9 frictions in freemium music apps

Psychological play in Spotify and YouTube Music

Ever since the launch of the service Napster, the world of music has changed forever. We don’t have to buy cassettes or CDs to listen to music. With the launch of the iPod in 2001 by Apple, we don’t even have to buy flash drives to carry them around with us. Music continues to travel with us wherever we are. Just like that, storing everything on cloud servers and providing us with a continuous stream of music wherever we go.

Due to the freemium model, music apps have had a tough time competing with their competitors. As part of the freemium model, the company exposes most or all of its music libraries so users can listen to them for free. So Spotify and YouTube Music had to introduce some friction to get users to pay a small amount each month that counts toward a recurring subscription. In my experience as a designer, these small bumps in the audio are fascinating experiments in creating subtle psychological signals that frustrate users. Let’s study the different levels of friction that I have experienced while using the apps so far and which ones are the most annoying of them all.

#1 Ads

The first and simplest attack is to introduce advertisements. Companies like Spotify and YouTube have large user bases. If users refuse to pay for these services, then they can target them with ads for which they will charge the companies. It is a B2B2C business model that is easy to implement and long-lasting.

As a user is listening to music, ads are targeted to either interject the music in between or wait till the song gets over. Ads that obstruct the flow of music midway are the most effective at frustrating users. Interruptions disrupt the flow of audio rhythm and force users to wait 10–15 seconds before they can listen to their songs again. Although there is a high chance that it will motivate users to leave your app quickly.

The timing of the ads on audio platforms is also critical to balance. If there is an ad waiting after every song then that can be too much to handle for many users. It’s a subtle balance where the product needs to keep the user guessing when the next ad is going to pop up. Here are the two ways products implement it effectively —

  1. Play a 10-second ad after X minutes of continuous music playback.
  2. Play a longer ad after X songs and give users a longer continuous music playback.
  3. Play a song after every 3–4 songs. The number of songs here will depend on the app’s data. If the average usage duration of an app is 1hr non-stop then putting 6 to 8 short ads might be enough to make the user aware of the premium music offering.

#2 Ad-Stacking

If one ad is not enough, it’s time to put two of them, or let’s make it three. We might think that two small ads of 5-second duration are the same as a single 10-second ad. But cannot be further from the truth. When two different ads are played one after another, there is a break in audio at the end of the first ad, and an ad immediately after the break causes elevated frustration that is not comparable to a single audio ad. We as humans enjoy long audio experiences of up to 5 minutes so that our mind eases into the rhythm and gets used to the repeated patterns in the music. A stacked ad breaks the rhythm and causes irritation. You can see an example of this in Spotify and YouTube’s video platforms.

#3 Removing critical controls

At times ads are not enough to irritate users. Companies like Spotify have to go beyond. Removing critical music-controlling actions can handicap the user to not be able to perform basic steps. Some of the song controls that are removed by companies can be —

  1. Ability to shuffle a playlist of songs
  2. Ability to play one song repeatedly
  3. Not able to create endless playlists
  4. Not able to play any song they like

Users want these controls so that they can either enjoy the know rhythms repeatedly, play certain specific parts of the songs, discover new songs, or simply share their favorite songs with their network. Not letting users connect with their inner selves or to their network is a sure-shot way to aggravate them. Further, the limitations make them not have the flexibility to revisit certain rhythms that match their environment at any given moment.

#4 Not letting people skip

Skipping is an important part of finding and choosing songs that a user wants to listen to. Given the fact that Spotify allows only 6 song skips per 1 hour on mobile, we can safely assume that on average a user takes anywhere around six or more songs to find what they were looking for.

Companies can insert an ad interval after six song skips and remind users that they can get a better ad-free listening experience by opting into their subscription service. Not being able to choose a song or not being able to use the seek bar to move the song forward are all types of constraints that Spotify enforces on free users who do not have an alternate way to skip the songs.

#5 Background play

Songs are unlike videos. You cannot watch the album art for hours, nor can you be on the music-playing app while the songs are playing. It would be very painful to use an app like this. Yet, we have YouTube Music does exactly that to its consumers. Background play as they call it is a functionality that YouTube has got locked away and reserved only for its premium users. Users while using the free service cannot switch to a different app, close their mobile screens and enjoy music during their commute. This is a feature that allows users to switch contexts and locking it causes elevated frustration for the users.

This feature is tricky to balance with a growing user base and there is a high chance of users churning out of the app since the limitation attacks a very basic functionality that can be seen at times as non-negotiable.

#6 Offline playback

Listening to our fav music on an airplane ✈️ while our mobile phones are in flight mode is something that most of us will relate to. Flights these days have in-flight entertainment with a restricted library, yet we humans feel a sense of ease and comfort in having an access to our curated music libraries. This feature requires downloading songs in an encrypted format and storing them in the user’s mobile storage hence, they can play them on the move. The feature also comes in handy when traveling across sketchy 2G networks. Offline playback will relate most to the users who spend a considerable time on the road traveling for leisure or business. For others, it might not make such a big difference. As a feature lock, it causes a nominal annoyance to the user. But that can change from one user to another.

#7 Play anywhere, everywhere

Companies like Spotify are good at detecting a TV, Bluetooth-enabled car audio system, or laptop nearby a user’s a mobile phone. Naturally, users would want to extend their music beyond their mobiles and play them via a nearby device. While the speaker system on mobile phones is great, it is not the best and it certainly cannot be compared with those expensive Bose or Blaupunkt speakers. This feature lock is not a deal breaker but as the number of digital or smart devices keeps growing, it might become a critical feature for some users to have access to.

#8 Lower quality

The MP3 format can range from around 96 to 320Kbps and streaming services like Spotify range from around 96 to 160Kbps. High bitrates appeal to audiophiles, but they are not always better. Companies like TIDAL capitalize on providing high-quality songs for a premium. As high-bitrate songs don’t appeal to everyone, TIDAL could design its business model totally as a premium-only service. Companies that follow a freemium model toggle users between a low bitrate of 96Kbps to as high as 320Kbps. Of course, high bitrate is reserved for the premium audience. On an annoyance level, the feature lock will be ranked low for most users as it doesn’t degrade the audio quality to an inaudible level.

#9 Zipcode locking

We all know that people want to carry their songs with them while they are traveling to a different country or region. Especially ex-pats who are traveling abroad to the country of their work. Users must communicate their IP address location or geographical location in order to be locked out of certain songs. They keep the music from being listened to in the country of their choice or simply lock out songs they know users will like. Zipcode locking is a bit evil and it adds an extra step for users to take. On the level of frustration, it is not that high though.

That’s all folks 👋.

That’s the end of this short yet hopefully insightful read. Thanks for making it to the end. I hope you gained something from it.

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