In the next few weeks, Rdio is going to disappear. I’ve been a subscriber since 2012, and have used it nearly every day since then. It’s had a huge influence on my design work, and I’m really sad to see it go.
Rdio’s shutdown seemed inevitable — it wasn’t nearly as popular as Spotify, and its product development had been slow the past couple of years. Even so, Rdio’s foundational design for listening to music was excellent — Spotify’s is not nearly as well-considered.
Before it fades away, I want to write down what made Rdio special. I’ve also made screen recordings of the Mac and iPhone apps — who knows, maybe these features will pop up in Spotify or Apple Music someday!
When I joined Rdio in 2012, Spotify was already more popular because of its free tier, but its software was hideous. Rdio had a vastly better interaction, visual, and service design: it was bright, beautiful, and intuitive. Wilson Miner and his team did a wonderful job — the foundational design was so solid that it carried the product for many years.
Rdio’s Visual and Interaction Design
To my knowledge, Rdio was the first major product to successfully adopt the “blurred-glass” look, which appeared in iOS 7 later on.
They also developed the “grab the dominant colors out of the album artwork and use that to tint the interface elements” design, which you can see now in Apple Music and Spotify.
Rdio had a long-press gesture for all the music in the app. Long-press on something, and you get an action sheet that lets you share, queue, or lookup info on the artist / album / song. To this day, I still cherish long-press as an interaction design shortcut.
Rdio’s design was way ahead of its time, like Clear, Tweetbot, or Mailbox. Meanwhile, Spotify was horrendously ugly in 2012, and only recently made headway on their mobile design — largely by aping the design elements that Rdio pioneered.
Rdio’s Listening Experience
Visual and interaction design are great, but with music apps, it can be argued that the main interface is the play/pause/next buttons on your earbuds.
What makes for a great listening experience?
- Discovery: Find new music and stretch your tastes.
- Play Later: Build a queue to keep the music going.
- Favorites: Collect and revisit your music.
- Get Started: Quickly start things up when you launch the app.
- Playback: Is it easy to change a song? Resume playback?
Discovery: Trending Among Friends
Find a few folks with good taste on Rdio, follow them, and Rdio’s Trending interface became super helpful. So many services just focus on the “Top Charts”, which means “here’s a ton of crap pop you might tolerate, but probably won’t cherish.” What made Rdio amazing was that it would show you what was trending among the people you follow. Meanwhile, it’s 2015 and neither Spotify nor Apple Music have this Albums-That-Are-Trending-Among-My-Friends interface.
Every music service has Stations, but what made Rdio’s so special was a little slider at the top that adjusted the “adventurous-ness” of the station. If you started a station from an artist, you could say “only play songs from the artist’s catalog” — or slide it to adventurous and find something new. If you started a station from your Favorites, you could say “only play songs from my Favorites” — or slide it to Adventurous and find a big mix of things that might suit you.
Recommendations were pretty great, too: they’d explain why something was recommended to you, and show which friends had listened to the album. I’m pretty sure the recommendations were tinted by who you followed — an excellent product decision.
Rdio’s station engine was built on Echonest, which Spotify acquired in early 2014. It was a definite blow to Rdio, and a boon to Spotify’s irresistible Discover Weekly feature.
There’s an endless catalog of music in a streaming service — so why should the music stop just because you got to the end of your queue? With Rdio, the music kept going through Autoplay, by auto-starting a station based on what was just playing. The “adventurous” slider (from the Stations feature) was at the top of the screen, too.
Autoplay allowed you to play an album and let the robots keep the songs going — which meant that having background music for working or cooking was effortless. Autoplay was fantastic, and even today, nobody else has anything like it. When you get to the end of your queue on Spotify or Apple Music, the music cuts and all you hear is silence — which is a total mood-killer.
Listening Experience: Play Later
Rdio’s playback queue was vastly superior to Spotify’s. It was a wonderful companion to Discovery, it synced across devices, and was simple to use.
One core component of a music service’s design: what do you do when you’ve just found an album, you want to check it out, but aren’t ready to add it to your Favorites? With Rdio, you’d just put it in The Queue. My workflow for finding music was something like this: go through the Discover sections, queue up a bunch of albums, and then know that over the next few days, I’d work through them all. If I liked something, it’d go in my collection. If not, I’d just skip the album and go onto something else.
You might be saying to yourself, “Spotify and Apple Music have queues, too!” No, not like this they didn’t! See, Rdio’s queue synced, which meant that I could queue up a bunch of tunes on my Mac, then hop in the car and hear them on my phone. Meanwhile, when I make a queue on Spotify, if the app crashes or I change devices, my queue is gone.
Also, let’s talk about Spotify’s queue model, because its design is really aggravating:
Compare that to the simplicity of Rdio’s:
(Update from Jeremiah Lee: in Rdio, if you command-clicked a piece of music, it would use Spotify’s behavior — so the “weird behavior” was a hidden gesture, rather than the default; a far better design choice!)
Listening Experience: Favorites
At its core, most cherished part of my Rdio account was Favorites.
Personally, for something to get added to my Favorites was Kind Of A Big Deal. Music collections get big, and if you stuff garbage in there, it’s going to have a poor signal-to-noise ratio.
Here’s how finding favorites worked on Rdio: You’d browse around, drag a bunch of things into your magically-syncing queue, and know that you’ll eventually listen to ’em. If you liked something, you could then add it to your collection.
Listening Experience: Getting Started
A streaming catalog is massive. With all that choice, it’s helpful to have a few suggestions. Rdio’s Home view was a great way to get going: it presented the 10 most recent things you listened to (albums, stations, playlists). Tap one, and you’re off!
Why was this so great? Odds are, when you open your music app, you’re doing one of three things:
- Resume where you left off,
- Replay something you heard recently, or
- Discover something new.
Because Rdio synced your playback state (more on that in a bit) and suggested these 10 recent items to you, launching the app usually got you up and running in only a tap or two. Apple Music’s “Recently Added” section does this a bit — but it biases towards recently added, whereas Rdio showed longtime faves right next to new stuff in these 10 items.
This is a big deal! An album you added two years ago got the same treatment as an album that you’d just-discovered-but-hadn’t-yet-saved-to-favorites. It made it easy to fall in love with an album, because it facilitated repeated listens.
Thoughts on Spotify
Spotify’s where I’m off to next — it’s not as good as Rdio, but it has its perks.
Spotify’s visual and interaction design is weird, inconsistently executed, and poorly art-directed. Their “in your collection” checkmark is bizarre, they use inconsistent stroke widths on their iconography and buttons, and their app icon is an aesthetic disaster. Because Spotify doesn’t sync playback or queues, listeners have to either constantly re-build their queue, put relatively-unknown music into their Collection, or build one-off playlists — all three of which are crappy bandaids on a poor foundational playback design.
That said, their interaction design does have some neat bits — particularly the long-press-to-preview gesture which is so fantastic for Discovery, I’ll be shocked if Apple doesn’t copy it next year. Spotify’s Discovery is so great that maybe it doesn’t matter whether I can sync up a queue — it only takes a few seconds for me to find something I want to hear. I hear that they’re making it easier to play an album without shuffling on iPhone — so I bet I’ll be happy with Spotify soon enough. I know that there are wonderful designers and engineers at Spotify — it’s just a matter of time!
Thoughts on Apple Music
Apple Music isn’t at all ready to compete with Rdio or Spotify. It has better native support on iOS, watchOS, and Mac OS. But: its queue doesn’t sync, the stations are pretty weak, and the playlists aren’t nearly as interesting or diverse as Spotify’s. iTunes is constrained by years of legacy requirements for device management and the iTunes Store, so it’s a slow-moving, complex UI. Plus, Jimmy Iovine is pretty terrible.
Apple’s “For You” playlists don’t feel very “for me”, and the A-List playlists take too much effort to dig through. (For example: where does a playlist live in Apple Music? You discover them in For You and New, but then they also live in the Playlists tab.) It’s a confusing architecture, and requires too many taps and loading states to find what you want.
It’s also far too common that Apple Music botches the metadata of an album. I often wind up in the “Unknown Artist, Unknown Album” interface. Also, for some reason you’re allowed to rename artists and albums? A weird holdover from iTunes, I suppose, but it feels like a long-ago feature that is now a bug — I’m not interested in organizing a streaming catalog’s metadata.
Rdio’s only got a few days left. Pandora’s going to break it apart and use its components for other things. Maybe Pandora will fuel the team to re-launch as something wonderful — but there’s no guarantee. There’s much to like about Spotify — its Discovery and long-press-to-preview gesture are once-you-see-it-you-can’t-go-back features, and their product development is moving quickly — I have high hopes that they’ll iron out the kinks in the next year.
Personally, I’m going to make a few different backups of my Rdio Favorites, Top Albums, and Playlists, and I’m off to Spotify. If you’re in the same boat, here are a couple of helpful links to help backup and migrate your music:
That said, I’ll miss Rdio. The syncing queue, autoplay, the emphasis on listening to whole albums, the “albums trending among your friends” view — it’ll be awhile until something like this comes back again.