Streaming media and the organisation of my content

I can’t help but love Spotify. Even though they have probably contributed more to the death of the record buying public than Napster (and I have a vested interest in this), Spotify + my Sonos one = beautiful.

I love Netflix as well. Libraries of great content, seamless function across devices so I can move smoothly from the living room to the bed to my friend’s house.

But something is bothering me about digital media libraries, and it’s the same thing that bothered me, constantly, when I was working at Sky alongside their EPGs. I was hoping, but failed, to do anything about it there and I feel like it’s a massive unscratched itch for me, so I’m going to just say it for now.

Why are digital media services all so bad at organising their content?

I’m sitting here in Spotify right now, trying to create a mirror of my record collection. Simple enough task. It’s a data collection. A collection of objects bearing properties like:

 spotify url:
 artwork url:

etc. I’m pretty sure that Spotify has all this metadata available. I know that Netflix has it. So why then do they not surface it within an interface to allow users to make their own decisions about filtering and organising the content that they are interested in?

I have sat in many planning and UX meetings where product owners have argued over the ‘perfect’ view of their content. But, when you consider that the final output of this is inherently dynamic – literally a collection of pixels within an interface – then this is absurd. If Spotify’s interface was in hardware I could understand it, but why can’t we have a more dynamic method of organising and filtering our libraries? If you consider the interface not as a perfect solution for a lowest common denominator audience but instead as a dynamic, realtime view of the data model, then you would be rewarded with far greater engagement with the service.

One big problem with content selection and discovery is that not only is my taste in media completely subjective, but so is the selection I’m likely to make at the point I’m making it. This is governed entirely by what I’m in the mood for right now and this is where the static interface lets me down.

In Netflix’s case this means that I have to scroll through reams of useless suggestions, based on something I recently watched in a completely different context to what I want now. Much has been written about Netflix’s powerful metadata engines, why can’t some of this power be placed into the hands of the users to filter their library to show me custom suggestions which I control (because despite the internet thinking it knows everything about me and my tastes, it doesn’t have a scooby about what I’m looking for right at this moment). We have been obsessed for years now about finding the perfect algorithm and the perfect UX, but we are missing the benefits of handing the reins over to the user to make the decisions that only they know best how to make.

But I’ve always thought of any collection of related objects precisely as a ‘data collection’. I would be shocked if this is, indeed, not how it’s handled programatically in the software. Give your users the power which your software enjoys.

In Spotify’s case, my only option is to search (and how often do I really know what I’m looking for until I get inspired by something?), or to rely on my playlists, which I can only ever have one view of, a nested tree. Further filtering is available in the main window view, but only on a track by track basis. My record collection alone is probably a couple of thousand albums, and that’s before I even get into all the stuff that I don’t own but sometimes want to listen to, guiltily (and this is where Spotify and Netflix shine – just don’t assume that means I want to listen to/watch it all the time, the biggest flaw of any recommendations engine which has no context to my decision at that time).

Give me the following please guys:

+ The ability to browse my collection visually, listed by artist, genre, microgenre, record label, year or any other piece of metadata you hold. Album covers are vital – there is always much higher recognition of a visual image than parsing thousands of lines of text. Let me sort it. Give me subtractive filtering tools so that I can gradually narrow down to my choice

+ The ability to scan a barcode on my CD or Vinyl and match it to the Spotify collection (or at the very least search by UPC)

+ A decent query engine instead of keyword search. So if I’m in the mood for East coast political hiphop or secular renaissance madrigals you can surface me some content. In Netflix case, they actually do this anyway to power their suggestions, so why can’t I make my own queries against their formidable metadata? (and whilst I’m here, why can I not permanently see recent additions – sometimes it’s there, sometimes not…agh!)

+ The ability to batch organise, add, delete my playlists and collections. Tidying up my library the other day was RSI-inducing.

+ Multiple views of my playlists in a proper interface of it’s own, not just in the sidebar. Make it off-canvas if you need to. Hell, even a separate companion app. Function follows form when it comes to interfaces and if your form is crippled, so will the functionality be.

+ The ability to import/export my collection. Even better, open up the organisation, favouriting and playlisting of content to an external API so that other developers can do it better if you can’t.

Streaming services have metadata right at the heart of their product and, by insisting on a restrictive interface for users to only surface and organise their huge content repository the Netflix/Spotify/iTunes/Play Music way, they are, for me at least, hugely restricting the service’s usefulness.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learnt in the digital age, it’s only a matter of time until someone comes along and does it better.

About Andrew

I am a technical director, creative technologist and digital strategist who has been working in the web industry for 15 years. An early online user from the days of Prestel and BBS systems, I am a self-taught technologist and developer who has been immersed in the creative possibilities of digital technology from childhood. My career path has taken many turns, from the heady dot-com agency days, through the corporate world and the variety of experience which freelance brings. Throughout, my goal has been to help organizations and brands realise the potential that the art and science of being digital can achieve, and to help them create opportunities to better use the most important emerging medium of our time. I am a strong advocate for digital as a multi-disciplinary medium, with an enviable record in building and retaining teams, and in the importance of the creative disciplines of collaboration, vision, practicing and failing in order to push things forward.

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