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Case Study: Spotify Year in Music

Agency: Stinkdigital
Brand:  Spotify USA
Award: Graphite Pencil / Digital Design / Websites / 2016 

Background

Now approaching its tenth anniversary, Spotify’s Year In Music has established itself as an annual highlight for music lovers. It aggregates a user’s music listening habits for the year, and provides them with a bespoke web experience showcasing their most listened to artists, genres and songs. But with such expectations comes more potential for failure, and more pressure on the design teams to deliver.

Spotify’s Senior Brand Manager, Candice Greenberg traces the growth of Year In Music, “It’s evolved from a very simple blog post on our website in 2007 when it was just called ‘The Retrospective’. We wanted to tell the story about the top charts of the year and create a pause to reflect back on the soundtrack of that year.”

Having introduced personalisation in 2013, Spotify wanted to increase the project’s relevance for 2015, building in what Candice calls, “A story around how our music fans’ listening reflects back to the world at large.” Given the learnings witnessed over nine years they knew the behaviours they could expect. “It was almost like your own Grammy awards. We’ve actually seen a ton of motivation where people have tried to beat their records from previous years. That was where we wanted to evolve it towards.”

For Spotify, finding the right agency to work with to deliver the 2015 project would be make-or-break. In 2014 they had worked with full service agency Razorfish, and prior to that with Layerframe. But having most recently worked with Stinkdigital on personalised projects ‘Taste Rewind’ and ‘Found First’, they knew they were the best match for this complex build.

The goal of Year In Music is to encourage brand affinity, as Candice explains, “We really see ourselves as a music service that’s for music fans, by music fans. We wanted to create an experience where people could learn more about themselves… It isn’t anything more than a wonderful reward to celebrate our fans and their listening.” A project with such noble objectives sounds like a dream project, and for Stinkdigital’s Mark Pytlik, it was, “We were thrilled. We knew the Year In Music campaign, it’s something anybody would love to work on.”

Case Study: Spotify Year in Music

Production

“What quickly became apparent was that there was an opportunity to push the design, which was something we relished. We had lots of fun in those early days coming up with concepts.” Mark remembers, “Spotify was awesome in that they knew exactly what they did and didn’t like, so it was really easy to get to a place where we were all happy relatively quickly.”

This is all down to Spotify’s brand guidelines. In 2014 the brand team set out to turn Spotify from a tech company into a music company. A huge new library of assets was developed to enable this to happen. “So if you’re a designer you’re a kid in a candy store, with these tools you can bring to life.” Says Candice, “For every project we want to give our partners this sense of freedom within this framework to create something that feels like it’s on the pulse of what’s now. It's a safe place that feels ‘Spotify’, but still enables you to be very special and different.”

So Stinkdigital set to work using these guidelines to build an on-brand, yet personalised experience.

Case Study: Spotify Year in Music

Front End Design

A number of design elements were brought together to create the look and feel of YIM 2015, but the core aesthetic would be ‘gradients’. As Mark explains, “We loved how flexible gradients were from a design perspective. Once you developed your patterns you can do lots of different things with different colours. You can conjure new moods and feelings… As you move through the experience you see lots of gradients and colours being used and they help tell the story.”

Enhancing the gradients would be ‘glitches’. “Glitches was just little design piece that we pushed for early on that everyone seemed to like. For example in the loader you get juddering in the animation, it helps everything congeal.”

“There was a real process throughout figuring out how to dial those in at the right level. Early on we were overdoing the glitches; it was overly obstructive. It’s like a spice when you’re cooking, you have to use the right amount of it or overpowers everything else.”

Creating a design language was one thing, but making it consistent in personalised settings was another. “One of the biggest challenges was using dynamic artwork… no matter how good it is you’ll always have a bit of variance. It’s not just artist artwork or photography, it also happened in artists’ names or song titles. And on mobile, tablet and desktop, all with different screen sizes… and then you multiply that by different languages….”

The requirement to optimise for mobile naturally caused extra complications, but with over 50% of users accessing the content this way, it was necessary. “Screen space was the biggest challenge, trying to convey lots of information, especially in charts, in a way that's beautifully designed, and has motion to it.”

“In a lot of ways it’s a good problem to have because it forces you to be economical, and quite brutal with what’s most important. It was a good exercise in building layouts and designs that were liquid enough to work with a wide variety of things.”

“There was a lot of work involved in thinking of this as a sort of system. Not just designing for the best case, but designing for every potential case. And making sure the design language works for all of them.”

But with a team of 30 working on the project, it was only a matter of time before the team cracked it.

Case Study: Spotify Year in Music

Back End Design

With a design language now established, the pressure was on back end design to deliver an experience that could handle the depth and breadth of Spotify’s users’ music habits, and display them within the visual framework.

The key was, according to Mark, collaboration.

“We worked closely with Spotify’s engineering team to build certain API in-points so we could get access to the data to build the bespoke customised experiences. That data is already there but it was about building a workflow so that we could access it.” This involved development at Spotify’s end too, where a custom API was built to aggregate existing data outputs.

It was translation that cause one of the biggest headaches. So Stinkdigital’s team tackled the problem head-on. “We custom build a CMS from scratch to handle the translations into 28 languages.” Spotify’s had a team of more than 80 working on the project, included local translators who input and tested the data.

All that remained was to launch.

Case Study: Spotify Year in Music

Distribution

“We hadn’t launched it, yet we were already being swamped with tweets.” Remembers Candice. With anticipation building, the teams gave themselves a soft launch before promotion began, and then they pressed the button. “I actually have a such a fond memory from 2am when we pushed it live. My mom was awake in South Africa so I sent it to her and said “look, what I’ve been doing for the past 6 months”. And on the analytics I saw one data point from South Africa and I knew if was my mom!”

Over 1bn media impressions were recorded, and improved brand awareness followed suit. The user numbers suggest that the end result lived up to expectations, “It was massive. We were blown away by just the sheer numbers, and the percentage of growth. We had double the site traffic that we’ve ever had before. Over 6.5m people came to the experience. Session duration more than doubled year-on year. We didn’t even expect those kind of numbers.”

For both Stinkdigital and Spotify, winning the D&AD Pencil in Digital Design felt like an added reward “There were cheers in the hallways at Spotify when we heard about winning the Pencil. It honestly feels like we’ve really achieved something with this kind of industry accolade”

After six months of work, and the combined efforts of over 100 people, the work was done. Now attention turns to Year In Music 2016, the ten-year anniversary of a digital treat which has now established itself as an end of year staple. It’s got a lot to live up to.

Case Study: Spotify Year in Music

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