Spotify has three main business and design goals that guide most of the user experience within the app: (1) selling Premium subscriptions on the strength of its recommendation algorithm and personalized playlists; (2) monetizing free users and podcast listeners through ad sales; (3) maximizing user engagement in order to maximize the data available for its recommendation and ad sales algorithms. The common denominator here is the recommendation algorithm. It runs on the data collected from engaged users, and funds itself in part through its ability to target ads to free users and podcast listeners.
This cluster of interests manifests in the app’s design in some notable ways.
The clearest example of how Spotify nudges users to engage with the app in ways that are profitable to Spotify is the way it organizes its refinement chips. Refinement chips are the pill-shaped buttons at the top of the Home and Library screens that allow users to filter the page content to show, for example, Playlists or Albums. On the Library screen, Spotify puts the refinement chip for Playlists first, followed by “Podcasts & Shows”, followed by Albums and Artists. Because of the design of the refinement chips, the artist and album chips fall off the right side of the screen and typically must be scrolled back into view by users interested in those filters.
Playlists come first among the refinement chips because user-generated playlists provide raw data for Spotify’s recommendation algorithm, the backbone of the product, and is the library subcategory most users engage with most. Podcasts come second because Spotify sells ads there — even to premium users, which effectively hypermonetizes users who are already paying monthly to use the platform. Spotify doesn’t allow users to rearrange these refinement chips; if they did, I expect that more music-minded users might push Podcasts to the back of the list and move Albums and Artists forward.
We can also see Spotify’s business incentives at work in the structure of its Home screen. At the top, Spotify presents users with playlists and podcasts that the users spends the most time with. This works to draw users in at the first point of contact with music that makes them feel good and shows they want to stay updated with. Lower on the page is a lengthy list of semi-random, largely algorithmically-generated sections showing music that is calculated to appeal to the individual user. The contents of these sections are only viewable in full by scrolling horizontally, which forces the user to expend extra energy than if it were viewable as a vertical list. By encouraging the user to invest in the process of looking at Spotify’s recommendations, the app increases screen use time and builds psychological investment in the user. The company can also use this screen to A/B test sections arrangements (“Made for You” playlists near the top, or bottom?) across user groups, or to optimize in response to the behaviors of a single user.
1. refinement chips
The Spotify app does some things very well, including the Now Playing screen in Car Mode; vertical scrolling resistance and section layout on Music, Podcast, and Audiobooks home screen refinements; and header format on podcast episode list screens.