Guest post by Kyle Bylin of Live Nation Labs.
The popular music experience on Spotify is terrible. There are only three ways to seek out and listen to hit songs, and none of them suffice. Users must either settle for Spotify’s “Top Lists” or download apps and sift through playlists with hundreds of entries—without the benefit of knowing which songs are new or when they’ll be updated. All of the work is pushed on the user, even though a number of perfectly reasonable remedies exist.
The desktop edition of Spotify comes with Top Lists of popular music, but they’re essentially static, like a featureless spreadsheet. Users can listen to and share the songs on the tally, but they can’t add them as playlist, or even favorite songs easily. To star songs, users must either right-click on them and select the option, or open the play queue and star them there. Neither of these actions is clearly apparent to the user, and worse, they add steps and induce friction. Much of this could be overlooked if the Top Lists were a utility, but as they are now they’re just ornaments.
The Billboard Top Charts app is better, if only because it has many of the features Spotify left out. Users can subscribe to the playlist and favorite songs, as well as listen to genre-based music charts. If users want to play a current, authoritative playlist of popular hip-hop, rock, or country songs—just like the radio—Billboard Top Charts is the only app that offers that experience. It’s interesting to note, though, that the app doesn’t contain any chart rankings or distinctions like “debut” or “re-entry.” This makes it harder for users to tell just how new the songs are on, say, the Hot 100 playlist. Billboard Top Charts may solve a problem—easily finding and playing new music—but work remains: You still have to sift through each chart playlist and find which songs you like. This effort may not seem like much, but if you have to do this every time, it can grow tiresome.
We Are Hunted, another music chart app, maintains a popular music tally, but it suffers from many of the same pitfalls as Billboard Top Charts. All song rankings on We Are Hunted look exactly the same, which makes it hard to detect if new songs debut on the tally, or if they’re gaining or losing popularity. The experience of playing the chart is rather static and passive; there’s a lack of features beyond a play button. Users can’t easily favorite songs and must click several times to navigate the tally. The beauty and simplicity of We Are Hunted ranks it above competing spreadsheet charts, earning it the status of a playable photo gallery. In sum, the app is a compelling product with great utility, but it’s not designed for popular music.
Why aren’t these charts better, or more fairly, why aren’t they how I wish they were? The reality is that Spotify may improve its Top Lists at some point, but the lists are a “minimum viable product”—the simplest offering needed to gauge user interest—and Spotify certainly has its developers focused on more important things for the time being. Meanwhile, Billboard probably lacks technology resources or an API sufficient to send their chart data to Spotify. Otherwise, they could have an app that mimics the charts displayed on their website, which contain info like last week’s position and number of weeks on. But the reasons why We Are Hunted may be choosing not to display such stats are more interesting: Their team could be saying, “Users don’t care about such things, so why show them?” And that could be true. But the more likely explanation is that semantics-based charts move too fast, and such rapid changes in music popularity would harm credibility and confuse users.
To improve the popular music experience on Spotify, I’d like to develop an Ultimate Chart app that tests the following four features: 1) Weekly debuts and biggest movers on the tally will have titles or bullets. 2) The app landing page will feature these songs. 3) The app will archive previously featured songs. 4) The app will let users easily favorite artists they love (or perhaps the app could scan users’ libraries) and it will let users know when songs by favorite artists debut on the tally. Obviously, building these proposed features requires several big assumptions—for example, that popular music listeners at large actually have such needs and will see value in the proposed solutions—and each of these assumptions will need to be tested over time, but I believe that this approach will help users discover the latest and hottest songs while keeping better track of their favorite artists. The phrase that best describes my app strategy comes from famed industrial designer Dieter Rams, whose work with Braun led him to the design philosophy “Less, but better.” Exactly. We need fewer songs displayed in chart apps, but the ones that are displayed need to be the good stuff.