Sonos: A Lack Of Product Thinking

Working in Product you develop a sixth sense when it comes to certain things – perhaps a combination of experience and instinct, but also an ability to read between the lines – particularly for product launches and updates.

So it was a few weeks ago when I saw a Reddit thread detailing serious accessibility issues with Sonos’ new revamped app, then still in beta. It set off that nagging feeling of something strange – a company which prides itself in being the market leader, with strong, stable products and brilliant usability, not considering something so fundamental in Product Design?

Jump forward to today and the picture is much clearer, with Sonos’ forced app update disaster making the media site front pages, and indeed that beta feedback completely ignored.

Users woke up to a brand new Sonos app with completely new UI and UX, and which broke many people’s systems and removed several keys features from the previous version. Some quite serious, as mentioned above, and others laughable, such as not being able to to turn off ringing alarms without cutting the power to their speaker.

Sonos’ response? Unbelievably, doubling-down, and a disastrous AMA.

So what to think of it all? It’s impossible to say whether it is a result of incompetence or arrogance in Sonos’ Product team, or simply stakeholder pressure. Given the size of the company you would think the latter.

The reason for my nagging sense of unease, though, came from a longer suspicion. For a while it has felt like Sonos has slightly cheapened their product range, and cut corners as they push for new markets and more users. One notable example was the decision to leave SonosNet (the company’s flagship mesh networking system) off of the newest Era models, which set off a definite red flag.

To be fair to Sonos, we’ve been here before when moving from their S1 to the S2 app, and on the whole, they dealt with it very well. The change had plenty of warning, very clear documentation, and, crucially, the option to keep using the old app instead. The S2 app was far from perfect, and certainly not modern in terms of design or UX, but it did work.

The events of this week, for most users with automatic app updates turned on, were unexpected – completely overwriting the existing app with no return. Again, that feels deliberate; there’s no way someone in the Sonos Product or Marketing teams didn’t suggest doing an in-app warning, email campaign, or even a completely new app release. Somebody, somewhere in the hierarchy, chose force instead.

As for the accessibility saga, Jonathan Mosen has been detailing it day by day. And it’s actually this that pushes the whole story over the edge for me. It’s one thing to remove key features, but to knowingly disadvantage a huge section of users with crucial accessibility needs is not only unprofessional, but also morally wrong.

Having slowly amassed a fair collection of Sonos’ speakers in most rooms over the years, I was looking forward to adding to them with a turntable, Era, and their new headphones (which, ironically, many are speculating could be the cause of these issues).

For now, that’s on hold while we wait and see if Sonos remember that premium products require premium Product decisions.