I’m Proud of the Design Work We Did with Grooveshark

Grooveshark’s design agency, Simple Focus, talks about what it was like working on the final iteration of the shuttered music service.

2015: The News

The sun was beginning to set on April. It was the second full day of Grok when I hopped in the backseat of an Uber, headed to a social event. When my phone buzzed, I expected to see a message from friends.

Instead, I looked down and saw a message telling me Grooveshark had finally been shut down. I pulled up their homepage, and sure enough, it was gone, just like that. I must have read and re-read the message 10 times.

My design agency, Simple Focus, had worked with Grooveshark for several years, so I knew they were in big trouble after the judgment ruling in September. But the suddenness of the announcement still startled and unnerved me.

The next morning, my creative director asked me if we should take the Grooveshark case study off of our site. Out of fear and embarrassment, I said we should.

In those first few days after the announcement, I was ashamed to be associated with Grooveshark. Our little run with a well-known music brand was over. I have a business and a livelihood to protect, so I made the conservative decision and took the case study down like it never happened.

Even though I initially felt this way, I consider Josh Greenberg, Grooveshark’s co-founder, a good friend. Since we started working together, we’ve both made a point of staying in touch outside of work, sharing big and little ideas, talking business and family and company culture, and sharing our deep curiosity for what makes this world go ’round — you know, friend stuff.

“Our little run with a well-known music brand was over.”

After about a week, I was finally able to talk with Josh on the phone — not only was he busy winding down operations, but I have three small children, so connecting sometimes takes time. It was almost 10 p.m. when we finally got on the phone; he was still working, I was picking up groceries after putting the kids down. He couldn’t say much, but I could tell he was staying positive and that he was mostly concerned with taking care of his team.

While talking to Josh, he reminded me how the work we did wasn’t in any way unethical — we were just product designers who designed a product, and a damned good one at that.

The next day, I told our team to put the case study back up. I told them I was proud of the work we did for Grooveshark, because the work is really good.

2014: The Creative Brief

After two years working together on a handful of smaller projects, Josh called me and asked if we would help with a new project. He wanted to get us involved at the earliest stage of the process: designing innovative homepage ideas for a completely new version of Grooveshark focused on making music discovery more human.

The creative brief read, “We are too close to our product to completely reimagine it. We need an outside perspective to free us up and give us new, interesting ideas. We want to see your ideas for reimagining music discovery. Make it human, make it innovative, and don’t be practical. We just want new ideas, our team will use your concepts for inspiration.”

I was giddy. Who wouldn’t want to work on a high-profile redesign with a team that trusted us and was prepared to give us complete creative freedom? So, yeah, we took the project.

Our team sketched around 500 concepts.

Reimagine Music Discovery was scrawled in large dry erase letters in our conference room for one week. We were in the middle of a design boost, an intensive exercise we go through when clients need us to throw out a lot of creative options very quickly.

We designed over a hundred visual concepts in one week of creative brainstorming.

We get the entire design team in the conference room for an entire week. No decisions, just options. The point of this exercise is to innovate through design. We’re not only considering visual styles, but product ideas, business ideas, pivots, new products and marketing campaigns. It’s not a process so much as it is a way of working — we don’t invest time and energy in protecting and defending our ideas, all of our creative energy goes into the work itself.

In this concept, we proposed one way to make a music discovery algorithm more human by letting the end-user tell Grooveshark which direction to take the station.

After the first full day, the dry erase board was covered with a hundred sticky notes and torn scraps of paper, each scrawled with a crazy, impractical and sometimes really stupid idea.

After two days, you could barely read the phrase any more.

After a full week, the walls and doors were covered with ideas.

Most were terrible, but that’s to be expected. Some were incredibly challenging and interesting.

“The dry erase board was covered with a hundred sticky notes and torn scraps of paper, each scrawled with a crazy, impractical and sometimes really stupid idea.”

The end result of our contribution went live nine months later, after Grooveshark’s team took our work and turned it into one of the most engaging and human music streaming apps out there. Within a few months, Grooveshark was shut down. We can’t show it off any more, though we do still have our case study up.

2012: Torn (and I’m not talking about the Natalie Imbruglia song)

In 2012, I started speaking more about usability and eye tracking, trying to position Simple Focus as experts in interface design. When I came off the stage at Converge after presenting, my friend Julia Anderson introduced me to Josh and showed him the work we did with the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. He liked it and asked if we’d be interested in doing some eye tracking and usability tests on their homepage.

It was a small project, but a foot in the door. If I’m being completely honest, I knew a little bit about Grooveshark and their licensing woes, but I decided to move forward with the relationship because it was an interface project and it was the music industry. In other words, it was exactly the kind of project we wanted.

Some of our team members felt more uneasy about it than me because of Grooveshark’s reputation, which came from its failure to secure the proper licensing for some of the music it streamed. Honestly, I understand the hesitation they felt.

“It was a small project, but a foot in the door.”

When Napster was still around, I believed that music should be free and that records labels would be wise to adopt this new technology, not shut it down.

But then Napster lost in court and regular people started getting sued. The RIAA had a reputation for being aggressive, and I was scared to download music illegally any more. And then, I got my first iPod, and it was just too convenient to download music through iTunes.

P2P services were burdensome enough that I would rather pay for ease-of-use and reliability anyway. On top of that, Apple’s more reliable, consistent experience meant no more half-downloaded songs, searching through strange filenames or ethical dilemmas with stolen music. I had converted over to the I don’t steal music camp.

I hoped Grooveshark’s problems were behind them, so we focused on keeping our heads down and doing the best work we could, pushing the boundaries of design and product.

2016: What’s Next?

Ultimately, it didn’t work out for Grooveshark, and now they are a part of music streaming history, a lesson for music startups to mind, and another barrier-to-entry for upstart music streaming businesses.

Deciding who we work with as an agency isn’t always an easy decision. Sure, we all want to have unshakable principles and work with clients we can feel 100 percent good about all the time. And you have to know who your dream client is and who wouldn’t you touch with a 10-foot pole. But what about the clients who fall in the grey area?

There are many factors to consider, including a client’s values and business, such as their willingness to trust you, whether the work motivates your team and is in an area you want to explore, and the budget.

“Now they are a part of music streaming history, a lesson for music startups to mind, and another barrier-to-entry for upstart music streaming businesses.”

On your best day, when payroll is on autopilot and your team is fulfilled by their work, you get to be really choosy about who you work with. You can command a higher rate and pick and choose clients who align perfectly with your team’s values. But when times are tough, or when you want to stretch your agency into a new market or type of work like we did with Grooveshark, you can’t be as picky — you will eventually have to decide whether it’s better to lay someone off, do work you don’t enjoy, or take a client that isn’t ideal.

At Simple Focus, we took the work with Grooveshark because we wanted to make a statement that we focus on product and interface design, because we wanted to work on a music product and because the team there trusted us and gave us a lot of creative freedom.

“You will eventually have to decide whether it’s better to lay someone off, do work you don’t enjoy, or take a client that isn’t ideal.”

The algorithm for deciding who you work with changes depending on the climate of the agency at the moment, so we always have to ask how we make our work excellent regardless of who the client is. We are not our clients, but when everything about the relationship is weighted appropriately, the work we do, and how we feel about it, should be good.

Josh, Sam and the Grooveshark team built a passionate audience and a great product. And I’m sure they learned a lot of fantastic and difficult lessons about making a product in the music business. What they built was built well, and they feel good about it. I loved working with Grooveshark, even if they weren’t perfect. In fact, their imperfections may have made them better to work with, more willing to let us take creative risks.

As for Simple Focus, we fell in love with the music business. And since we made conscious decisions along the way to take on projects that gave us opportunities to grow, we are recognized for the kind of work we want to do — interface design. And as for our next phase of growth, I’ve decided we’re not afraid of the crazy, imperfect ideas, either.

In Memoriam

On July 19th, 2015, I received the sad news that Josh Greenberg passed away. The world is now short one amazing person.

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