Project Mixtape: Phase 1

Defining the problem space and conducting initial research

Shannon Sullivan
Jun 12, 2017 · 8 min read

At the turn of the century, my aunt made a series of CDs which reflected back on the defining moments and music of the era. She mixed news audio from highlights and lowlights throughout the past century (e.g. the Hindenburg explosion, the Immaculate Reception) with popular or noteworthy songs. Though I was too young to attend the New Year’s party at which she played the CDs, my parents brought home a copy for the whole family to enjoy. Those CDs fascinated me and gave me a new way through which not only to learn about contemporary American history, but also about the music from that time.

“Burning” and sharing CDs was a common activity when I was growing up. Friends would do it to share their favorite songs, to create a mix of songs to play at a party, or to play while warming up before a sports game. I discovered a few of my favorite songs from CDs my friends gave to me.

As technology has advanced, the CD has died out in popularity and we have new ways of sharing music with each other, primarily in digital form. I personally prefer to send links to my friends on social media, linking to a song either on Spotify or YouTube.

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Some examples of how I share music with my friends. It tends to be through a messaging application like Slack, Facebook Messenger, or iMessage.

To me, the method of sharing links through social media seems a bit overcomplicated, partially because it requires switching between two applications and partially because it is possible that people are not using the same music listening platform. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a better way. Platforms like Spotify do have a social component, but it does little to facilitate any interactions between users.

Recently a group of my fellow MHCI classmates started an independent summer study group with the goal of continuing to practice what we have learned in the past two semesters. We are starting with a mobile application design or redesign. Over the next several weeks, we will be doing guerrilla research, wireframes, and high-fidelity visual design. This presents the perfect opportunity to explore how to improve social music sharing.

Over the past two weeks, I started by conducting research. My goal was to understand people’s current attitudes and behaviors regarding music sharing. Additionally, I wanted to understand if social music sharing is something valuable to explore.

Mind Mapping

I started off by visualizing my own understanding of what I called “Music Consumption”, meaning an individual’s experience listening to music.

To do this, I used a technique called mind mapping. Creating a mind map is straightforward: you start with a central concept, break it down into aspects you associate with it, and continue the process until you feel you have achieved a satisfactory break-down. This is a technique I learned from my Educational Psychology class back in college and I find it useful when I need to organize and make sense of my underlying attitudes and thoughts.

While I typically prefer to sketch my mind maps by hand, I used the online mind mapping software coggle to speed up the exercise. It was a smooth experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a digital mind mapping tool.

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The mind map I created to understand my mental model for music consumption.

From this exercise, I took away two key points:

  1. Music consumption is like an iceberg: most of it occurs below the surface. At least for me, most of my music consumption activities are private and purely for my own enjoyment.
  2. Music consumption is interconnected, meaning that it is hard to categorize activity as being purely personal, discovery, or social. To succeed, a music application should cater to this. Right now, most tend to favor personal and discovery at the expense of neglecting the social experience.


For the next step in my research, I created and distributed a survey to my social network. The goal of the survey was to answer the following questions:

  1. What do people use to listen to music today?
  2. What are other peoples’ attitudes, behaviors, and desires when it comes to sharing music?
  3. How do people share music today? Who do they share it with?
  4. How do people feel about their options of sharing music? Would they use something better if the opportunity presented itself?

After distributing the survey on social media, I received 29 responses from friends, family, and friends of friends. (P.S. Thank you to everyone who took the time to fill it out!)

While the results from the survey may not be generally applicable because the selection method for participants was not random (limited to my social network), the survey did provide interesting information about how other people listen to music and share with their friends.

Finding #1: Most respondents listen to music digitally, with YouTube and Spotify being the most popular

Surprisingly, the most commonly reported medium for listening to music was YouTube. As several respondents mentioned, this is likely because it is possible to find most songs on YouTube (though the legality might be dubious).

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This graph represents the percentage of respondents who reported to use each medium to listen to music. Surprisingly, YouTube was the most frequently used.

Although YouTube was the most commonly used medium, more participants said they used Spotify the most frequently.

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This graph shows the music listening mediums that participants reported to have used the most. Spotify was easily the most popular, almost twice as popular as YouTube, the second most popular option.

Based on these findings, it seems as if many people predominantly use digital mediums to listen to music. Though Spotify and YouTube were the most popular, there is a wide range of other services that people use. This misalignment of services used could lead to difficulty when sharing music with friends.

Finding #2: Although most respondents valued the ability to share music the least, most participants have recently shared music with their friends.

When asked to rank the importance of 5 features, the ability to share with friends seemed to be the least popular, with people being more interested in the available music and affordability of the service.

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On average, participants rated the ability to share music with friends as the least important feature.

This might explain why digital music platforms have chosen to focus on expanding their music collections and increasing custom recommendations, as these might be the more impactful features.

However, it is interesting to note that it is fairly common for friends to share music with each other and people tend to enjoy exchanging music. Of the people surveyed, over 75% reported to have shared music with their friends. A similar amount reported that their friends shared music with them.

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Over 75% of participants have both shared music with their friends and have friends share music with them.

Another interesting question this raises is why ~25% of participants do not share music with their friends. What might change to get them to start sharing? This would be interesting to consider when designing an experience to encourage music sharing.

Finding #3: There is no dominant way through which people share music with their friends.

Respondents indicated that they used a wide variety of methods when sharing music with their friends. Though link sharing through private messaging was the most popular, it is worth noting that only 62% of participants did this, which is not a huge amount.

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The percentage of participants who reported to use each method for sharing music.

This variance in sharing as well as the lack of an overwhelming favorite could indicate an opportunity to create a better experience that more people would want to use.

Finding #4: It is currently more common for people to share music privately with a friend than to share in a more public forum.

By classifying responses into “private” (e.g. messaging links, names, or playing in person) versus “public” (e.g. general post to social media) methods, it is clear that most music sharing takes place privately.

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People tend to send and receive music privately with friends instead of publicly.

This suggests that if a music application were to have a social component, it might want to emphasize personal interactions over public activity.

Competitive Analysis

To conclude the initial research phase, I conducted a competitive analysis on the top 6 digital applications as indicated by the survey respondents. In this analysis, I looked for features that I thought would be important to facilitate music sharing.

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One interesting challenge I ran into while conducting the competitive analysis was that the features in each service varied depending on whether I was looking at the web application or mobile application. For example, the Pandora iOS application has a social feed where users can connect with friends and see their activity. However, Pandora’s web application does not support this.

Additionally, these applications are bloated with features, mainly around music recommendations, playlist management, and account management. This made it difficult to sift through and understand all of the possible features in each application. Because of this, users either might not notice or become overwhelmed by additional functionalities. One possible way to counter this might be to create multiple applications for different core features, similar to how Facebook created a separate Messenger application.

Next Steps

Based off of my research, I believe there is an opportunity to improve the social side of digital music consumption.

In the next few weeks, I will define the specific requirements and information architecture for a hypothetical music sharing application. Some of the decisions I will be making include:

  1. Should this be a unique application meant to unite multiple music listening services (e.g. Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, etc.) or should it be an addition/redesign of a specific application (e.g. redesigning Spotify’s social feature)?
  2. What should the application focus on? Sharing single songs, collaborating on playlists, etc.
  3. How might the application encourage people to share with each other?

I will be documenting the process of this project as I go, both to help me reflect on what I am doing and to keep anyone interested informed as I go. Please keep checking in and let me know what you think!

Until next time, I’ll leave you with this: a potential icon that I have been working on for this project.

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It’s a mixtape!

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