A Product Story: We Learned Three Lessons from Developing a Mobile App: Spotify Engineering

October 5, 2021
Published by Spotify Engineering

TL; DR Remember what life was like before the smartphone? Remember to manually sync playlists from your computer to your iPod whenever you add some songs? One of Spotify’s core products, our mobile app, was specifically designed to let go of all the busyness of the past that we travel with our music forever.

In 02 episodes of our podcast series, Spotify: A product story, Host and chief R&D officer Gustav Soderstrom chatted with engineers, executives and other spotters who helped make the mobile streaming revolution possible. Why is it so difficult to create Spotify for mobile even after creating a desktop app? Why was Spotify’s licensing agreement a game changer for us? Keep reading to find out the answers, and don’t forget to listen to the podcast to find out more.

What is user research really for?

When we first launched the Spotify desktop app in Sweden in 2008, the idea of ​​creating an on-the-go version of that same experience was out of the question. After all, Spotify didn’t have access to an iPod or other dedicated digital music player, and moreover, at the time, most phones had enough memory to hold a handful of songs.

Then something happened. Has a smartphone. The iPhone is gone. The idea of ​​suddenly creating a software that people could carry with them everywhere didn’t seem so far-fetched.

Although it was theoretically possible to create a mobile version of Spotify, there was a major problem. A free, offline music app that can really compete with an already offline MP3 player wasn’t just on the card. First, it can’t be free – you can’t click on ads without an internet connection – so it has to be a paid service. Also, our listeners were already able to access all the music they wanted through piracy. So, again, we had to ask ourselves something: Why would anyone pay for Spotify? How do you charge for free?

And in fact, when we surveyed our users, we discovered that ড 10 per month – the numbers we fixed a few months after negotiating the license with the labels (a little more on them) – was a number literally no one said they would pay.

Well, at least they are Said That. See, user research is great, but you need to know what it’s actually for. That was us Lesson One: User research to understand what people do Think They will, what they will not actually do.

There is a reason for this, as Gustav mentioned.

Gustav: People are not very good at predicting our own future behavior, especially when we are ready to offer something like convenience. We can’t think that our future is making ourselves lazy.

That’s right. In other words, as we discovered when creating the desktop app, convenience is key. Of course people don’t think they will pay for what they were already getting for free – but it is much more convenient than if they are using it. At least that’s what we bet.

We just need to find another magic trick.

Beware of your optimization bias

Although it was easier said than done. Putting aside the business side of things, creating a mobile experience convenient enough to actually transform music pirates was a long order without an obvious solution.

Then, in the early days of Spotify, the desktop app may technically be able to run on the iPhone, but that doesn’t mean it was built for it. When Gustav asked Matthias Arelid, one of Spotify’s first Mac developers, what the challenges were in translating the desktop app into a great mobile product, two things immediately came to Matius’ mind:

  1. “One [challenge] That is … a phone does not have a steady power supply. For example, it does not have a constant high-bandwidth network connection. Spotify was, at the time, at least peer-to-peer leveraging যদি if you do that on the phone, you basically force it to turn on the radio quite a bit. And it ends up being inning in terms of batteries. ”
  1. “The other is data. [When] Spotify was running on your desktop, depending on what kind of data connection you had [you] No need to really care … On the phone, you had a lot of contracts that included limited bandwidth in the monthly allowance. So you really wanted to be careful about using it. ”

As can be seen by making the desktop app as efficient as possible, we were actually developing something that was Only Efficient as a desktop app. Concerns like bandwidth and power consumption are never a factor in the equation, since you don’t have to worry about them when you’re a desktop user. And right there The second lesson Comes: Whether you realize it or not, you are always optimizing for something. It’s not always a bad thing – after all, you’re still optimizing – but you’re unknowingly creating blind spots for yourself and your product, which can hinder your growth on the road.

Madius and the engineering team came up with a solution to improve battery performance by changing the codecs we used to encode audio. (Dive into the full episode to hear all the details about why.) But it wasn’t just the technical impact of changing our codecs – it also had the commercial impact, the impact that was nicely involved with our final lesson.

Only half of your technology story

Spotify did not invent streaming, and it was only a matter of time before other companies could start shutting down a service like what we were offering. All we needed was, in other words, a breakthrough in our business strategy.

Enter licensing. Contrary to what you might expect, there is no one-size-fits-all codec license to stream songs. Almost every use requires a different license – say, streaming on desktop versus streaming on mobile. This means that scrambling licensing agreements with record labels can be a long, complicated process. Instead of tackling these complications, we have seen that other companies do a lot of such work down the road, focusing on shipping codes and reaching the market faster.

But to us, it was not a sustainable strategy. So instead of taking the same route, Spotify slows things down, sweeping the details in months of negotiations, making sure we have a license that no one else has. Thus, we can guarantee that when we turn on a paid mobile tear we hit the moving ground. Petra Hanson, Spotify’s first general consultant, said:

Petra: We spent a lot of time getting those licenses. Because, you know, the day before, the rule was just to sign a license and then, you know, try and flip the companies, so it becomes someone else’s problem or the companies will go belly up. So we were kind of hell-bent. And that’s one of the reasons I joined [Spotify], Because that’s what I liked about the company [co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek]Its vision was always to create something long-term and sustainable.

As it happens, developing really great products is more than just a great new feature or even a groundbreaking new technology. Our third lesson is Indeed great product development, in short, often combines technological innovation with business innovation.

It’s three more lessons below, but there’s so much more. Podcast series Spotify: A product story By sharing all these stories and dozens more, filled with insights and product strategy lessons from employees, collaborators and musicians who have created Spotify today. Join podcast host and chief R&D officer Gustav Soderstrom and watch all episodes here.

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