The original Spotify app—the one on computers, not phones—started out with a very simple premise: Share free music with friends, and do it in a comfortable interface that we all knew (iTunes). Rather than out-design Apple, Spotify stole and stole hard.
It was a smart approach. Many of us transitioned to a cloud music library without even realizing the cloud was there (or even knowing what the cloud was). To many, Spotify just felt like a free version of iTunes rather than some weird new experience.
Today, Spotify has released their iPad app. It’s more impressive by large than their previous apps on computers and smartphones. And if nothing else, it’s a symbol that the company is maturing in its design, growing more confident, and while still stealing the occasional idea without a hint of shame, doing so in a way that makes Spotify’s iPad app an all around better experience than Apple’s own pairing of Music and iTunes apps.
Of course, it all starts from stealing one of Apple’s core ideas.
With the launch of the iPhone, Apple integrated what felt like the perfect way to flip around your albums. It was called CoverFlow, and it was a satisfying, tactile means to casually browse your music on a touchscreen when you didn’t want to search through a list (Apple believed in the idea so much that it made its way into OSX’s file visualization system). But for some reason that’s beyond me, each new Apple product seems to bury CoverFlow a little bit deeper. (In fact, you won’t find it in Apple’s iPad apps at all.)
Meanwhile, Spotify introduces their entire iPad app with a CoverFlowesque interface right on top, full of recommended picks. It immediately tells the user to "touch me" and "explore." Is it the fastest way to find an album you’ve meant to listen to? No. But it trains the user from moment one that Spotify’s app is about discovery as much as consumption. (And besides, you can always just manually search for an artist if you’re in a rush.)
This casual discovery, which started at CoverFlow, permeates every bit of the UI. Because you’ve been invited to play, simple texts lists like "trending playlists" and "top tracks" become just as inviting to click as the colorful Facebook avatars that tease your friends’ playlists.
When you tap on any destination, there’s never a punishment for the decision—you won’t end up at a strange subscreen that takes forever to load, only to find yourself regretting checking out some new artist and unable to get back to where you were. Rather, you’ll always end up at music on the very next screen—a mere one layer (or one click) into the app’s UI at any given time. When you do click to explore any topic, an album/playlist panel pops up on the right side of the screen. Click to play it, then just swipe it that panel back off the screen to keep exploring. (The music keeps going without question, again, rewarding the user to keep exploring without minding the consequences.) And it doesn’t hurt that everything I just mentioned happens instantaneously. Even on my lousy DSL connection, the "extreme" quality 320Kbps music streams before my finger leaves the screen. Time will tell how the servers hold up as it makes its way up Apple’s top charts, but as of right now, it’s hard to imagine the UI being any more responsive.
Now, I could see some designers criticizing Spotify’s approach. The app does deploy a hodgepodge of icons, image sizes, grids and borders that seems excessive (and maybe even a bit sloppy) when you consider the UI from a purely academic standpoint. But as a casual user who’s just looking to discover some new music off the clock of Co.Design? It sucked me more than any subscription music app has before—including everything that Spotify has released thus far.
Nothing about Spotify has fundamentally changed since I uninstalled the software from my Macbook a few months back. It still defaults to share your embarrassing playlists with the world, and it has a serious penchant for Top 40 hits. Yet a new, addictively designed UI has me considering extending this 48-hour preview into a full-fledged subscription.