What seems to plague UX and UI is not a lack of books, conferences, consulting firms, Facebook groups, design blogs, tips and tricks sites, decades-old canonical works, Big Names, Lynda and MOOC online courses, O’Reilly learning platforms, and all the rest of general know-how support. No, what tends to plague UI and UX today is usually just a lack of applied critical thinking.
Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics? Nielsen and Norman’s latest empirical study on eyeball fixations, error rates and task completion times? The latest update of an Information Architecture classic? The spiffiest neato CSS parallax animation hover-over technique? Nothing can contribute to good design better than just knowing how to think. As I experience this world of ever-impinging technological interfaces, I am continuously struck by the lack of general thoughtfulness going into the simplest aspects of understanding our daily encounters with and uses of everyday technologies.
To make the case that critical thinking is so often glaringly absent from the profession of UI and UX, I will critique Spotify in this article. I have a right to criticize Spotify, since I am a paying customer and use it almost daily. But the more I use it, the more it annoys me. To be fair, I do often enjoy the algorithm-generated playlist selections based on my past listening habits and likes, though it does tend to reinforce an aesthetic echo chamber. There is some delight for sure otherwise I wouldn’t pay the monthly fee, but the delight mainly comes from the artists, and only tangentially via the platform through association.
I only pay for this subscription because there aren’t any great alternatives in this winner-take-all online platform society of ours. I tried 8tracks, for example, but it crashed constantly, and so I eventually capitulated to the dominant platform because internet radio kept freezing, cellular data rates are high, and satellite radio is almost as repetitive as FM. I never gave Last.FM a shot probably because of my negative associations with broadcast FM and I was too lazy to consider it further. In other words, Spotify has me as a customer, not because I think its’s so great, but because everything else is or seems much worse.
‘Critical thinking’ seems like a tall order for defining in a blog context, so I will get straight to the evidence of non-thinking as embodied in the Spotify interface. I imagine Spotify must have, somewhere in its company vault of unimplemented user study results, a typology of users for its platform. I don’t know what secretly labelled user type I may be in that company vault of cobweb ideas, but I will self-identify my type so that my biases are clear to the reader.
I have two main uses of Spotify: 1) listening to music in my car, because I hate the poor user experience of repetitive satellite radio music, which I started to use because I hate the poor user experience of constant advertising and voice-blabbing in FM radio, and 2) I listen to playlists on my elliptical machine while exercising at home. Those are my two uses of Spotify as a listening platform. There is a third non-listening use which is treating it as a collection and organization platform. This is where I use the desktop web application to organize songs into playlists for either driving or elliptical workouts. No matter how many hundreds of musical genres can be identified in robust online taxonomies, for me there are really only two musical genres on Spotify: driving and exercising. There is a third genre of music, called working, which I define as background music while sitting at my desk or cooking in the kitchen, but I don’t use Spotify for this musical genre because YouTube playlists or the Radio app on my Apple TV are far more efficient methods for delivering this musical genre to me, and they are both free which is another check in the ‘better’ category for the working musical genre.
I am this kind of user, a user who defines musical genres based on my uses of music! This is an update on my undergrad theory that there were only two kinds of music — sit down music, and dance music. The two genres of music I refer to today map to this scheme, since with Spotify I either sit in my car, or move vigorously on the elliptical machine! I don’t need there to be more genres than these few that relate to my musical uses.
I am sure that Spotify UX researchers have long ago identified my user type in their own internal trade secretive user taxonomy, but I don’t know what my internal corporate User ID might be, so for this article I will name my user type: Elliptical Driver. I like the sound of this because it feels kinda Tokyo Drifty or something.
As an Elliptical Driver, I curse regularly at my Spotify UX and UI. I am a very fair cursor, I think, because I do not blame Spotify for Bluetooth woes when it takes too long to link to my car, and the fact that my Samsung phone has never paired with wireless headphones and so I have to plug them in with a going-extinct mini jack. I also don’t blame Spotify for the very long time it takes for my Samsung phone to email me screenshots of the Spotify UI over either Bell’s network or Shaw’s wifi. I know exactly which corporations to blame for which part of what crappy experience, so I am reserving for Spotify only what Spotify truly has some control over, namely its UX and UI, and the shoddy critical thinking that goes into a good part of it for an Elliptical Driver such as myself.
Let’s demonstrate the lack of thinking that has gone into this major finally profitable corporate platform, at least from an Elliptical Driver perspective. My thumb is always presented with a super tiny heart that I have to attempt to click perhaps a half dozen times before it works properly. Even when I am not on an elliptical machine, and am trying to hit the heart in the most stationary position I can assume, it is very hard to convert an outlined heart into a filled in solid color heart, probably because my hands are not doll tiny. As a tall person, I am always encountering a world designed for the Average Sized Person. I almost never take public transit, for example, because all the seats feel as though they were designed for ten-year-olds. Spotify’s heart button seems to be designed for infant fingers, since it’s so hard to target accurately.
Thumb-tapping the heart is actually most likely not going to save a song to my Likes list, but rather send the song back to the beginning or jumping forward to its end. This happens because for a very random reason the heart is sometimes on the left, and sometimes on the right, and in its tininess is located so close to the timeline, that to Like a song is at the same time usually to change the location of the play dot. Design-wise, there are two ways to fix this — assume that some people have thumbs larger than those of infants, or make the heart bigger, and scooch it away from the timeline so that the two are not activated at the same time. There is certainly plenty of empty space above the album cover, for example, for upwards-scooching of everything above the timeline. For some reason, the UI is super crowded at the bottom, and super empty at the top.
About 50% of the time that I intend to tap on the heart icon — so that it saves a file to my Liked Songs list, which is what I often base my own playlists on in my Collector User mode — it either activates the Back or Forward arrow instead — depending on what side of the screen it happens to be on that moment — or the timeline is activated sending me to the beginning or end of the song. It may be the intent of the UI to tell me: “Since you like this song so much, listen to it again right away now!” or alternately, “You like this song? Well, hah, it’s over now!”
About that back arrow — Spotify is highly confused about what it’s supposed to do. Logically (if we put our Spock face on), it should take us to the previous song, since there is already a timeline for going backwards or forwards within the same song. Alternately, it could be a fast way to get to the exact beginning of a song, and a second tap should take us to the previous song. So how does the back arrow work in situ?
Randomly. Sometimes it takes a user back to the beginning of a song only, with no possibility of ever using it to go back to previous songs no matter how many times it is tapped to do so. Or, sometimes a second tap brings up the previous song, and one can only go back further in the playlist, to songs previous to the previous song, by making sure that the song landed on doesn’t play for more than a fraction of a second.
One day I discovered Car View in the settings, which for a user like me also functions as Elliptical View since tiny hearts cannot be hit with big thumbs while exercising at home. There are some odd things about Car View, though, which while solving the problem of a heart icon being better sized to actual tall person thumbs annoys in other ways. In Car View, a user is constantly begged — or annoyed, impinged upon, harassed, besieged, reminded, notified, etc. — to CHOOSE MUSIC. Isn’t it odd, that while driving I am also supposed to choose music in a way that I am never bugged about when not in Car View mode? Does Spotify want to increase traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers by reminding them that they can select music while driving? Here is Car View mode:
This annoying billboard band aid strip of useless call to action at the bottom isn’t there in the regular (non-Car) UI view, but I guess while driving we are supposed to immediately become choice-a-holics or something. As though we do not already know that with Spotify, we can choose music. As though online music platforms are not exactly totally unlike radio which does not allow us to choose, because apps are interactive and stuff. It’s like having a big billboard in a video game window that says, USE THE CONTROLLERS TO DO STUFF.
When using Car View while actually in the car (as opposed to using it on an elliptical machine), the UI is really only usable in a landscape orientation. The portrait layout would only be useful if I had a dashboard attachment for mounting a cellphone upright. Like most people, I don’t have a dashboard vertical cell mounter, since like most people, I am not an Uber driver. If using Car View in portrait mode, the phone is too far away on the center console, and the icons too awkwardly arranged, to be usable while driving down the highway in the fast lane at 25% over the speed limit. To maximize the usability of Car View, I wiggle the phone to set it to the landscape orientation:
Hilariously, even with this narrow and highly restricted vertical layout, I am still being beckoned, called upon, reminded and visually asked loudly to CHOOSE MUSIC. What a waste of space. BTW, I actually only use Spotify in Car View while I am safely stopped at red lights ;-) of course!
So where does CHOOSE MUSIC take you to? Some arbitrary Spotify corporate-sponsored selection of stuff that has nothing to do with all the work a user has put into customizing the app to work for their needs. If a big billboard or band aid strip is really needed running across the whole bottom of the UI, a more empathetic choice would be “Your Library.” CHOOSE MUSIC has 12 characters, and YOUR LIBRARY has 13 characters. One of these characters is the empty space between the two words. The big band aid billboard running across the bottom of the UI certainly has space for one more character! ‘Your Library’ would be more user friendly, since in other views the app has already established the concept and a unique icon for Your Library. Or, maybe divide that huge bottom label strip in two parts, so that it might look like this:
As for the use of the super thin barely visible timeline with the itsy bitsy solid white circle that can easily win a usability award in the Hardest Thing to Click on Ever category, it is just as likely to activate any of the other interface items as the intended timeline action. This happens because I do not have tweezer-sized thumbs and fingers.
Furthermore, what’s with all the non-media in downloaded playlists? Presumably, if a playlist is downloaded and the settings show plenty of storage space available, a playlist should not be loaded with so many empty ghost placeholder slots of grayed out no-music where nothing plays. Downloaded playlists are often full of grey ghost nothing-there content. This requires a speedy fast lane driver to hit the forward arrow icon repetitively until some actually downloaded music shows up, which causes self-righteous highway drivers to glare angrily through their windows at the Spotify user looking down at the center console trying to get a song to play. (jk)
I don’t want to accuse the designers, engineers, product owners, project managers, interns, wire framers and whoever else at Spotify of being shoddy in their digital craft. Not implementing critical thinking in shipped products, which were presumably designed, tested, evaluated and iterated, is not the same thing as shoddiness. It may be the fault of Corporate HQ overriding all the great ideas of brilliant creative and technical staff, for all I know. The criticisms leveled here are not at any particular individuals or tiered silo or committee memo, but rather at the UX and UI itself, which is the result of NYSE:SPOT ’s group-based decision-making processes that I get to deal with everyday.
While I have pointed out the absence of critical thinking in this product, I haven’t yet defined critical thinking. Whole books for centuries have been written on this topic, so I will introduce a very brief definition here and maybe follow up on it in later blogs. I will define critical thinking as: conceptual follow-through of consequences in contexts. That’s the shortest definition I can give of critical thinking. Evidence of the lack of critical thinking is when there is no significant train of thought following through on all the consequential ramifications among the various contextual considerations. That is my general ‘diagnosis’ of what ails the design of technology today, and the Spotify UI/UX is my target here for illustrating the general lack of follow-through in basic critical thinking skills that so often plagues product design. Actually, thoughtlessness plagues a lot of things — like governments and committees and ideologies, but I can only cover so much territory here.
Today, the designers, engineers, investors and marketers of technology seem incapable of any kind of real conceptual follow-through as they create products and services. This happens because they are focused too much on short-term profits, or the causal functions of a code block, or higher fidelity prototypes that simply look better than lower fidelity prototypes, or re-segmenting some market base. The big picture holistic view, connecting the managerial dots across the organizational turf silos, imagining the results of an actual implementation of a design that is built, shipped and meets the real world use cases — this is precisely no one’s responsibility, it would seem.