Discovering Music Through Friends — A Spotify Case Study

Cindy Huang
May 9 · 7 min read

Spotify houses over 40 million songs to discover and fall in love with. Still, myself and many other users fall into the routine of listening to the same music on repeat.

There are so many ways Spotify attempts to suggest music to me. But, browsing through hit-or-miss playlists and auto-generated suggestions makes the discovering music disorganized and time consuming. I’m sure lots of work goes into curating Spotify playlists or predicting users’ likes, but algorithms cannot always align with music tastes.

To find out if others felt the same, I dove into interviews with other music lovers.

Understanding How People Discover Music

In my interviews, I asked users to walk through how they find new music both in the app and in real life. Here is what I learned:

1. People usually listen to their own library

“If you make your own playlists, it’s so easy to just keep listening to your own music.”

2. People discover new music the most through friends and word of mouth

“Friends will just tell me what they’re listening to, or play a song out loud in person.”

“I have one friend who shares my music taste, and I like to stalk their playlists or send them links”

3. One bad experience can make people distrust Spotify discovery

“There was a period of time where I used Discover Weekly a lot because it consistently gave good music but later I didn’t really like it as much so haven’t been back in a while.”

Users tend to avoid browsing music suggestions in Spotify because they distrust Spotify, or are lazy — and they would rather discover through friends and word of mouth. But, there is still a disconnect between receiving a recommendation from another source and listening to it.

Current ways to share with friends disrupt the flow of browsing of other social media/conversation

I discovered that people are most likely to listen to a new song if recommended by a friend. They have the confidence that their friend knows their music taste well. But, when sharing music to social media or in person, they still either

  • forget about them, or
  • don’t feel like switching between messaging and music apps.

People want to discover music that fits their taste, but it is hard because:

Suggestions generated by algorithms cannot match our wide music tastes.

It’s easy to forget about music recommendations from friends.

Final Interaction

Ultimately, the solution I designed is a way to recommend and receive personalized music to/from friends within Spotify.

Prototype for my solution for music discovery
Prototype for the sharing flow

How I got there

Before I settled on this feature, I started with ideation of ways to make music discovery more personal, trustworthy and enjoyable.

Two-hundred sticky notes later, my friends Clay, Emily, and I narrowed down our ideas to these potential solutions.

  • Social interactions: message inbox, groups/“taste buds”, sharing feed
  • Customization: A/B testing to better determine taste, user-created mood board
  • Organization: “Listen to Later” feature

After taking a vote I decided to focus on the social solution space. How might we make finding new music more human and intimate?

At first, I went in the direction of a full-blown messaging inbox in Spotify. I thought that if people can have meaningful conversations and easily send music to friends who share the same taste, they would find it easy and fun.

Sketches of inboxes and conversation screens

I continued with different variations ranging from message-heavy to no messaging at all.

Explorations for a messaging inbox (left) and chat (right) feature

Though I attempted to find a way to emphasize the music shared rather than the chatting aspect, I realized that this solution was straying from the People Problem about music discovery. It also may be too dramatic of a change and doesn’t align with Spotify’s mission of sharing music (not conversation). So, I tested three different prototypes with users:

  1. Typical messaging inbox
  2. Inbox but no messaging
  3. A smaller inbox built into existing “Made for You” page
Pros and cons of three different prototypes

User feedback reiterated my new hypothesis. People don’t want Spotify to become a social media, but still want more convenient sharing between friends.

Option C places emphasis on the songs themselves by displaying them front and center. This sacrifices some of the personal connection to a friend since the friend’s photo and name are less prominent. But, it takes up less space and prevents the app from becoming too much like social media. Still, a few people liked how B incorporated groups and focused on the friends.

I iterated on feedback from users and created two more explorations of the horizontal scroll.

I chose A to focus on easy access to music

For A, I enlarged the images for visual consistency with the rest of the home screen. Then, in B I explored categorizing the inbox by friend rather than showing all of the suggested songs.

After these iterations, a majority of people still value the music over the friends who send it.

Merits of Option A:

  • Distanced from the typical inbox/chat format. You can send recommendations without needing to provide a message for context.
  • Suggestions are only one click away from the home screen.
  • Enlarging the image emphasizes the music and is consistent with Spotify’s formatting.

Trade-offs:

  • Less personal, since suggestions aren’t grouped by the friend who sent them.
  • Fewer songs viewed at a time

Next, I dived deeper into the visual treatment of different types of content on the Spotify home screen. How might we differentiate a suggested song from playlists, albums, etc. ?

An audit of the different visual treatment for different information hierarchy

The home screen content all follows a similar hierarchy of information (above). To display recommended songs, I modeled the visual design similarly to podcast episodes, because of the similar amount and type of information needed. I laid out the potential and essential content requirements and visual design that I decided on here:

I decided to keep a rectangular album cover, song name, and artist name to make the music-related information clear and highest priority.

The sender’s photo layered over the album cover provides an easily recognizable way to see the user’s friend who suggested it. Though this breaks from the current design system of Spotify, I felt a different visual treatment from other design patterns is needed to emphasize that these suggestions come from a different source.

Bring back the playlist!

One merit of Spotify is that it is quite visual. But, a long horizontal scroll could be hard to look through and play. To solve this problem, I added an alternate playlist view of all suggestions.

This allows for:

  • playing the suggestions in order
  • condensing the suggestions in a list format
  • searching and sorting through suggestions.

Though the main inbox is not sorted by friend, users can still use the sorting feature native to other pages in “Your Library” to do so. The filter bar also can search by keywords.

The two different views allow for (1) a visual, at-a-glance inbox and (2) a more organized and condensed playlist.

Now that I settled on a way to discover and receive recommendations, I explored the sharing flow.


Fitting in a new way to share

Currently, sharing music from Spotify requires three steps before choosing the recipients.

In deciding an entry point for in-app sharing, I considered three options.

  1. Adding an button on the main screen of the currently playing song
  2. Adding another row in the options menu
  3. Placing it with other social media platforms

This three-step process could make the feature a bit hidden and hard to discover. However, people are used to this flow, and it also makes all forms of sharing accessible from multiple entry points through the generic options menu. I prioritized consistency over top-level prominence and placed the entry point along with the existing share menu.

Though this may not be the best way to encourage use, it means the feature is accessible though multiple views and grouped with related actions.

Final flow for sending a suggestion to friends

Visual Design

Horizontal scrolling and playlists already exist in Spotify, so I stuck to the existing design and UI of Spotify for Android.

The typography, spacing, and colors I used

Conclusion

My final prototype (above) is (hopefully) an option to discover music as we would in real life, by word of mouth. I also hope it would help people to get excited to discover songs they will love, and to simply remember their friends’ recommendations.

Spotify is still my favorite way to discover music, but it can always improve, in more ways than what I designed. In the future I would love to explore sharing of specific artists, albums, or playlists with this concept.

This was my first UX case study, and it was a great learning experience. I hope to continue to grow in product design, especially in product thinking and prototyping. Special thanks to everyone who helped me with user research, brainstorming, and user tests, and to Cornell AppDev for the learning experience!


I am in no way affiliated with Spotify. This was a case study for Intro to Digital Product Design. I would love to hear any feedback, comments or critique!

Thanks to Mind Apivessa

Cindy Huang

Written by

learning @cornell 🌱 cindyhuang.me

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