Ben Ward

On Crappy Music Download UI

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Update, Jan 20th, 2010: Jon Collins from Dropcards very graciously got in touch about this post, and so I've added a few points of clarification at the end. I want to stress that I'm criticising here not just about the particular implementation, but an overall experience strongly influenced by actions of record labels, and the capabilities of underlying software platforms. It is a complete user-experience criticism.

Quite recently, I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the UI of downloading music. Not just any old downloading, mind. Specifically the scenario where you buy some physical artifact and it gives you a code to go download a digital copy of a record. Mostly this is because I was working with Leslie to build a piece of software that does exactly that. I'm very pleased with the quality of the experience we built, but it's alarming how bad some can be.

It's now the norm to get a little card with vinyl purchases to get a download, and depending on the label, the download experience will vary. The URL you go to (whether it's attributed to the band, or the label), whether you enter one code, two codes, whether you're forced to enter personal info to get the download, how many times you can download… many subtle variances. Design wise few are fully realized, generally you enter your code in a barebones UI and a zip file comes out the other side. It works, some more cheerfully than others.

This post is about a bad example, Dropcards.

Here's a service that provides the ‘code redemption and download’ facility to other labels. It's full of bells and whistles that I guess help make something minimal like this salable, but somewhere along the way, Dropcard's UI has completely missed its primary function. Here it is:

The UI is a small Adobe Flash widget. The form to enter your access code is tiny, and after you enter it it remains, empty, so you don't know if you need to enter the code a second time.

Step two presents the following: “All Tomorrow's Parties has requested that you enter your email address for their”… and then the text ends abruptly.

This has occurred because Flash is a piece of shit. Simple stuff like legible text that overflows properly when the record label's name is too long is too much to ask. But even accepting that, the copy is poor. It's is not a request at all, it's a requirement. I cannot access the download unless I complete the form. What's more, whilst I'd heard of All Tomorrow's Parties music festivals, I had no idea they were a record label as well. I don't think that's a unreasonable lack of knowledge on my part. On first reading, I thought I was being signed up for an unrelated promotion. The amount of text here was constrained by the widget design concept. It needn't have been.

This UI is also displaying a honking big ‘hazard’ icon. When you're supposed to be asking nicely for your customer to join your mailing list—which they probably don't want to do—don't also imply that they are in error.

So, I've joined the ATP mailing list. That's not so bad. (I assume. Unless the ‘enter your email address for their…’ sentence actually preceded ‘baby enslavement programme’.)

On to the music! Right? Kinda…

What happens now with every other code redemption and download system I'm aware of (including the one I wrote), is that your browser pops up its download manager and downloads a zip file containing the album, perhaps a JPG of the album art or event a PDF copy of the cover booklet (ala iTunes). Dropcard does not do this. Instead, it shows the track listing. And because it's in Flash, it has a built in media player! How useful!

There is no ‘Download All’ button. You have to click ‘Download’ next to every single track. Individually. When you click ‘Download’, the track list goes away. Then you are prompted to choose a download location on your computer.

My web browser (Safari) is configured to download files to my Desktop without prompting. But, because this is Flash we're using here OH-MY-GOD-WHAT-THE-FUCK-IS-A-SYSTEM-PREFERENCE-I-SHOULD-IGNORE-THAT-AND-JUST-ASK-YOU-ANYWAY-TO-BE-SURE-I-MEAN-MAYBE-YOU-CHANGED-YOUR-MIND-OR-MAYBE-IM-TOO-LAZY-AND-STUPID-TO-FIND-OUT-BY-MYSELF. Ahem.

So having chosen to save the the file to my desktop (again), the list of tracks is replaced by a progress panel. If you click on this progress panel, the download is cancelled. There is no way to minimize it to start downloading another track. Not only is there no combined zip file for the album, you have to wait whilst each song downloads before you can click on the next one.

Oh, the only thing that's been done right in this entire operation? The MP3s are 320kbps. So the downloads are bigger. So the wait between downloads is longer.

Sigh. So, I've downloaded all 7 tracks from Tarot Sport. I'm relieved there weren't more (nice work with the long songs, Fuck Buttons, I thank you.) I add them to iTunes. Are they tagged? Are they fuck. They haven't even set the Artist field, let along included album art. That goes beyond a crap UI, that's just incredibly lazy. I mean, you're providing this download as a free bonus, I accept, but only because I've already paid you a premium to own the physical copy. Calling something a bonus doesn't excuse untagged MP3s.

I've purchased the record for the artist, not the label. This download is pretty much the label's only opportunity to address me. It's a simple app, a really short process between a paid customer and the record label. That requires only very simple input and output. The functionality doesn't take much, and as such there is lots of room for design, polish and engagement.

These download interactions provide a label the chance to do all sorts of positive self-promotion without getting in the way of the customer getting their download. Instead, Dropcard is packed with stupid gimmicks (like inline playback), makes the process more laborious than it needs to be, communicates rudely on behalf of the label and then ships me crappy media.

Flash was the wrong tool for the implementation—it's badly implemented Flash at that. Dropcards are much worse as a result. But the entire design approach to Dropcard's system seems ill conceived and out of touch with their primary use case.

Update: Jon Collins got in touch to clarify a few things, and explained that the version of the Dropcards widget I've reviewed here is actually years old, and that newer versions of the system have come since then with improvements.

He also explained more about the balance of responsibility between the particular version of the Dropcards widget, and the label that takes responsibility for upgrading it or not, and for providing and tagging all of the media. Clearly, ATP's copy of Dropcards dates back to a point before many learnings and capabilities of the web had matured, and it's not a priority for them to upgrade it.

Jon also points out that the widget is just one part of a wider Dropcards business, and I hope it's clear that written above is very much only about the widget (and the label's use of it), not the business as a whole. Very interestingly, one of Dropcards’ other tools is a hosted, one-click download redemption system called 45RPM. It's crisp, clear, and visually minimalist (example). 45RPM is an incredible contrast to muddled experience I got from the old software, and is refreshing in comparison to any other system I've seen. Colour me impressed.

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