Better isn’t always right

As designers, we’re constantly analyzing and questioning everything. We say things like “I wish this app would work this way.” Or, “How can this be changed to make it more user-friendly?” These types of opinions and curiosities help us get closer to making experiences better, easier and more delightful.

Recently, we had the amazing opportunity to completely redesign MelOn — South Korea’s number one music streaming service with over 6 million users and 3.8 million paying subscribers.

Looking back on this engagement that lasted over a year and half, we learned one important lesson—that a better UX solution sometimes isn’t always the right solution. In fact, it can actually be quite counter-intuitive to what our human-centered instincts tell us

What informs a better UX?

Many of us in the UX field are familiar with fundamental principles of good user experience—such as affordance, feedback, consistency and more by the likes of Don Norman, Bill Verplank and many others. More widely adopted UX and UI patterns in iOS and Material Design have also been influential in setting the bar and cultural patterns for what millions of users find familiar and intuitive. Additionally, we are constantly building on each other’s work by being inspired by how different apps, products and services in the market apply various UX/UI patterns.

Much of our design instincts and intuitions are based on our experience and knowledge of these principles and patterns. And a better UX solution also depends on our ability to apply, combine and creatively re-invent some of these patterns and principles in the right ways.

With all this experience and practice as experts in the field, our instincts around very basic usability issues are usually right. Especially when we ourselves are the target users for the services we design for.

Well. We were wrong.

Intuition = Familiarity

We were tasked to re-design MelOn’s entire mobile music experience to push their strategic vision of becoming a connected platform beyond a simple music tool. This vision included ways that users can engage with artist updates, concert tickets, music videos and more.

Our new UX vision and strategy was to create natural linkages between all experiences around music with listening at the center.

But as much as MelOn wanted to achieve this goal, it was clear from our initial research that users first and foremost wanted the music tool to be vastly improved.

The first thing that was immediately obvious to us was a very complicated music playback interaction: you had to tap to select one or multiple songs in a list and then press play to start listening. This was much different from services like Spotify, iTunes, and SoundCloud where you simply tap once. Though we felt there were times when you wanted to select multiple songs and add them to your ‘currently playing’ playlist—this felt too advanced to be the default interaction model. This was especially painful in cases when you might want to play one just song right away or play songs continuously from an album or playlist.

Two different list behaviors(old and newly proposed) for choosing and playing music

It seemed pretty clear that tapping once to play was much more intuitive. And better aligned with fundamental UX principles like good feedback, direct manipulation/mapping and natural expectations. Millions of people were doing this with other music services, why shouldn’t it work for MelOn users?

This way of interacting, however, was foreign and completely unfamiliar to many of MelOn’s 3.8 million paying subscribers. The risk and cost of this switch was too high for the stakeholders at MelOn because it could cause major drop-offs in subscribers. To address the issue, we came up with a solution where we added a ‘check’ icon on the right side of each song. This allowed users to select songs, as they were typically accustomed, as well as tap-to-play immediately. We thought this was the best step forward—and proceeded to prototype and iteratively test this new model against the old one.

An early prototype of the new interaction model we proposed using a ‘check’ button to select and play multiple songs. One of dozens of prototypes made with Framer by David Lee.

The results started to surface from our user sessions.

Existing users who were habitually comfortable using the old model, felt unpleasantly surprised and frustrated. Others who had tried other music apps, or had not used MelOn’s select-to-play model before, were more positive about the new model we proposed.

The two models we tested with dozens of users resulted in a complete split. For existing users, familiarity equaled ease of use — even compared to something that was actually more intuitive for new users. With this result, our main goal of improving the playing experience was still not solved.

During one of our testing sessions, a user is trying out one of our prototypes and comparing it to what she uses currently.

Better designed to the right context

Most people weren’t really frustrated with the initial interaction of selecting and playing songs. In fact, they were completely comfortable and habitually set in doing this. It was also a convenient method for mainstream Korean music listeners who frequently browsed Top 100 charts for multiple songs and single releases; versus entire albums. Digging deeper into our user interviews, we realized that the main frustration was what happened after they tapped play.

When people select songs and play them, they get perpetually added to a ‘now playing’ playlist/queue. Managing, customizing and navigating this playlist was complicated and too much to manage (most had more than 1000 songs in this list). This was the root cause of the dissatisfaction.

From this insight, we focused our efforts in developing a set of features and UI/UX optimizations that improved the experience after users hit play. Some of these included: clear feedback showing number of songs selected; the ability to search by song; sorting by album/artist/popularity/etc.; and an easy swipe method to access saved playlists directly from the ‘now playing’ queue. These improvements allowed people to comfortably choose songs and continue browsing the app without worry. It became more seamless to cycle back to find the music they were interested in or listened to.

And enabling users to naturally continue browsing was exactly in-line with MelOn’s initial strategy and vision to increase visual engagement — and not let the app live mostly in people’s pockets.

Early designs highlighting features to manage and navigate your ‘now playing’ and ‘saved’ playlists.

MelOn’s re-designed Android app launched this past September (iOS launching soon). This was just one of the major changes we helped develop and revamp. It has so far been a success with more than 85% of users reporting positive ratings of the new re-design.

So, a better user experience based on our design instincts, experience and fundamental UX principles just might work.

However, we can only get to the right solutions when we deeply design to real cultural patterns, business needs, and user behaviors.

— 
A project collaboration by
Daylight and Loen Enterntainment/MelOn (now part of Kakao). You can read more about the project here.