tech: spotify’s horrible privacy – attitude, design, or both?

There’s been a little bit of a storm on Twitter this afternoon about the privacy settings in Spotify, kicked off by an interesting blog post from Dr. Ben Goldacre taking the popular music streaming service to task for its incredibly cavalier attitude to sharing users’ playlists and other information. The theme has been picked up by Graham Linehan, who has also apparently written about this for the Evening Standard.

If you don’t use Spotify, or haven’t noticed the changes, then it goes a bit like this – you now have to connect Spotify to your Facebook account. When you do this, it goes about busily sharing every playlist you create, and updating your Facebook Music feed to show the world exactly what you’re listening to.

There’s an opt-out, but it’s tough to find – I had to Google it, and unless it’s a really complex piece of software, I generally think any functionality I have to Google is functionality the developer has screwed up at exposing in a clear manner. Besides, it’s not really an opt-out – you select “Private Session”, which stops sharing your music with Facebook, but it’s only temporary. Next time you open Spotify, you’ll be back to the default sharing behaviour – and it’ll also sneakily stop being a private session if you don’t play any music in the app for a short while.

There are, I believe, two problems here. The first is attitude. Spotify reckons everyone should share what they’re listening to, because that’s a fun, social way to listen to music. They’re right on the second count, I believe, but the first part doesn’t necessarily follow. Not everyone is automatically comfortable with having their music preferences shared with the world, and rather than respecting that decision, Spotify feels like users should be poked into sharing, so they can see how fun it is.

I get that attitude, and even agree, to some extent. It’s absolutely true that users often don’t know what they want until you actually get them to do something and they discover that they’d wanted this all along, and part of the job of building a good service is to prod people into trying new behaviours, rather than listening to them talking about what they think they want. The old cliche still holds true – if Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.

However, Spotify is taking the idea of gentle prodding much, much too far by denying users a permanent opt-out. It’s an attitude problem – a failure to recognise that even if you think your users would benefit from trying something, you still have to give them the agency required to stop that behaviour if they don’t actually enjoy it in the end. Even Apple, so often criticised for forcing users down optimal paths rather than giving them a breadth of options, gives clear, simple ways to opt out of iTunes social features like Ping and Genius.

Then we hit the second problem – the issue of design. Bluntly, Spotify isn’t a very well-designed app. It’s fairly ugly, in a way that stands out from nice-looking native app design on Windows and OS X alike, and despite aping the iTunes interface, doesn’t actually work all that well as a music player in practice. Playlists in particular are a bit of a pain, especially once you (inevitably) end up with several dozen of them cluttering up your sidebar.

This issue compounds the problem of privacy, because it doesn’t feel like Spotify’s interface would cope well with building a new layer of control into the application which clearly illustrates and provides controls for privacy settings. If Spotify wants to do privacy right – and in spite of the attitude problem mentioned above, I suspect they do, at heart, want to get this right – it needs an interface overhaul to make it work. I, the user, need to know at any given point whether I’m sharing information or not, and what I’m sharing. I need options to make things private or public in a fine-grained way. It doesn’t have to be hugely complex – simple is better – but functions like having playlists which automatically make my session private when I start playing from them are vital.

The “design is important” argument is a long-standing one in software, and I fall heavily on the pro- side of the debate. Design isn’t just important – design is functionality. Spotify does have privacy controls, but they’re badly designed in two different ways – their functionality is badly designed, and their design is badly designed. If Spotify wants to fix this mess without actually devaluing the whole social music idea (which, as I said, I actually like), then it needs to fix its attitude first – and then look really hard at how it fixes its design.


update #1: A few people on Twitter pointed out that there are options regarding sharing in the Preferences page. However, part of the problem is that these options aren’t clear about what they’re going to do, and/or they just don’t work properly – the annoyance on Twitter arose directly from the discovery that you can untick everything to do with sharing, and still somehow end up sharing your playlists or the music you’re playing with people.

Even if they worked properly, I don’t think a blanket “in or out” approach to sharing is the right one. A properly designed product would give me nice, granular settings that let me choose easily what I share, and with whom. That has to be the goal for a service like Spotify that aspires to be social software.

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