The UX of Podcasts—A Critique of Wireframe

Listen to “Adobe's Wireframe Podcast and the Need to Create Brand IP, Not Just Content” on Spreaker.

The logline for the podcast “3 Clips” plants the show firmly in meta territory: it bills itself as “a podcast for marketers who podcast.” If you don’t consider yourself a marketer or someone interested in the meta-narrative of marketing then you may have a less than enthusiastic reaction. But that pitch actually belies the rich insight that “3 Clips” offers anyone who just enjoys podcasts or is curious about their production, whether marketing-oriented or not. Even better: the most recent episode breaks down an episode of “Wireframe,” the podcast about design that I’ve hosted for two seasons now.

The basic hook of “3 Clips” is: take an episode of a podcast like “Wireframe”—that is, a show produced by a brand that is trying to create a compelling listening experience beyond just advertising its wares—and pull it apart to see what works and what doesn’t. The hosts Jay Acunzo and Molly Donovan examine everything from the first impressions that the show generates when each episode starts playing to the style and character of the content to the “defensibility” of the subject matter, and much more.

Described another way, Acunzo and Donovan train a critical lens on the design of podcasts, a concept that I have to admit I was only dimly aware of when I first started working with Gimlet Creative on “Wireframe” about two years ago. It didn’t take long though for me to realize that a good podcast in many ways relies on the same approach that we designers bring to the problems we solve. Both focus on people, on details and sequencing and flow, and both are highly iterative.

That last detail was particularly revealing for me. Gimlet’s approach to audio, as heard on shows like “Reply All,” sounds so relaxed and effortless that it was eye-opening to learn how much revision and reworking go into every recorded minute. Each episode of “Wireframe” went through at least three or four major revisions, with input from everyone on the team, and countless hours of polishing and tweaking.

Just as designers can look at an app or website and see telltale details of the craft that “normal” people are oblivious to, Acunzo and Donovan can effectively x-ray podcasts and identify the intentions hidden beneath the surface. In this episode they cannily pick up on the many editorial structures and subtle audio cues that underpin “Wireframe,” crucial narrative affordances that Gimlet brought to bear.

Acunzo and Donovan also unsparingly appraise the hosting, citing my audio narration as sounding stilted or read rather than spoken, to which I say, “Fair.” Through two seasons of the show, I’ve felt that my own journey has been to get more and more comfortable as a voice, and less and less formal. That has been a struggle for sure, as hosting a show like this is like no other medium I’ve worked in before; it’s meant to be both performative and unassuming, authoritative yet friendly, instructive yet spontaneous. There’s no formula to it except to sound like yourself, but maybe the most engaging version of yourself that you can imagine—casually.

I have to admit, listening to Acunzo and Donovan evaluate my audio skills was only marginally less painful than chewing a mouthful of tacks. But it’s hard to argue with the depth of their insight and the clarity of their assessment. Ultimately what they’re doing is applying incisive, articulate, accessible critical thinking to the podcast form, which is a gift to the medium itself. I learned a master class’s worth of lessons from listening to it, and consider it a privilege that they trained their lens on “Wireframe.”