How Spotify shows us that stories and features that feel like magic intertwine to create products the world loves.
Miyamoto showed us the power stories have to capture our attention and engage us in any creative medium. Will Storr explained why stories have this power over our psychology and physiology. Finally, Mark Azra gave us a framework for how to analyze how games leverage stories, and how to apply those frameworks to any creation. We’ve seen examples of all of these principles in action in movies and video games. But what about digital products and apps? How have the giants of consumer web software leveraged stories to create perennially engaging products, and what can we apply to the next generation of consumer web products built on top of blockchain or even artificial intelligence technology? For that, let’s look at Spotify as a case study, and let its chief product officer Gustav Söderström take us along for the ride.
One of Söderström’s key philosophies in digital product development is for a product to feel like it's performing a magic trick. In his mind, the design and user experience of great products presents itself as so useful and quick to the user, that it feels like literal magic to them that something so miraculous could exist at all. When I hear this, I immediately think of how miraculous phone calls or text messages are, or even recorded music. When I think of Spotify, there are a few magic tricks it pulls off with recorded music that it does better than any other product before it.
The first magic trick Spotify pulls off is the infinite jukebox. Logging on to Spotify for the first time gives users the unforgettable experience of feeling like the entire library of recorded audio is at their fingertips for playback instantly. Given we are still barely a 100 years away from being able to record sound at all as a society, this power feels pretty unbelievable when you put it into perspective, even if the value of the service becomes more and more taken for granted as a commodity in our lives. I certainly will never forget the moment I first loaded Spotify and realized I would no longer need to hunt for MP3s on file sharing services or iTunes any longer. People could now pay their relatively small amount of money, $10 a month, and get access to all the music I wanted quickly and easily within a few clicks.
The second magic trick Spotify pulls off is the infinite mixtape. People use music as a means to build relationships and community around the stories, messages, and feelings evoked by their favorite songs, a testament to the power of stories in music in and of itself. However, prior to Spotify, collections of these songs created by individuals or groups were constrained either by the size of the storage medium like tapes or CDs, or the amount of music someone could afford to buy on iTunes. Now, Spotify allows you to create an infinite mixtape as a playlist. This magic has opened entire movements and genres built around massive community built playlists. Building playlists for your friends or for your community, then sharing them either by sending them a link or by playing them in public, has never been even possible prior to the magic of Spotify.
The last magic trick Spotify pulls off is infinite discovery. Prior to Spotify, people had to know the people they trusted in music stores, magazines, or in their community to give them recommendations of new music to listen to. And even then, the success rate of their recommendations wasn’t very high. Now, Spotify learns from what you listen to and can feed you back new music that you are very likely to enjoy. This gives you an almost constant opportunity to find new music to enjoy and share. The magic of this feature can be found in Spotify’s popular Discover Weekly playlist, which surfaces a fresh playlist of new music for you to explore every week based on your prior listening.
While these features of Spotify's may be well-known to regular users, their magic enhances daily life by creating memorable stories. The 'infinite jukebox' lets you soundtrack your life, energizing activities like fitness journeys. It can power you through a jog with your favorite song, helping you lose weight, and finally empowering you to participate in your high school friends’ annual flag football game. Crafting an 'infinite mixtape’ elevates social gatherings, like that Fourth of July party where your playlist turned you into the group's hero, uniting everyone in a Bruce Springsteen singalong. And finally, don’t forget how the ‘infinite discovery’ can play a role in personal connections, like sharing a newly discovered song from your Discover Weekly song with a special new crush, potentially winning their affection.
Spotify's integration into your life's meaningful stories, enhancing your personal journey, is its true magic. This allure justifies spending $10 a month for an experience that enhances exercise, fosters connections, and aids in finding love through music. Söderström echoes the insights of visionaries like Miyamoto, Storr, and Azra, who recognize the enchantment stories can create in crafting enduring experiences.
I wrote these essays not only because I aspire to create works that similarly engage, inspire, and produce magic, but also because I want to inspire my peers to do so as well. Between blockchain technologies, and artificial intelligence, the technological raw materials are here for us to build another wave of transformational products and experiences for the world to use and enjoy. The success of these products and whether they engage the attention and improve the lives of our audiences depends on the stories they enable users to tell about their personal journeys. In 1994, product design legend Steve Job said “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that follows.” Seeing stories and understanding the power they have within our perception of reality is the key all great builders leverage to create truly timeless and impactful work.