Last.fm is currently ungoing a semi-public re-design, available to Last.fm subscribers ($3 per month) at beta.last.fm. Bearing in mind that last.fm is now owned by mega media company CBS, it is great to see last.fm continuing to evolve fast. In this post we review the new design and see if it's ready for primetime. The short answer is no. The beta feedback so far has been mixed and comparisons to Facebook have been common.My favorite online music service
A reminder that last.fm is an online music service, which can be enjoyed via a desktop software app or within the browser. Last.fm is built on top of a very impressive music recommendation database called AudioScrobbler. See our February '08 post about last.fm for full details on how last.fm works.
The re-design project was announced on the last.fm blog on 21 May. Its stated mission was "to make online music easier, better and more discoverable." The most noticeable change so far is a new-look UI (more on that below), but here some of the other new features:
- Fully visible library - your entire Last.fm music profile is made visible, "down to every last artist and track."
- Real-time charts - every track you scrobble gets added to all of your charts, instantly.
- Activity feeds
- An improved music player
- Improved sharing
Mixed Feedback; Visual Design Too Much Like Facebook
Last.fm has been gathering feedback on the re-design in its Last.fm Beta Group and on Get Satisfaction. And according to a recent blog post, they've even done some real world usability tests in London. There's also a Flickr stream if you're not a subscriber and curious to see what the beta looks like. Finally, this MetaFilter discussion has some good feedback.
Initial feedback from last.fm's core user base has been mixed. It's fairly common to receive negative feedback on any new design (boy do I know about that, based on RWW's last re-design!). Here are some of the negative comments about the new design in the Beta Group: "generic and commercial", "the aesthetic is lacking", "boring and old fashioned", "resemble[s] facebook too much", "desperate attempt to create a web2.0-ish design".
More specifically, users seem to be are worried that "the music on the new layout is an after thought, relegated below the profile and library" (ref: LadyParadis). The activity stream reminds some users of Facebook, which at least one thinks is unnecessary - "I personally don't see the need in knowing that The Beatles have recently been tagged 'psychedelic awesomeness'", complained Besame.
The new design is nowhere near as polished as the current design, and it does indeed seem very square and blocky like Facebook. Take a look at the comparison:
Current (old) design
Beta (new) design
Aesthetically, the old design is much more pleasing. It must be said though that the old design was always flawed in terms of navigation -- I remember when I first used last.fm, it was difficult to figure out where to click to actually play music. There always seemed to be just too many features and no easy way to navigate to many of them. Take a look at how many levels of navigation there are - and different ways of expressing links - and you'll see what I mean. The new design tries to remedy that confusion, with a traditional vertical navigation panel. But there are still areas where the nav makes no sense - e.g. 'Events' and 'Charts' are both listed twice, once in the header bar and again in the vertical nav. Yet 'Video' and 'Community', two other header nav items, are not in the vertical nav.
Beyond the design aspects, the beta site still needs to address several key features. Chief among them is finding friends, in order to discover more music. I've tried to find new friends on beta last.fm, to no avail. I clicked furiously around the site, but found no way to a) find friends, and b) add them to my network! The new design seems intent on tapping into some of Facebook's mojo (as well as its design), yet social networking on last.fm remains a painful, if not impossible, experience. This is/was also a problem in the old design. However, this feature is under development in the beta according to some of the holder pages I came across.
But to the positive aspects. The newly expanded Library feature is colorful and promising. It seems to be lacking some detail right now, but this is a beta. The Charts page is great and has a lot of interesting data. You can tell that I've been on a Neil Young bender recently for example:
Overall, there are promising new features in Last.fm Beta. The increased amount of data that is exposed on the new design is the most important - and welcome - new feature. The Activity Feed, which one user above complained about, seems innocuous at worst and vaguely useful at best. Overall it's better to have more data to play with than less, in an online music service at least.
However what will really make the most difference is an enhanced ability to discover new music, which means being able to get better recommendations and befriend people with similar music tastes to you. So far, the beta last.fm provides little in these crucial respects. We're told it's coming, but when? Until these recommendation and social features arrive, I'll stick with the old last.fm.