Circle: the app for independent record labels

Independent record labels, as small companies that normally operate without the funding or distributions of major record labels, have survived the pandemic producing and distributing records independently. It’s a fact that during the pandemic, businesses have been forced to become online-led in just a matter of weeks. Consumers have moved dramatically toward online channels, and companies and industries have responded in turn. The online sales of vinyl records in the UK this year are the highest since the early ’90s. The immediacy and convenience of streaming make it the go-to audio format for most of our listening, but more and more fans choose to get closer to their favourite artists and albums on vinyl. With things going back to normal now and shows becoming part of our lives again is crucial to facilitate connections between bands, fans and independent promoters.

The Client

Small independent record labels based in the UK and the USA that are specialised in underground punk, record distribution and gig promotion. These record labels have always been selling products through their website and Bandcamp but due to the increase of sales during the pandemic the clients require a social e-commerce platform where their customers can access the shop as well receiving immediate updates and connections within the community. The owners sell internationally and find important users; bands can connect around the world, share experiences and can book gigs independently.

The Challenge

The purpose of creating a social e-commerce app for independent record labels is to allow users and artists to make connections. This app will allow the creation of an international network around underground bands that will help artists to become more well known and to help sell their music and merchandising.

Objectives

- To focus on people’s experiences buying records online from independent record labels
- Identify user’s preferences and needs when purchasing records 
- To focus on the relationship between an independent record label and its customers
- Determine how customers discover new artists 
- Determine the customers and artists underground network 
- Identify communication channels between artists and customers

Requirements

Role: UX/UI Designer
Tools: Figma, Illustrator, Photoshop, Whimsical
Timeline: 3 weeks (July, August 2021)

Analysis & Research

Objectives

We’ll determine people’s motivations when purchasing records and how artists, fans and promoters communicate with each other. We’ll work on finding pain points when purchasing records, discovering new artists and connecting with the community.

Methodologies

Secondary Research: collect existing data so it can be summarised and arranged to increase the overall efficacy of the research. Focusing on Discogs mid-year report and the Record Industry Association of America.
Competitive Analysis: provide strategic insights into the features, functions, flows, and feelings evoked by the design solutions of independent record labels and bigger music platforms.
Survey: questionnaire to gather information about people's experiences when buying records online and the relationships between artists, fans and record label owners.

Secondary Research Findings

- Music is a community built on gathering and sharing, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed significant challenges to this global community. Record stores, like many small businesses, have struggled to transition during a public health crisis that limits physical interaction.
- Thanks to online marketplaces, vinyl sales have soared. The Record Industry Association of America says record sales grew 29% to $626 million in 2020 and surpassed the sale of compact discs.
- In the UK sales of vinyl records are set to reach a three-decade high as fans unable to attend live music events during the pandemic channel their spare cash into building up their record collections.
- “We have seen 250% growth from the bottom of lockdown to where we are now,” said Drew Hill, managing director of Proper Music, the UK’s biggest independent distributor of vinyl and CDs. “I thought it could be catastrophic for the industry but during lockdown the kind of people buying records also probably went to a lot of gigs. They can’t do that so it seems fans are spending the money they used to on going to gigs each month on records.”
-Discogs mid-year report attributes the rise in sales partially due to a larger number of users as lockdown saw more shoppers turning online, along with a desire to support small businesses. Overall, more than 7.6 million pieces of physical music were sold by independent sellers around the world throughout the first six months of the year - an overall 33.83 per cent increase over the same period last year. See Discogs mid-year report here.

Competitive Analysis

Analysing other small independent record labels has helped meto learn the ins and outs of how competition works, and identify potential opportunities where the labels can out-perform them.

User Survey

Users survey helped to gather quantitive and qualitative data about the user's interaction and experience purchasing and selling records. It has also helped to understand how bands connect with fans and promoters as all participants have been or are active members of bands.

Participants: 26
Adults between 26 and 46 years old
Locations: UK, Spain, Mexico, Sweden, Germany, USA

Goal

- To identify what motivates people to purchase records from independent record labels
- To identify pain points when people buy records from independent labels
- To gain more information about how the community communicate 
- To determine how bands connect with promoters
- To identify competitors that offer a similar product

Results

All participants are smartphone and laptop users and buy or have bought from independent record labels, with La Vida Es Un Mus, Static Shock Records and Iron Lung being the most popular. The majority of participants got to know these record labels through friends (95.5%) or found them online (31.8%). The main reasons for people to buy from independent records labels are: 
- To support local bands they like (92.3%)
- To support their friends (76.9%)
- To support small businesses and local bands (38.5%)
- To belong to a community (34.6%)

The music genre participants are most interested in is Punk, with 88.5%, followed by Metal, with 34.6% and Pop, with 26.9%. 
Participants stated things they dislike when buying from independent labels:
- Inexcusable delays that will stop them buying from the label
- Pressing delays because of the vinyl boom and the bigger labels taking away vinyl pressing time 
- The lack of detailed information about a record
- Hard to navigate websites
- Unspecified preorders that take time to arrive because they weren’t made on time
- Shipping expenses 
- The trend of overpricing records 

All participants play or have played in bands and 80.8% stated that people get to know their bands through connections, through friends (73.1%) and through the record label (57.7%). 92.3% of participants promote their bands through word of mouth, 76.9% through gigs, 73.1% through Instagram, 19.2% through their own website and 3.8% through the record label. Participants’ most popular ways of connecting with promoters are through connections, followed by friends, word of mouth and connections, through the record label, gigs and online music reviews.

Survey Findings

User's needs

- Most participants use the record label website just to buy records 
- All participants need a responsive platform 
- Most participants buy records from the same independent record labels
- Some participants only find the music they like through independent labels 
- Participants know independent labels through friends and the web 
- Participants need to support local bands and businesses
- Most participants need live shows to discover new bands 
- Most participants need to buy punk or metal records 
- Participants need access to other platforms
- All participants need to promote their bands
- All participants need friends and connections to promote their bands

Frustrations

- Participants disliked the lack of detailed information about records
- Most participants need the preorders to arrive on time 
- All participants don’t like excessive delays in their orders
- Some participants found labels’ websites hard to navigate
- Some participants are not happy with the shipping expenses
- Some participants find there’s a trend of overpricing records
- Some participants blame big labels of pressing delays 
- Some participants found Bandcamp was not useful to connect with other people
- Most participants use diverse platforms to connect to other people

Motivations

- All participants like punk and metal music
- Most participants buy records to support local bands they like and small businesses
- All participants played or have played in bands
- Most participants promote their bands online 
- Most participants are in contact with a community 
- All participants buy records from independent labels 
- All participants value friends and word of mouth to promote their bands 
- Most participants also use other platforms to promote their band 
- Most participants use different platforms to discover new bands

User Personas

The three user personas created represent the three main types of users: the artist, the record buyer and the client. The documents show their motivations, needs and frustrations towards the independent music industry.

User Type 1: The Artist
User Type 2: The Record Buyer
User Type 3: The Client

Empathy Map

Based on the survey results, where 100% of participants play or have played in bands, and the user persona document, the empathy map below shows behaviours and attitudes of the User Type 1: The Artist.

Research Findings

All participants are or have been members of bands, they often buy records from independent labels mostly to support bands they like and the small businesses that release their records. They are all part of a community that allows them to plan tours, organise gigs, sell records and mercandising and have connections around the world. They belong to a subculture that doesn’t need sponsorship from big labels, they use social media apps to promote their bands and other online platforms to discover new music. 

Designing Research & Prototyping

App Map

These three app maps displayed in the carrousel below show the essential features the app would need to have as MVP for the three different types of users: the Record Buyer, the Artist and the Client.

Users Flow

The Users Flow below represent the possible journeys the three types of users might take when navigating the app.
- The first flow shows the journey of the record buyer, being record releases, explore, community, shopping cart and account the main features. The user will be able to browse new records while listening, adding them to the shopping cart or sharing them with the community.
- The second flow belongs to the artist's journey, this flow will add features such as product updates where the artists can check for record sales and reviews. They'll also have access to adding posts or share upcoming events as well as to check their traffics report or to contact the label through the account settings.
- The third flow shows the client's journey, where they will have access to a record label dashboard. Managing products, content and orders will be the main features as well as inventory updates and sales checks through the settings option. The client will be able to send automated messages and manage orders through those features respectively.

Wireframes

The wireframes below show the record buyer app UI for the must-have features: the onboarding and sign up, the home, product description, cart and radio. The search, community, profile and settings.

Onboarding & Sign Up

The onboarding will introduce the user to the platform and the sign up/sign in flow will allow the user to join the community.

Home, Product Details, Cart & Radio

The user will have access to the homepage, so they can browse, listen and buy records. The radio option will offer a variety of radio shows.

Search, Account & Settings

The search option will allow the user to explore as well as filter products. The account will allow the user to check their notifications, wishlist and access to settings.

Community

The community section will show different categories such as events, groups, events, forums, blogs and shops.

Logo Creation

The name of the app Circle has been chosen by a few participants among other names like Bodega or Playtime. Circle is a simple name that is easy to remember, and makes it easy for users to understand what the app is all about. Circle represents the union of a community, it symbolises the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.

UI Kit

Circle UI Kit contains the main elements and components in the app, fonts, primary, secondary and tertiary colors, icons and the layout of cards and forms.

High Fidelity Prototype

All photos used on this project belong to the photographer Wonder Girl.

Onboarding & Sign Up

The onboarding will offer a brief explanation of what the platform offers. If the user decides to join they will have access to the signup option where they'll be allowed to join using social media logins.

Home, Product Details, Cart & Radio

The homepage will show the latest news and releases as well as highlighting the community and events options. The user will be able to browse different record labels, listen, share, read information about the record and add it to the shopping cart to finally buy the product. The radio option, placed in the navigation bar will show related radio shows, the user will be also able to share them on social media or on the Circle community.

Search

The search option will offer the user the find products by categories or filter records by format, genre, labels, product type or release date.

Account & Settings

The user will be able to edit their own pictures and profile details within the account section. They will have access to their wishlist, notifications and activity history as well as to manage their settings.

Community

The user will have access to forums, groups, blogs and events through the community option. They will be able to post comments, events or add new threads as well as to check the latest news, buy event tickets, find new friends in the community or shops depending on location.

Usability Testing

Test Objectives

- Observation of first impressions of the app, feelings and recognition
- Test the ease of use for the purchase option, access to the community, add a new thread in the forum option, search a specific record, access the account, profile and settings
- Identify pain points when completing tasks.
- Determine how users complete the tasks.

Test Subject

- High fidelity prototype of the Circle App

Test Methodology

- Moderated in person and unmoderated research remotely over calls with participants sharing their screens

Participants

- Three to five potential participants who had already purchased records online from independent record labels and are or have been members of bands

Tasks

- Add a record to the cart and purchase using a credit card
- Access to the community
- Add a new thread in the forum option
- Search a specific record
- Access to the accountEdit profile
- Access to the settings

Findings

The four participants completed the tasks successfully and all suggested options to improve. They agreed the app is easy to navigate as it’s similar to other social media or e-commerce apps. They all explored the app intuitively and recognised record labels they purchase from. Most participants found the share icon confusing and found the small text hard to read. They all liked the events option, as they normally check different social media apps to be up to date. Some participants suggested the app should show events and record labels depending on the location. One participant mentioned that active members in the community who add events, share and comment frequently, could become promoters and have access to different features. They all highlighted the app could be very helpful for small companies, underground bands and vinyl record buyers. 

Participants suggested some changes:
- Rearrange the options in each record on the product page
- Option to connect with bands on the product page
- Highlight Community and Events options on the homepage
- Increase size in small text
- Add a Labels & Bands section to the Community
- Add a promoters section to the Groups

Priority Revisions

Based on the Usability Testing results, some changes have been made to the homepage, product details, cart and community.

Home page, Cart & Product Details

The small text weight has been increased for better readability, the latest events and community have been added to the homepage and a connect button has been added to each record on the product page.

Community

The community section has been updated, adding a labels and bands group into the forum and promoters section into the groups. The back arrow has been added to the top-left to improve navigation.

Next Steps & Conclusion

The Circle UI created in this project shows the must-have features for a record buyer. The project will require non-essential features to be integrated like, geolocation preferences, feed based on profile settings, rating and feedback and loyalty and membership options. The next steps will include the creation of the artist and the client dashboard UI.

Creating Circle has helped me to prioritise skills and strategies, that made me reflect on what was feasible within the time and budget constraints. The challenge of creating an end-to-end application for established independent record labels in London meant more than just creating a product interface, it has enclosed the whole experience users will have with different labels and their overall satisfaction with the product. Working in a team remotely has shown me that choosing the right tools can make it easier for clients and stakeholders to provide feedback. Being a single member of the UI/UX team has made me realised how important is to stand for my design opinions, maintain a good relationship with the team and deliver quick and effective UX work in the sprints.

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