Music Discovery UX Is Broken—Here’s How To Fix It

Music recommenders have failed to convince a decade’s worth of listeners to purposefully visit, pick an artist from a recommended playlist, and choose what to listen to. It’s time to fix that user experience. Here’s how to do it.

Despite what you may have heard, the state of music discovery is still in shambles. Even with Spotify and Rdio’s recent enhancements to their discovery features, they’re still competing for a very small group of deeply interested music fanatics. Online streaming services of all kinds are still pursuing discovery with a brute force mentality: If we can just suggest a few hundred more songs, maybe we can satisfy everyone! Unfortunately, the problem with discoverability isn’t actually discoverability: It’s the user experience that surrounds it.

The issue with music discovery sites used to be that they just weren’t very good at picking music the listener enjoyed. Everyone’s now much better at understanding the listener, but in trying to improve discovery algorithms, the algorithms themselves inadvertently became the sole focus of most music discovery. The result is essentially someone spouting off a thousand really good recommendations in a five-minute span, which is just as ineffective as if a friend gives you a single bad recommendation. It’s a terrible user experience: Being overwhelmed by too many choices, however good or bad, is not an efficient way to get average, non-enthusiast listeners to find their next favorite band.

The problem is similar to the one Apple foresaw when they developed the App Store. How many new apps per month can a typical user add to their daily workflow? At most, maybe one new app per week. To solve this problem, Apple promotes roughly 8-10 new and noteworthy apps each week. People who are enthusiastic about cool new apps can find them on their own. The new and noteworthy features are for the much larger group of users who only open the App Store once a month.

The same is true about music. A typical person just can’t sustain a new favorite artist every single day over the course of a year, which is why discovery playlists and stations just aren’t very useful. What if, instead of bombarding users with suggestions, discovery services followed the Twitter ads model? In place of more stations and playlists, these services could slip a recommendation based on the people you follow naturally into your stream at a comfortable pace that doesn’t overwhelm you. Users could check a few boxes in their profile to manage frequency and other customizations to music recommendations slipstreamed into their feed.

Spotify and Rdio’s discovery features are pretty good for constantly engaged music fanatics, but that’s not the majority of users—if it were, paid subscriptions to these services would be growing much faster. There’s no doubt that Rdio and Spotify have good suggestions for everyone, but the hardest part is actually getting people to take advantage of these recommendations. Music recommenders have failed to convince a decade’s worth of listeners to purposefully visit, pick an artist from a recommended playlist, and choose what to listen to. It’s time to fix that user experience.

[Image: Flickr user Kara Harms]

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  • Jalal Karim

    I've always wanted to see a list of 'influences' next to suggested artists. My greatest music discoveries have come from exploring the artists who pioneered the genre.

  • Burc Sahinoglu

    Sometimes we don't need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to improve it. Radio does a good job at providing a good discovery experience as long as you pick the right radio and time slot (DJ.)

    At https://www.hivebeats.com we try to duplicate this experience but we've replaced the DJ by people *you* pick. We call this list your "trusted hive".

    The playlist itself is built on what's listened the most in your trusted hive and we provide a very simple way to influence your music experience on the spot, just like a radio dial, but turning it changes your experience less dramatically, a fine tuning of DJs.

    It's in early alpha - caveat, not touch by a designer yet - but it works and it's free, feel free to try it. 

  • @indiesongaday

    This is one thing I have configured on my own custom playlists.   I asked myself this question...  What would your ideal radio station play?   (Thus, how often would they play music you know and love?  How often would they play music you know and like?  How often would they play music you've heard before but haven't indicated that you like or hate?  How often would they introduce new music to you?)

    I then created a playlist that is auto populated on the answers to these questions, along with more details that I left out to not bore you, and I use this playlist a lot!   Friends who have listened to the same playlist have loved it.  (of course they have similar music taste)

    I've been doing this for well over 8 years.  This is just an example of something I've done to improve my music discovery experience.   I don't fully understand why the big players haven't implemented something like this, and obviously simplified the interaction required, for the everyday user.  There is so much more that could be done and I've yet to see anyone try it.

  • MLJCubed

    Designing for the problem that you have makes a lot of sense. I'm not a huge fan of AppStore discovery, but Apple's design makes sense in the context that they're trying to make it easier for the typical user who opens the App once a month, not the dude who tries new Apps every day.

  • Tyler

    More explicitly, if you *have* to visit a music site to get music recommendations then the services are failing. There needs to be more, natural, ways of reaching people in their own world.

  • Wayne Hoobler

    I appreciate you alluding to decision fatigue that comes with an over-saturated amount of options, however, I'm going to still recommend you check out Grooveshark.  I attached an image here of a user dashboard.  It's hyper-visual, highlighting the album-art, which invites the user to scroll through the suggested songs and albums.  

    And though this almost direcfly contradicts with your less-is-more theory, not only do I find the UX to be pleasant, I find the suggestions to be really spot-on and have found all of my indie music through their suggestions as of late.  

    However, I think a great feature would be maybe 3 artists of the month, either based off your choices or just picked by an admin/editor.  

  • glenn mcdonald

    "naturally into your stream at a comfortable pace that doesn’t overwhelm you"

    Not only is this exactly what Rdio's new You FM station does, but you even get a Familiar-to-Adventurous control to express what "comfortable pace" means to you.