building-a-habit-forming-product

Dang Nguyen

*This is gonna be a long one*

I got the inspiration to write this case study after reading an amazing Instagram redesign article. Check it out.

I chose to redesign SoundCloud because I’ve been a user since 2011 and it has been my favorite streaming service ever since. Thanks to SoundCloud, I have discovered plenty of dope tracks and have made friends with a lot of creative people. However, not many of my friends appreciate SoundCloud’s features and valuable contents the way I do. I don’t think SoundCloud is receiving the recognition it deserves. My mission: to help solve its pain points and create a more engaging mobile app.

You can find my redesign prototype at the end of this case study.

Launched in 2008, SoundCloud is well-known for its unique content and features. As the world’s largest music platform, SoundCloud makes it possible for artists to connect directly with their fans. It is the home of millions of creators and listeners.

Dark Mode concept

Before working on the design, I gathered data from 47 people. 8 of those were interviewed via Messenger video, the rest over Google Form. The age of those users ranged from 17 to 25 years old. 95% of the people interviewed are Vietnamese and most of them are still students.

I asked the participants to describe SoundCloud using 3 adjectives. Among 74 adjectives collected, the top three were: Easy, Free, and Convenient.

I also asked what they liked about SoundCloud and what their pain points were.

Top 5 of what they liked about SoundCloud:

  1. It has a variety of unique tracks.
  2. It’s easy to use.
  3. It’s free.
  4. It’s considered a social media platform.
  5. It allows easy access for people to discover and connect with new artists.

Top 4 of their pain points:

  1. There is no download/ offline mode.
  2. The User Interface is bland.
  3. Few “mainstream” tracks.
  4. Most of the content on SC are low-quality songs.

Building a habit-forming product

Among 47 survey participants, only 7 have SoundCloud Go. 19% claimed they use SoundCloud everyday. Some people from the other groups stated that they used to use Soundcloud everyday but the need decreased over time.

With this information in mind, SoundCloud’s 2016 financial trouble started to make sense. And it occurred to me, maybe the problem was that the SoundCloud app failed to be a habit-forming product. I was introduced to this concept in the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal.

“A product’s habit-forming potential is determined by plotting two factors: frequency (how often the behavior occurs) and perceived utility (how useful and rewarding the behavior is in the user’s mind over alternative solution).” — Hooked by Nir Eyal.

According to Nir, the economic value of a product is proportional to the strength of the habits it creates.

When I asked people how they normally find new music, the top answers were YouTube, Spotify and SoundCloud. Notably, even though Spotify has only been in Vietnam since March 2018, it has already established a strong association with finding good music considering the majority of Vietnamese participants in my interview pool. This fits perfectly into Nir’s theory of perceived utility, as shown through Spotify’s inarguable dominance in generating playlists that understand the user’s taste to a surprising level of accuracy.

Clearly, SoundCloud is not the strongest streaming service in the market right now but as a music social media, its leading position remains unsurpassed. Therefore, I will focus more on how to embrace that advantage in redesigning the mobile app and turning it into a habit-forming product.

Because of the above analysis, my goals for this project will be to:

  • Embrace the social media aspect of the mobile app.
  • Turn the app into a more habit-forming product (and hopefully increase its conversion rate).
  • Create a more engaging and exciting User Interface that solves all the above pain points.
  • Create a more cohesive experience between the app and the web version.

And the goals for my personal improvement:

  • To practice the Hook Model — by Nir Eyal. (Yes I will be addressing point from the book)
  • Finish a project from start to end.
  • Conduct and analyze user research, improve design skillset and to learn how to master crafting animation with Principle.

Now, let’s go to the fun part.

In his book, Nir pointed out that variable reward is the most vital phase of the Hook model. This is the step that provides solutions for users’ needs while leaving them wanting to reengage.

I decided to make Stream the new Home Page for SoundCloud, inspired by the concept of the Reward of the Hunt from Hooked. What does it mean? The limitless saturated contents in the Stream, waiting to be found by a few simple scrolls is a compelling reward that keeps users spending more time with the app. This happens to be the same strategy used by Twitter and Instagram.

So why can’t Discover provide the same result? First of all, Discover is a personal experience thus can not embrace the feeling of social media. Second, rather than making the users feel good, Discover leaves them confused and overwhelmed as it is messy and has a content overload problem (I’m getting ahead of myself, we will continue to discuss this in the next section).

The current feed

I’ve taken on the liberty of removing the boxes/lines that seem redundant. This allows users to focus more on the content of the post while creating a simple yet elegant interface. Many of the participants told me they love the SoundCloud repeat function, so I added it on the Now Playing bar for easy access.

What if there is a popular track in the network and people have been reposting it like crazy? The users will soon find themselves stuck in a sea of repetitive content. To avoid a bombarded feed, reposts of the same track will be grouped as one post.

Message

This is a feature available on the website but not the current mobile app. I decided to put it on top of the home page as it resonates with this social media vibe. SoundCloud claims to be an open platform that helps connecting artists and their fans. Let’s make that a reality.

Now Playing

I like the current Now Playing screen. It looks unique, is easy to use, and definitely is very SoundCloud-ish. The only improvement I would make here is to pull out the well-known “Comment on minute” feature and put it right under the wavelength.

Many of my friends told me one of the things they liked while listening to a track was reading its lyrics. And I’ve noticed some artists do put their lyrics in the descriptions of their songs. After a few tweaks, I introduce you the new Now Playing screen:

I acknowledge that Discover is a critical feature of any streaming service, one that would determine its overall success. So I asked people what their thoughts were on their current experience with SoundCloud Discover.

28% of the responses were positive, 27% negative, and 45% gave neutral feedbacks.

When I looked further into their answers, the reasons 45% of users gave neutral responses were because:

  1. They don’t really use Discover as they already have Spotify. (hint: neutral is actually bad because it means they’re not using it).
  2. They think the experience is just average (How can SoundCloud compete with its competitors if it’s just “average”?).

Among the negative responses, the top 3 complaints were:

  1. Discover is not impressive.
  2. It is not updated frequently.
  3. Suggestions do not fit users’ tastes.

To help further understand the problem, here are the Discover information architectures (IA) I made at the begin of June compared to when I started writing this case study:

Discover information architecture

As it turns out the genres are updated frequently but no one seems to have noticed it (myself included). This is because of content overload. At the moment, there are 17 genres/categories for users to explore. Each of these categories displays 3 options at once. Hence just by scrolling up and down, the users are bombarded with 51 options, pushing them into the paradox of choice (an overwhelming pool of options can lead to stress, anxiety, and less commitment to the final choice).

Additionally, these 17 genres/categories are the same to everyone. This shows a great lack of empathy and reduces users’ interest in the app. Discover is heavily a personal experience and it should be crafted manually, using algorithm and machine learning.

Since flipping bits and writing algorithm are not my jams, I came up with something else:

When you follow someone because you like their content, it makes sense if you would appreciate the music they like. My research shows that other than streaming services, people often find new music through friends’ suggestions. This category will be organized based on interactions between you and your friends, as well as the tracks that they mutually enjoy, given priority to the friends that you interact the most with on this platform.

To make Discover more personal towards users, I reduced the number of categories down to 6 (according to Miller’s Law, an average person can keep only about 7 items in their working memory). These categories are non-biased and can be customized to match each user’s taste:

Friend Recommendation, SoundCloud Weekly, Trending, Lit Playlists, Suggested Artists, Best of SoundCloud — The fabulous six.

But don’t worry, I didn’t get rid of the rest of the categories. I figured if the users want something personal, they can have the feed to themselves, but if they want to explore and find new genres, the carousel of cards is for them! As you can see below, the visual representation uses images that closely resemble themes of the music content, which will make it easier for users to skim through and pick the option most appealing to them without having to read the title.

Real quick on Search

My proposal

The only thing I don’t like about Search is that the results are often messy and unorganized. Currently, users can navigate Search in 2 directions: they can either scroll the filter bar to change the category, or they can move up and down to view the results. Because both horizontal and vertical movements can affect search results, users are left confused.

I removed the filter bar to make the design simpler and less confusing for the users.

Other than that, I think Search fits perfectly into the discover and explore experience. So naturally, I merged it with Discover.

Current Search vs New Search

SoundCloud built its success on independent artists. The reason it became the world’s largest streaming service with over 180 million tracks was because of these creators. According to my research, many people said the biggest thing they loved about SoundCloud was that it offered a variety of unique tracks. Therefore, implementing an upload feature seems obvious. So obvious that I am surprised why SoundCloud hasn’t allowed it to happen.

Introducing The Studio

One of my main concerns when making this was the time it takes to upload a track. If uploading a track takes too long, it will undoubtedly affect user experience. While uploading an audio file is different from a photo, here is a trick I stole from Instagram that might solve this concern.

The trick is simple. While the user is busy picking artworks and filling the title, the track is already being uploaded onto the server. By the time they hit that Publish button, the upload will already be halfway done.

Besides uploading, The Studio also makes it easier for users to create and edit playlists (let’s remember SoundCloud is also the home of music curators).

People can search for a track or add it from their library

In the current version of the app, there is no way to check for account notifications. While SoundCloud created Pulse — a version for creators — to solve the problem, I believe this should be implemented right into the current app.

The reasons why I think Pulse is a bad solution:

  • Jumping back and forth between apps is not fun. If I want to check my Notification I have to switch to Pulse and Pulse kicks me back to SoundCloud whenever I tap on my Profile.
  • Although having a way to check your stats and notification can come in handy, that’s the only thing SoundCloud Pulse does. Therefore, I think it’s unnecessary.
  • The cost and effort of sustaining an app.
  • Artists don’t know about Pulse. One of my friends told me she didn’t know how to turn to ‘artist’ mode in the current app.

“It would be nice if the app has a way to turn to ‘artist’ mode” — A friend of mine — an artist — when asked what improvements she wanted for the redesign.

In my design, Notification will serve as the Reward of the Tribe (another term I learned from Hook). Humans all seek social validation and this is why we have that tingling feeling every time someone likes our photos on Instagram, comments on our Facebook posts, or claps on our Medium article. It is reasonable to embrace that feeling. And although we already have the number of likes and listens displayed on our posts, it is not enough. We have to be notified.

SoundCloud Pulse right in the heart of SoundCloud

The biggest complaint I got was that there was no download/offline mode. When I was looking closely into every part of the app, I found the Download function buried deep inside that 3 dots on top of Library. The obvious solution was to bring it to light.

SoundCloud is good at hiding its features.

A user’s Library should feel personal and resemble a social media platform. I decided to put User Profile here instead.

“More” was unnecessary so I merged it with “Settings”.

“Recently played” refers to the artist profiles or playlists that have been visited while “Listening history” is a list of tracks that have been listened to (do you see how awkward this sentence is?). These 2 are quite similar (they are exactly the same!) and can cause confusion, therefore I merged those into one as well.

Profile

The current Profile and the redesign version

In my vision, Profile is where creators showcase their works and connect with their fans. To improve the visual, I introduced some slight changes.

Artist’s Profile (Yes, I’m a big fan of Trang)

Dark Mode

Ever since Apple introduced dark mode for Mojave, I’ve been obsessed with it. With a content-heavy platform like SoundCloud, having a dark mode helps ease the eyes and increase focus, while providing an aesthetic look.

It took me a week staring at the screen, not knowing what to write. The fear of rejection creeped in, and July heat only made the situation worse. I was slowly consumed.

What if my design doesn’t really solve the problems I found? What if the points I make are all wrong?

I was close to giving in to my inner demon and turning off the screen. Maybe this is it. This whole thing is not meant to be.

Then I saw the initial scribbles in my notebook and realized one thing: it had been a wonderful journey. In an ideal world, this case study would be perfect — but isn’t life all about being comfortable with your uncertainty? I have fears and that’s okay. Screw being right, I’m confronting all of my fears and anxiety all at once by putting myself up here, and that’s all that matters.

I sat down and typed the first paragraph, with nothing certain in mind except for one thing:

I am a product designer.


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