Why Spotify is a Platinum Hit

I’d be lying if I told you that Spotify wasn’t the hottest cat in the music-streaming scene. Let’s take a dive through the ins-and-outs of the second most popular streaming-platform in the US and see why Spotify is poised to be the grooviest platform for digital content creators of the information age — and what challenges Spotify will face if they aim to keep their platform on top of the charts in the age of Big Data and IoT.

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The 90’s-reminiscent vaporwave graphic for Spotify’s individualized “Top Songs” playlist.

The Theory Behind The Music: What is Spotify?

I’m not exactly sure how I was turned onto Spotify; after all, I’ve been a paid user of the service since it launched stateside in 2011, and my friends have literally never heard the end of it. At the time, the only alternative streaming services were Pandora and iHeartRadio — but Spotify was a different breed.

Give people access to all the music they want all the time — in a completely legal & accesible way. — Spotify’s mission statement.

I remember the feeling of downloading the app for the first time on my iPod touch (wait… iPods?); I logged in and immediately felt like I had an infinite bandwidth connection to the musical universe. I could search from a seemingly endless collection of music and listen to it all on-demand; this was lightyears ahead of platforms like Pandora that constrained the listening experience by preventing users from listening to particular songs or artists, or pay-to-own services like the iTunes store.

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Even Doc couldn’t believe it — a universe of music in the palm of his hands!

While this is now a nonstarter in the world of free streaming on Youtube and Soundcloud, Spotify continues to differentiate itself from its competitors by maintaining itself as a platform built exclusively for artists to share their content and gather actionable feedback. Eight years since its US launch, Spotify is currently the worlds most populous paid music-streaming ecosystem. It is accessible on any device with a browser, easily integrable with 3rd-party applications, socially connected, and data-driven; these are just a handful of the reasons why Spotify has become a household name for even the most casual of music listeners.

Although Spotify is known as a streaming service, I have always been captivated by their mobile and desktop applications; it is because of the intuitiveness of these products that Spotify has been able to grow as a service and a platform. Let’s take a look a what makes these apps steal the spotlight on a crowded streaming stage.

Breakin’ It Down: Why Spotify Rocks!

1. A self-contained, dynamic ecosystem centered around the artist.

Spotify built a platform that has revolved around the artist since day one; one crucial example that has kept me coming back since day-one is the app’s informative artist pages.

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Stolen from Spotify designer Brian Lee’s Dribble page; rock on, Brian!

You can read an artist’s biography while scrolling through their discography; if you liked what you heard, you will click over to the related artists tab and discover dozens of similar vibes; without leaving the application, you’ve fallen in love with an artist’s story and simultaneously discovered more music to keep you listening and browsing; this is a win-win for Spotify’s retention rate and user experience alike.

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In addition to building a platform that enables users to connect with every facet of a music project, from the artist’s biography to their merch, the UI is designed to place focus on album art, a traditionally significant component to an album, mimicking the classic crate-browsing experience that we all love — or at least our parents did!

2. A fresh spin on the outdated static “Library”.

While Apple may have introduced the world to the digital music “library”, a set of “Playlist, Artist, Album, or Song” collections, this abstraction has been refreshed by Spotify with the addition of other collection types, such as “Charts, Genres, Moods, and Radio” (pictured above).

Instead of building an app around the act of listening to music, Spotify has crafted the ideal experience for discovering and sharing new music. This subtle paradigm shift isn’t just important to individuals; it has the power to shift the tides of pop-culture and build bridges between cultures across the world. There is no better example of this than the meteoric rise of Reggaeton, a Latin cousin of Jamaican dancehall, as a result of featuring the Baila Reggaeton playlist on many user’s home page alongside US pop hits.

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From Spotify Insights: % of streaming growth by genre over a 3 year period.

This phenomenon isn’t just limited to the Americas; Spotify has diverse and nuanced categorical breakdowns of music from across the globe, and this, in conjunction with the artist-centered UI, makes it easy for all users to tap into new rhythms and sounds that will move their bodies and their soul.

3. A curated dashboard of steaming-hot tunes, every day.

Riffing on the importance of music discovery to the user experience, let’s put ourselves into a user’s shoes for a moment.

As a paid listener, I want to hear more music that interests me so that I can stay entertained, broaden my music taste, and get the most out of my subscription.

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“One good thing about music, when it hits ya feel no pain.”

On the surface, this might seem trivial: “just show the users more music along the lines of what they’ve been listening to,” you say. While this isn’t incorrect, it’s a gross oversimplification of the problem at hand — after all, how can we know what music interests a user if they haven’t heard it yet? Pop charts by country, a major driver of consumption, may be incredibly diverse or incredibly narrow; charts by genre are also equally not helpful, since, for example, a user may be interested in hearing specifically Dub Reggae and not classic Roots Reggae [ie. Marley] or Conscious Dancehall [ie. Sizzla]. (I’ll confess, it’s me; although I would prefer to listen to all three!)

Spotify’s solution to this is threefold: Collaborative Filtering, Natural Language Processing, and Audio Analysis. Instead of talking about all three, I’d like to highlight the relevance of collaborative filtering of user-created playlists to not only the issue of recommendations, but also a positive user experience. It goes a little something like this:

  1. I’m an avid music fan named A, and I know X genre of music very well, so they make a playlist entitled “2000’s X” featuring all those songs.
  2. A casual listener named (you guessed it) B, has listened to a couple songs that also appear on “2000’s X” a bunch of times.
  3. Spotify makes the connection between the two, and suggests to B other songs that appeared on “2000’s X”, or the playlist itself.

This has a twofold effect; B gets exposed to more music they they have a high-likelihood of liking, and A gets the validation of getting another follower on their playlist, reinforcing their identity as a music fan and inspiring them to continue curating content on Spotify and making playlists. We have used social psychology to fulfil both user’s wants — they won’t be ditching their subscription any time soon.

This customized experience is made real by collections such as Discover Weekly, which have sparked huge social media memes in praise of the service.

Spotify also implements nifty strategies based on localization to recommend playlists based on season and time of day — awwww, Spotify, you even tuck me into bed, how sweet!

4. An intuitive UI that delivers a seamless experience across devices.

Any Spotify user will tell you that the app has a distinct feel that is recognisable across platforms; the flat UI removes distractions and places your attention on what matters: browsing and listening to music. The app is tailored to each platform on which it can be used; since the webapp is responsive and mirrors the desktop and mobile apps respectively, let’s take a look at those.

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The mobile app has a bottom-nav — featuring the Home screen (selected), a Search screen that opens directly into a typable search bar if the icon is double tapped, and the user’s Library — that sits below a persistent now-playing bar, which allows for one-tap pausing and playing, and swipes left and right to respectively skip or rewind. The navigation and music controls are both easily accessible — a boon for listeners on the go; however, it’s important to note that controls for exiting a screen and viewing the queue are still locked in the upper left and right corners, which are inaccessible by single-handed users.

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A recurring motif is the three vertical dots used to indicate menu options; you can either tap the dots (which often registers a touch on the song itself if done slightly to the left, disrupting the flow of music and generally pissing users off) or tap and hold on the list entry to bring up the menu — I didn’t know about the tap-and-hold until today, so Spotify, maybe publicize this more? Otherwise, the menu itself offers a lot of functionality in a collapsible frame, and elegantly displays the principle of a “contained music ecosystem” mentioned earlier. The share functionality is incredibly valuable for users and artists alike when considering that sharing of content across social networks results in potentially viral publicity for artists and creators.

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The desktop app is equally optimised; assuming that most users have horizontal displays, the social feed is locked to the right, subliminally reminding users that their friends are loving Spotify and listening to great music, and the library is pinned to the left, leading into the playlist list. There is also a fullscreen functionality (below).

I’ve spoken at length about the UI, but what about the whole “across devices”? I was saving the most relevant and breathtaking feature for last, of course!

I don’t just mean that Spotify has multiple apps — you can stream seamlessly between devices with little to no displacement in song position. I cannot stress how important this is to usability and Spotify’s market positioning over the course of the next few years.

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Switching between actively listening on my laptop and my phone; this is something I do multiple times per day, and the reason why I’m confident Spotify will remain miles ahead of its competition.

Network-enabled smart devices are becoming ubiquitous; consumers of all sorts are buying Google Home’s and Amazon Alexas by the truckload. (Note that both Google and Amazon have their own music content marketplaces and streaming services.)

Instead of being threatened by the rise of IoT and proprietary content marketplaces, Spotify has positioned itself to ride the rising IoTides by offering users the best of all worlds: on the go, you listen to Spotify on your phone; you step into your home or dorm room, and with no more than three taps, the music stops playing from your headphones and picks up immediately on your laptop, stereo, or IoT device. — Me.

This isn’t just relevant to Spotify’s share in the IoT streaming market; many Spotify customers are still without IoT devices in their home, and so having the ability to stream between netbooks, laptops, and phones will ensure that Spotify retains its users who are late to IoT trends.

Mistakes, or Blue Notes? It’s all up to you.

I do have a few recommendations and thoughts resulting from my daily one-man user testing to share with the Spotify product executives; I assume you’ve raised some of these questions on your own, but I hope that maybe I can give some unique insights.

1. Long-time users like myself have more content than can be easily organized into playlists.

I have easily over 100 playlists spanning almost every imaginable genre; there are songs that I want to listen to, but I just can’t remember what they’re called. The search filters only filter according to artist name, album, or song title — thus I have no intelligent way of finding these songs. Yes, I could nest my playlists into collections, but that wouldn’t change the fact that I’d have to scroll thru entire playlists, some of which are hundreds of songs long, to attempt to find the song I’m looking for.

I propose that you expose some of your internal entity models and give users the ability to index their library entities — Playlists, Artists, etc. — by features such as (sub)genre, mood, or tempo; this would have the added bonus of allowing you to refine your classification models according to user inputs.

2. The queue’s functionality and data interactions have room for significant improvement.

Firstly, I am a huge fan of the queue; since it’s been released, I’ve been using the queue whenever I host event to add songs to my mixes on the fly, as well as when I am listening personally to inject random songs (that I may have uncovered while browsing my Discover Weekly or suggested playlists) into my day. You’ve given users the ability to add entire albums to the queue, which is awesome if I want to plan out my listening before I sit down for three hours and code; but once large volumes of songs have been added to the queue, there is no efficient way of reprioritising those songs without dragging each song one-by-one into a new position. I propose that you expand the functionality of selecting and moving an individual song to contiguous chunks of songs so that this headache can go away!

Secondarily, as a frequent queue’er, I’m convinced that queued songs don’t affect your model of user listening preferences. On a couple of occasions I’ve spent hours if not days on end adding a ton of songs of a particular genre I’d never otherwise consumed to my queue instead of playing them outright; neither the recommendations on my home page, my “Made for you” playlists, nor my discover weekly reflected these changes. I understand how this could be intentional if you assume that the queue is only utilised in live settings where a user [ex. a party host] is playing music requested [by guests] that they wouldn’t otherwise listen to; however, that is not the only use case.

3. You’ve added a ton of awesome functionalities and new content types, but they’re hidden away.

Podcast streaming sites are the underdogs of 2018–19; they’ve seen explosive growth, and while you’ve made an effort to add podcasts, vlogs, and music videos to your mobile and desktop apps alike, I had no idea they were even there. It took me a few minutes of randomly clicking around I realised they had actually been there for a while.

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Like, c’mon UX people! This isn’t design — it’s an afterthought!

While I understand that these features are not the main attraction for the majority of existing Spotify users, it begs the question: how many users are you neglecting by not finding the ideal implementation of these features?

On a larger note, this comes back around to the question I opened this post with: what is Spotify? If you assume that Spotify is solely a music-streaming platform, then you’ve forgotten all the things that made Spotify great in the first place:

  • A focus on creators, their messages, and their communities.
  • An emphasis on content discovery, not just consumption.
  • A social element that encourages viral sharing of content that funnels consumers back onto the Spotify platform.

The executives and product managers at Spotify should acknowledge that its existing model has worked great for music because music was an existing industry with existing players — labels, distribution — that were incredibly inefficient at channeling content at their target consumers.

Either step forward into the as-of-yet unfilled niche for a social hub for long-form content-creators, or step back and double down on the music industry — and more importantly, the dedicated communities of music fans — that have enabled your meteoric rise.

Until then, you just keep the good vibes coming — I’ll be listening.

I code. I write. I sing and bang on things.

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