Spotify: Design Principles Behind The King of Music Sharing

Victoria Gomes-Boronat

For the sake of this week’s reflection, I will focus on de-blackboxing the extremely popular, music-streaming application, Spotify. At first glance, Spotify seems like a very simple and straightforward application, but as I will discuss further, it is quite the opposite. There are various moving parts that work together in order to create an application that not only shares music but also serves as a sort of social media.

With more than 248 million users, Spotify has a firm hold on its title as king of music streaming, however, it’s its other functionalities that really make it stand out. Spotify is a product of combinatorial design principles from existing and prior technologies.

Technologies inherit parts from the technologies that preceded them, so putting such parts together- combining them- must have a great deal with how technologies come into being. (Arthur, 2010)

When de-black boxing Spotify, you find some of the same mechanisms that were involved in the construction of predecessors such as Apple Music, Napster, and even social media apps such as Facebook: databases to amass large quantities of information, algorithms that organize and exploit said information, user-friendly Graphical User Interfaces, chat functionalities, social sharing modules, and much more. Users of Spotify would need an internet-connected device that is capable of running the application. The device would need speakers in order to effectively carry out the main function of the application.

The app design also draws on decades of interface conventions (Irvine, 2019), for example, the universal meanings of the play, skip, go back, and pause buttons, afforded by its various technological predecessors.

According to Arthur (2010), technologies can be clustered according to commonalities in functionality, components, methodology, etc. in order to create bodies of technology called domains. Technologies can belong to one or more domains and the components can belong to various subdomains. Spotify is a combination of various domains, most notably, domains that concern themselves with music-streaming and social media, essentially creating a hybrid music-sharing domain. Users are able to construct music playlists, download songs, and share with friends and families. They connect their profiles with social media accounts such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Users can share the songs to their other social media platforms, and their friends can directly follow their Spotify accounts and have access to and even interact with their listening history! The designers of Spotify effectively tapped into an increasingly popular domain in order to make an incredibly successful hybrid product.

Spotify also employs visibility principles in order to communicate the possible actions that can be performed by the user (Lidwell, 2003). For example, if you have the free version of the application, you will note that the skip button does not light up, indicating that, under the free subscription, that functionality is not available. Spotify also prioritizes the safety of the user by using geolocation to discern whether or not the user is traveling in a car. If it can infer from the data collected that the user is in a moving car, it will automatically display a car icon and limit the functionalities in order to make sure that they are not engaging with the app while driving. In this example, we see modules that collect geolocation information interact with and trigger other modules in order to ensure the safety of the user.

My question is: Since everything computational and digital is a human-designed, cognitive-symbolic artifact, how can we best employ consumer psychology in the design stages of our own technologies and optimize their success?


Bueno, N. P. (2010). W. Brian Arthur – The Nature of Technology – What it is and how it evolves. Revista Brasileira De Inovação, 8(2), 535. doi:10.20396/rbi.v8i2.8648990

Lidwell, W., Holden, K., & Butler, J. (2003) Universal principles of design. Rockport Publishers, Inc.

Norman, D. (2002). The design of everyday things. Basic Books.

Silva, M. D. (n.d.). Spotify is still the king of music streaming—for now. Quartz. Retrieved September 2, 2020, from
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