An investigation of the opportunities to improve the experience of using music streaming applications and a proposal to address the unmet needs of music listeners through Spacecraft, a streaming service that visualizes the navigation of music through a space-travel concept.
I remember getting an iPod touch in 2008. At the time, at age 14, the biggest songs in my life were Viva La Vida by Coldplay after it spent the summer pouring out of car speakers, I’m Shipping up to Boston by the Dropkick Murphy’s which had reached ubiquity in New England for Boston sports fans and received national attention after it soundtracked Martin Scorsese’s Boston crime drama, The Departed, and any song that appeared on the video game Rock Band. My taste was the product of circumstance until I received a device that gave me the opportunity to start seeking out music that I connected with and store it to listen to whenever I wanted, a 2nd generation iPod Touch. The only songs I had access to were a small library of mp3s on my family computer, built by older siblings through Napster. I sat and listened to each song as if it were auditioning for a spot on my iPod. Some songs made me feel cool, some I felt were boring, but no matter how many songs I eventually saved for my iPod, I loved the process of exploring these songs.
I began looking beyond the limited selection of songs stored on my computer and went to the internet. Years prior, I would have had to buy each of these songs on iTunes in order to listen to them, but my interest in music came at a time when music fans all over the world were making lyric videos for their favorite songs and uploading them to YouTube for people to watch and listen for free. I felt like I had just opened up a new world to discover in which the compass was my curiosity and tastes. There was no pressure pushing me towards listening to certain songs, and there was no limit to the ways in which I could find new music. I discovered that almost every artist had a Wikipedia page for their discography, documenting which albums and singles had charted highly, providing a starting point for my listening given an artist I liked. I consistently found new songs from the related videos section on YouTube, the comments section on the videos, or by searching the discographies of the artists featured on the songs I liked. Eventually I would find music journalism sites like Pitchfork that shared my tastes and opened me up to further discovery.
I loved the way I found music. I felt a sense of identity with each song I discovered and a sense of community when I found that other people liked a song too. I developed trust with the opinions of certain sites and my tastes expanded into genres I never thought I’d come to enjoy. I came to see the way I discovered and cultivated tastes as a product of a unique moment in time, when all of the music was available for immediate listening so long as you were looking for it. While I did most of my listening on YouTube, the website did next to nothing to curate my listening experience other than providing similar videos or by allowing people to post comments that might pique my interest.
I recognized that this wasn’t the best experience possible though. Sometimes I felt like I had to search particularly hard in order to find the actual song I wanted if it wasn’t on YouTube. In order to listen to music on the go or to store it for later listening, I had to either pay for the song on iTunes or (gasp!) engage in the frowned upon practice of using a YouTube-to-MP3 downloader to get the songs I wanted. I didn’t want to have to fork up $0.99 or spend ten minutes downloading and organizing a song in my iTunes library. When traveling, I had to plan ahead for all of the music I might want to hear, unable to discover new songs on the go.
I remember years ago going on Facebook to see that some of my friends were listening to music through a web app for something called Spotify. This was the first time I had ever heard of a music streaming service, but I hoped it may be able to provide the experience that I was looking for. In the years since, after using a variety of music streaming services, I have yet to find one that provides the kind of music listening and discovery experience that makes me feel the way I did when I got my first iPod.
The rise of music streaming services has revitalized the music industry by allowing listeners to access millions of songs instantly on their mobile device, typically by subscribing to the service for a monthly fee. With the subscription model providing access to all songs in the catalogue of a streaming service, rather than as an a la carte purchase, listeners have the ability to explore music without having to weigh competing needs when they click play. With no cost to listening, other than one’s time, listeners no longer have to read album reviews, pay attention to singles that promote an album, limit themselves to 90 second previews from the iTunes store, or seek out the best advice on what to listen to from their friends. This isn’t inherently good or bad, but it does theoretically provide listeners with the opportunity to listen to new music and judge it based not on how much it cost or what others said about it, but how it makes them feel when they listen to it.
The freedom to listen to almost any song instantly at no additional cost should make listeners feel empowered to explore new music. However, what I have found in my experience with music streaming applications is that they fail to consider how a user like me might feel when opening the app, showing a host of playlists, features, and a sense of faux personalization. I like to explore music myself, and it feels like an experience is pushed on me that I don’t want. To me, having the option to choose between my path is what’s most important as it allows me to act upon the feeling that led me to open the app in the first place.
When I use streaming services to discover new music, I find the pages designed for exploration often constrict my possibilities within a catalogue of millions of songs. What I want to feel from a discover page is to feel like I've been given the keys to a new car with a full tank of gas and a whole country to explore – here I feel like I’m picking one of several traincars to ride around the same city as everyone else.
While music streaming services, in my opinion, struggle to provide an immersive and imaginative experience for exploring new music, they also tend to be unsuccessful in their ability to provide listeners with the comforting and identity-centric experience of returning to their favorites. Because listeners don’t need to acquire a song in order to listen to it on demand as they did with digital downloads or physical purchases, there is no force driving listeners to build a personal library as used to occur as a byproduct of the economics of physical and digital marketplaces. Instead, with every song, playlist, or album heard, listeners have to make a decision whether or not they want to return to it. In the physical space, this is akin to listening through a song or album at a record store and having to decide whether to set that album down or bring it home to sit on a bookshelf, recognizing it as part of one’s personal library. On music streaming platforms, the menu of options for a piece of music often include seemingly redundant choices that don't make it clear how is the best way to save a song, be it in a playlist, in a collection, or in a library.
The way in which we decide to return to a song, album, or playlist can vary categorically, yet music streaming services don’t let listeners save songs, albums, or playlists categorically. For example, a listener may connect some music as what they would call, “nighttime driving music.” Given the way streaming services have designed their apps, listeners could get close to categorically saving the music they consider, “nighttime driving music,” by creating a playlist in which they can put all of the songs, songs of the albums, and songs of the playlists that they feel belongs in this category. What the user has at the end is a long list of songs that is unorganized, making it difficult for a listener to make a listening decision when they go driving at night. If streaming services instead allowed users to save their music in ways that they categorically think about their music, the result would be a more intuitive, less frustrating experience.
The goal of any user of a music streaming service is to arrive at music to listen to. There are many decisions that users make in their heads when they select what they will listen to, be it conscious or not. The job of the music streaming application is to facilitate this emotional journey by understanding the considerations listeners are making in their head and allowing them to manifest in use of the app. On the whole, what music streaming services have done is overwhelm users with pages that fail to consider what certain listener behaviors, struggle to provide creative options to explore music, and offer the bare minimum in design of the personal library.
Streaming service applications can, and should do much better by considering the app from the perspective of a music listener. What follows is a proposed version of a music streaming service that seeks to provide listeners with the ability to explore music, engage with listeners, and return to favorites in intuitive, natural, and engaging ways.
Welcome to Spacecraft
Our visualizations often affect our decision making, and this is especially true in regards to how we engage with music. Before music was made available digitally, selecting something to listen to meant visualizing behaviors in a physical space, be it picking out a record and putting it on the turntable or going to the stereo and selecting a radio station. If someone were to visualize all of the recorded music in the world, a warehouse of albums stacked to the ceiling might come to mind.
As music has moved to the digital space, it has been presented to users in lists and tiles, organized in space next to each other. Visualizing all of the recorded music in a music streaming app would likely be a seemingly endless list of songs to tap on, sorted alphabetically. To visualize music in this way makes the idea of a song feel static and the relationships between songs feel arbitrary. This visualization of music directly affects the ways in which people think and feel about music in an uninspiring and stale manner.
An opportunity exists to create an interface that allows music fans to feel that there is an entire universe of music out there to explore, as if each song, album, or playlist is its own planet for discovery with its own climate and atmosphere. In order for users to feel that there is a universe of music rather than a seemingly endless catalogue of songs, I’ve decided to adopt an outer-space design for the application. The goal here is to make music discovery feel like soaring across the galaxy and landing on planets.
Welcome to Spacecraft.
Users arrive to Spacecraft home page with what looks like the view out of the window of a spaceship. The goal of creating an immersive experience begins with considering how listeners feel when they open the app. Spacecraft is designed so that whatever feelings and intentions with which users enter the app can be acted upon in a way that is consistent with the outer space concept.
For those who arrive to Spacecraft knowing exactly the song to which they want to listen, they can intuitively use search to find it. For those who arrive unsure of what they want to hear, Spacecraft facilitates the decision making process with two planets at opposite ends of the screen - Explore and Return - that encourage users to consider selecting their music as either something new or something familiar. The gestures used to visit either planet - moving outward toward Explore and inward toward Return - mirror what the actions mean to the users.
Spacecraft recognizes that listening to music is a social experience. From the home page, users can visit the Engage page to connect with friends over their exploration of the music universe.
For the users who wish to use their time with Spacecraft discovering new music, the Explore page is where they begin their journey. The universe of music available on most music streaming services is seemingly limitless. Spacecraft is designed for the experience of discovering new music to feel like arriving upon an unexplored planet somewhere in the vast universe of music. This experience begins with the selection of one of several different exploring options presented as galaxies. Shown here are a galaxy to explore Curated music from staff and publications, a galaxy of Popular music as defined by several different categories, a galaxy of New music that has arrived at the universe recently, and a galaxy of music that is Similar to music either currently on the user's home planet or found from a search.
The non-list design of the explore page is intended to present these galaxies in a non-hierarchical manner, to encourage users to be intentional about what they discover each time they explore, and for new galaxies to become available in a surprising manner.
One intuitive way to explore music is by checking out what other people are listening to the most. With Spacecraft's Popular galaxy, users have the ability to see the most streamed music based on several categories and measures. Users begin by defining the scope of the universe they wish to consider for what's popular. By designing this way, users can attach more meaning to the music with which they will be presented and can be more intentional about the specificity of the music for which they are searching.
In future iterations, the information would be visualized in a manner that is more inspiring and consistent with the outer space concept, but in order to demonstrate the concept, it is presented here in a mainly the form of a list. For future consideration, the outer space concept allows for information to be presented in more meaningful ways, where songs may be visualized as planets themselves and their size may indicate their popularity for example.
The objects of the physical universe are often defined by their relationships to other objects. In the universe of music, some people define songs based on how they relate to other music, yet are often unable to explore songs that are similar to one that they have in mind. Spacecraft seeks to provide users who wish to find the songs, or album in the same orbit as the music they have in mind through the Similar galaxy of the Explore page.
With Similar, users select a song or album and can explore the music that is in its orbit. The orbit of songs and albums is constructed by algorithm, staff, and most importantly users of the app. This is demonstrated here in which the user has selected the song Down on my Luck by Vic Mensa and explored the song On My Mind by Jorja Smith in its orbit. There, the user can see that the song was connected by user John Page for the reason shared. The user can then play the song, add it to their queue, add it to their library, or share it.
One thing that separates music from film and television is the way in which people return to music on a regular basis. Music fans feel a sense of their identity in their music that should be reinforced by the visualization of that music. In the context of music streaming, the convenience of being able to listen to almost any song in an instant without having to pay for each additional song heard creates a strong situation that can affect how listeners form relationships with their music. Because there is no cost to listening to each song, it is sometimes difficult to form the same connections to music as listeners made in the past when a desire to hear an album meant having to purchase it as well as having a sense of ownership.
On Spacecraft, the Return page is designed to provide the feeling music fans get when looking at their alphabetized bookcase of records through a visualization that challenges notions of ownership and allows the natural ways listeners associate songs to manifest. Here, users can return to the music they discovered as they navigated the universe of music in a variety of galaxies in a meaningful way.
Listeners often define certain music as their favorite and it is a source of identifying with music. Spacecraft considers the natural tendency of music fans to create the centerpiece of the user's personal library, the FAV50. Here, listeners can return to their 50 favorite artists, playlists, songs, and albums, each its own galaxy created and defined by the listener. While the FAV50 serves to define the identity of the user's define page, it also provides a reliable set of music for listeners to visit quickly.
Another important feature of the PERSONAL LIBRARY is the MY CATEGORIES page. Here, listeners can return to their music based on the way they categorize music. Instead of settling by putting songs into a clunky playlist, listeners can sort by the playlists, albums, artists, and songs that they associate with a given category. For example, some people associate certain music with being poolside, or whatever, “poolside,” means to the listener. In that category, the listener can store all the music they associate with poolside, be it 99.9% by Kaytranada, a Summer Hits 2003 playlist, or the discography of Led Zeppelin.
From the home page, users can connect with others who are exploring the music universe through the Engage page. The goal of the Engage page is to make exploring music feel less like an act done in isolation by allowing users to interact with and follow people they know and people who share similar tastes. Users can connect their Facebook contacts and find profiles within the app to create a network of tethers between listeners, akin to a friend in other social networks.
Users can also connect with listeners who share similar interests through communities. Communities center around specific music interests and are open to all users of the app and allow users to share original posts. Imagine having the ability to visit the New Music Friday community to see what listeners think of the day's new releases, the NY Underground community to discuss low-profile acts centered in New York, or the Keep Hustling community where users share playlists they exercise to, all within the app.
We feel passionate about the music we listen to, and people want to share that passion with the people they know. While some music apps allow users to see their friend activity, they don't not allow users to see what their friends think of the music they’re listening to. On Spacecraft, users can add notes to the songs, albums, and playlists they listen to, viewable by those they're tethered to. In the feed, users can engage with these notes or the listening of their friends by commenting, playing the content, or adding it to the user’s library. Users can also recommend music which will be placed in a user’s inbox on the Engage page.
Preparing for Launch
At present, Spacecraft is the ideas and concepts presented here for how a music streaming service could be more than just a place to listen to music. If this were to be carried forward, there is a lot to be developed, including figuring out how to make a pun related to crate digging and a crater.
What music streaming services have done so far to breathe life back into the music industry says a lot about how well they meet the needs of consumers that had not been met before. The hope isn't necessarily for Spacecraft to be produced as a replacement for those platforms, but does beg the question of whether users should be treated as one uniform set of people. Perhaps among music fans there is a subset who is more passionate about how they discover their music, the community they form around it, and how they identify with it, for whom a service such as Spacecraft would better suit their needs. For a time, music streaming services competed based on whether they had exclusive content. It's possible that a streaming company could find a new lane by rejecting a 'one size fits all' approach and instead create a product line of various applications that have different features and are offered at different price points.
Ultimately, Spacecraft serves to help move the conversation forward about how those who design music streaming services might consider the possibilities to create a truly compelling experience. Given how much time and consideration an artist puts into their records to make it a meaningful experience to listeners, it's up to the streaming services to try to achieve the same in how they allow music fans to explore and listen to music.