Spotify Design Critique: An Interview with Design Pro Xintong Liu

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We don't need to tell you that Spotify is a big deal. In fact … yeah, we thought so. You're listening to something on Spotify right now, aren't you? 

It's cool, that's actually pretty good timing. We're going to talk about Spotify today, or more accurately, we're going to share with you a professional UX and UI (that's User Experience and User Interface, respectively) designer's thoughts on how Spotify is designed. 

Xintong Liu is a veteran designer who has racked up credits with some of the most well-known and design-forward companies in the world: Microsoft and Apple, to be specific. 

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Oh yeah, and Liu has also done a whole bunch of pro bono work throughout the pandemic for minority-owned small businesses. 

We recently asked Liu all about Spotify. We wanted to know what she thought about how the service is designed across its various iterations (browser version, app, desktop), and the results are fascinating. 

designer xintong liu

If you're interested in design, this interview is for you. If you're only vaguely interested in design but you use Spotify a lot, this interview is also for you. 

You'll learn more about design and also get some educated guesses about the reasoning behind specific design decisions. 

No platform is perfect, of course, so Liu also shared some comments on specific areas where Spotify's design could be improved. 

Thanks for joining us and enjoy the interview! Just keep scrolling down, you can't miss it. 

Jam Addict (JA): We'd like you to give some opinions on the overall UI and UX of Spotify. What are your general impressions?

Xintong Liu (XL): Spotify’s application has a unique use scenario and requirements. It is one of the few applications that people use while they are multitasking. Each scenario requires a unique design. 

For at-home use, Spotify’s application provides the most categorized information. All the information listed on the front page of the Spotify application are playlists, instead of individual songs. The designer believes that the best practice is to keep users engaged and on the application longer. 

Once the user finishes a song, they tend to listen to other songs in a similar genre. For outdoor use, although the design is the same as at-home use, you can find evidence that the designer has thought about what the users need in this scenario. Users who use it outdoors are often walking or exercising. Their goal is to quickly find playlists that are similar to what they listen to while at home. 

spotify xintong liu

Therefore, in the search feature, instead of just focusing on the search bar, they have many recommendations, including “Your Top Genres.” It is a very convenient feature/design that users don’t have to think much while choosing a playlist because they know they'll like it, based on what they've listened to before. 

Use while driving is very different. Driving is a task where users need maximum attention on the road. Side tasks, such as changing a song, could mean a life or death situation for users. 

Therefore, Spotify’s design greatly simplifies its design and look for the driving mode and only lets users select their recently played songs. 

All in all, Spotify’s designers have done a brilliant job on platform and feature design. They not only keep users in the app, but also care about each use case and scenario. 

JA: Do you think navigation on Spotify is smooth?

XL: Simplicity is what makes Spotify stand out. The main nav bar of Spotify only has three tabs: Home, Search, and Your Library. The bottom navigation and music player floats above the rest of the screen and is consistent throughout the pages. 

It helps reduce cognition load for users when they make a decision, and this makes it easy to navigate the functionality of the app. If you look at other music apps on the market, most of them have four or five tabs in the navigation bar, which adds more layers for users to choose from and makes the app more complicated.

xintong liu design

JA: What about Spotify's color scheme? Do you think it aids UX overall?

XL: The dark interface is very fitting for Spotify. It really surrounds the experience of the users because most music concerts and entertainment events take place at night when it's dark. 

When implementing dark interfaces, it's very important to pay attention to negative space so that there is enough spacing between light texts/images to pop in the dark background. If there was a lot of text and clutter, competing text and images would be overwhelming.

Spotify uses negative space well. In terms of color, bold, neon-like green is fitting for Spotify. Green is associated with stress relief, and adding brightness makes the brand more vibrant and exciting. Spotify uses green very strategically in a few places to highlight the most important things.

JA: What is one of the biggest things you would change about Spotify's UI?

XL: I would focus on improving user experience and community building. Currently, the Share function is limited. If you find a song you like and want to share with your friends, the app will direct you to third-party messaging or social media apps instead of letting you share within the app. 

From a business and user experience perspective, the last thing you want to do is to send your users to other places. The music community is huge and it’s growing really fast. If Spotify can leverage the connection from the music community and let users connect and communicate with each other within the app, they will see more user retention and loyalty. Users will have a more unified and cohesive experience in one place and feel a sense of belonging.

JA: What do you think the top priorities should be when designing a music streaming app?

XL: Content first. When users open a music streaming app, their primary goal is very straightforward: listen to music. Therefore, when designing a music streaming app, the top priority should be to allow users to access the content easily and intuitively.

JA: What do you see as potential sources of frustration in Spotify's design?

XL: Adding a new playlist to your library is not a difficult task. However, editing a specific playlist is not as easy as it seems. 

Right now, there is no function for users to edit or customize a specific playlist. The workaround is that users need to create their own list and add songs one by one. If I find a playlist I like and want to add a few more songs to that list, I don’t have the option to do that. Creating a "duplicate the playlist” feature could potentially help reduce user frustration.

spotify design

JA: Do you think the mobile version of Spotify is better or worse to use than the desktop or browser versions?

XL: I think Spotify has done a great job to create a responsive design for their app. The UI design is consistent, which makes it easy for users to navigate when they hop to and from different devices. 

Since the desktop and browser versions have more space than mobile, Spotify wisely uses that additional space for the features that they have to hide in mobile, such as more controls for the music player, friend activities, and playlists.

Note: Screen captures of Spotify included in this article have been altered slightly to protect the privacy of the journalist. 

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