasts was still not fully defined. The insights from the participants’ feedback during the design evaluation were still generating and refining new ideas that would lead to further iterations.

Three Phases of the Design Process
1. Generation (divergence): ‘How might we ...?’

2. Development (integration): Ideation Deck.

3. Making provotypes: create provocative prototypes in the form of ‘concept cards’ for user interviews.

The overall ideation & design process. Each stage and the corresponding method.

Generation – ‘How might we ...?’

Ideation Deck – list examples under each category considered.
Ideation Deck – list examples under each category considered.
Ideation Deck – select examples and conceive design ideas.
Ideation Deck – select examples and conceive design ideas.

Development – Ideation Deck

Making provotypes, in the form of ‘concept cards’ for user interviews.

Provotypes For User Interviews
During the user interviews, these concept cards containing design ideas were presented to the participants. These ideas can be provocative and radical for users — they either have a very different way of interacting, or they challenge preconceived notions of consumption, so I call them ‘provotypes’. Through illustrations and text, I wanted to communicate my design ideas to participants, stimulate their thinking, gather their ideas, and understand their views on key issues relating to host-listener relationships and payment.

When presenting these ideas to the participants, I set up a specific scenario — users who enjoy listening to podcasts and have some willingness to pay are often faced with the problem: they have several podcast hosts they want to support but have a limited budget, and these design ideas can help them allocate that budget.

In practice, the majority of participants agreed with this and can therefore imagine themselves using these products quite smoothly. For participants with a very low willingness to pay, I asked them to imagine themselves being given a small amount of money (e.g. £10 per month) and then to think about using these products to allocate that money.

A general question was used as a background to help the interviewer easily imagine these designs.

Most of the design idea was to explore when and how listeners would want to pay for the host.
And correspondingly, new ways in which the hosts could receive support from and interact with their listeners are as below.
User Research Based on Provotypes
Process of the User Interviews
1. Before the interview, provotypes in the form of concept cards were presented to the participants.

2. During the interview, participants were first asked some general questions about listening to the podcast, paying for it, and interacting with the hosts.

3. Afterwards, participants selected the designs they were interested in, evaluated them, and discussed specific questions around them. Some representative questions are as follows:

(a)  When do listeners want to pay for podcasts?

(b)  In what ways do listeners want to interact with and pay for the podcasts?

(c)  Can emotional moments and behaviours while listening be used as triggers for payment?

Who are the Participants?
10 potential users, comprising 7 listeners and 3 hosts, of whom 2 are native English speakers and 8 are native Chinese speakers.

The goal is to have as diverse a group of interviewees as possible in order to obtain a variety of perspectives from which potential design and research directions can be identified.

Analysis Methods
Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) select personalised experiences and perspectives to generate mini-biographies.

Thematic Analysis find and summarise insights under 9 key themes.
Participant A
Participant A
Participant B
Participant B
Participant C
Participant C
Participant D
Participant D
I began by making each interviewee’s narrative a mini-biography. It differs from Personas in that it is not intended to summarise the shared characteristics of grouped users, but rather to find the unique experiences and perceptions of individuals. These mini-biographies reflect the diversity and personality of the participants and provide the basis for the conclusions and insights that follow.

Points of view selected from mini-biographies of participants.

Findings From the Interviews
Listening Experience

1. What to listen? Participants listen to a higher proportion of independent podcasts in Chinese, while almost all of the English podcasts they listen to are produced by professional companies. In fact, less than half of English podcast listeners listen to independent podcasts, according to research published in 2020.

2. How to listen? Participants mostly listen to podcasts when they are alone and usually use headphones. Only four of them indicated that they also listened to podcasts in the car or at home with family or friends.

All participants agreed that they usually listened to podcasts while doing something.

3. Why to listen? Gain knowledge and information; A quick overview of a new topic; Look forward to hearing host’s personalised perspectives and opinions.

Host-Listener Relationships

1. The majority (9) of participants felt a sense of empathy or connection with the hosts from time to time when listening to podcasts. 7 participants had a desire to interact or had interacted with the host, but they also felt that the urge to interact (including paying) easily faded. Commenting on episodes was the most common way of interaction, but Spotify and Apple Podcast do not offer this feature.

2. Hosts recognise the business value inherent in this relationship, but some feel that it is difficult to see these listeners as target users if they interact a lot and invest a lot of emotion with them.

3. Podcasts were more intimate than other content mediums, such as short clips, music and blogs. Listeners will focus more on the people when listening to podcasts, rather than simply consuming the content.

The six podcast listening tools used by participants in the study differed in terms of type, notable features (focusing on interaction) and ways to help monetise podcasts.

Paying Behaviours and Motivations

1. Participants have a very clear need and expectation to pay for music or video streaming and tend to pay up front, while for podcasts they tend to pay later, or try them out for free before deciding whether to subscribe.

2. There are two different motivations when it comes to paying for podcasts.

Donation — out of love for the hosts and to support them in their continued creation. This mindset can easily develop into long-term support for the hosts, i.e. a ‘membership subscription’. While a ‘membership subscription’ gives listeners access to some exclusive content and benefits in return, participants felt they weren’t really that important.

Reward — out of love for a particular piece of content. Paying for the good takeaways from it.

What Affects Willingness to Pay?

1. Individual differences. Podcast listeners are very diverse.

2. Whether it is an independent podcast. Whether the host has a consistent and stable income.

3. Past consumption experience. Podcasts are considered as an alternative to radio, which is usually free, so podcasts should be too.

4. Paying/interacting experience. Easy and painless interaction is important, as the willingness to pay is actually fleeting.

5. Quality of content. Good content that ‘exceeds expectations’ will drive listeners to pay even if they have not yet formed a strong connection with the hosts.

Evaluation and Feedback on the Design
The design evaluation in the interviews allowed me to answer the following questions.

Is It Reasonable to Set a Budget First?

Most participants had not considered or did not care about a budget, mainly because they had not yet spent a lot of money on the podcast.

But they felt they actually had a vague budget subconsciously about how much they intended to spend, and were receptive to the ‘set a budget first’ rule in the context of a scenario built by a particular design solution that triggered payment through an emotional moment.

Do These Designs Enhance the Connection Between the Listen- ers and the Hosts?

The personal, emotional interactions in provotypes are indeed thought to enhance engagement when listening to podcasts, as well as the connection between listeners and hosts.

Some participants prefer to keep interactions as simple as possible, such as expressing only one or two positive emotions, while adding a customisable emotion.

What Factors Influence the Willingness to Interact?

1. Podcast listening tools or platforms. Spotify and Apple Podcast do not offer commenting and interaction features, and their users are also less willing to interact than those who use Chinese podcast platforms with commenting features.

2. Forms of interaction. Convenient and relaxed forms of interaction with a little bit of distance are most popular, such as emoji or text. Voice is considered too private and ineffective by most users.

3. Usage scenarios and habits. Interacting with headphones is the most popular. Users who frequently use their voice to interact with smart speakers do not consider using their hands to interact with the speaker to be in line with their usage habits.

4. Cost. This includes the money spent on buying new devices, as well as the time and effort spent learning to use them.

What can be used as a trigger for listeners to pay?

1. Length of listening: It doesn’t make sense, as the length of listening does not accurately reflect how much one likes or values the podcast.

2. Emotional moments. Most people are positive about this. But many also see paying as a decision that takes a while to make. For these participants, certain emotional moments can act as a trigger, but do not necessarily lead to paying. They believe that these emotional moments, recorded in some form, can slowly accumulate and turn into more powerful emotions: love or admiration for the hosts, guilt after enjoying a free show for a long time, or a valuable memory to look back on later. These will form the motivation for long-lasting loyalty and support for the anchor.

3. Concerns about the triggering methods. Firstly, paying by button is considered to be too simple and could lead to overpayment. Secondly, paying when pre-defined conditions are met by detecting locations or other data raises privacy concerns for some participants.
Future directions for design & research
Rediscovering the meaning of payment
Paying can have a variety of meanings, such as altruism, expressing self-identification, or satisfying a social need. A unique badge or code may be an incentive for listeners to pay. 

For the host, knowing why the listener is paying is important feedback and incentive for them, so if the listener can accompany the payment with a few comments, the payment can also take on a new meaning.

Seamless and painless experience
Many ways, not just emotional moments, have the potential to act as triggers for paying for podcasts, but the process of paying has to be seamless and painless. The main reason is that the willingness to either interact with or pay the hosts can easily disappear.

In terms of concrete practice, a top-up-and-pay option might reduce the obstacles in the payment process, but getting users to top up in advance may require additional motivation and the right timing.

The value of long-term records will eventually come
For users who need a period of time to sink their teeth into a particular podcast and are more thoughtful about paying for it, it can be valuable to record some long-term sentimental metrics.

They may be active, including likes, comments, etc., or other more emotional feedback. They may also be passive, including the length of time spent listening, when they usually listen, etc. As an asynchronous, highly personal ‘slow medium’, these long-term records can lead to very deep reflections and interactions, and ultimately to long-lasting loyalty from listeners to the anchor.

Monies can be programmable but must be controllable
Some of the possibilities of programmable monies are explored in this project. Through programming, listeners can have more fun with personal control, configuration and expression over payment behaviour, but some of the rules that automatically trigger payments, even if they are pre-set by the user, can be worrisome to them. How to balance automation and control requires further research.

Listener-to-listener relationships
I gained a wealth of valuable insights from the interviewees, one of which was very unexpected, that the sense of engagement also benefited from the involvement of other listeners.

This idea may seem to contradict the idea that ‘podcasting is a highly personal medium that is often listened to in solitude’, but in fact the sense of engagement that some listeners want may be a sense of community, a feeling of being with people who share common interests, rather than a real interaction with other listeners. Thus, we could further interview listeners who are highly engaged in the podcast community — such as those who join the podcast’s social media groups — to gain more insight.

The creator-platform tension
Finally, the long-standing tension between creators and platforms is also reflected in my project. Podcasting is naturally a decentralised medium. Hosts can buy their own servers and create their own RSS feeds, or freely choose a podcast hosting provider, but on the other hand, more and more podcast platforms are hosting podcasts and controlling the content. One of the largest podcast platforms, Spotify, still does not offer users the ability to add an RSS feed.

Some participants discuss the design by considering whether these features need to be based on a particular platform. Indeed, features such as commenting, leaving messages to the host, and quickly rewarding them, seem difficult to implement completely off a platform. The possibility of relying on blockchain and other decentralised technologies to provide these services is a direction worth investigating and exploring.

Other Works