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As of June 2013, iTunes achieved 575m registered users and it’s adding 500,000 new accounts every day.

There is no denying the power and ubiquity of Apple’s digital music service, after all it has transformed the way that everyone on the planet consumes music.

It’s by no means a flawless experience however...

  • The launching of a separate programme in order to access your library and store is time consuming and subject to glitches. It’s also painfully slow if you're not a Mac user. 
  • The lack of accessibility from a browser is frustrating, especially when iTunes streams a new album release a week early via an online link.
  • It has a lack of support for a large number of file formats and you can’t sync it with anything other than iOS devices.
  • iTunes isn’t particularly customisable, in fact the whole experience is fairly impersonal, with very little curation or recommendations forthcoming from the vast amounts of data on users available to iTunes.
  • I haven’t even gotten to the less than competitive prices yet.

Luckily there are alternatives out there.

In an ongoing series I’ll be looking at the competition: Google Play, Amazon MP3, HMVdigital and 7digital, to see if we can find an iTunes killer. Up first...

7digital

Despite having access to 25m songs, the widest global reach of digital music rights in the world and powering the music services for Samsung, Blackberry, Microsoft, Toshiba, HP and many others, the London based, 10 year-old company is still regarded as the underdog.

However as regular downloader of digital music, 7digital is one of my personal favourites. Although this is in part due to its new music deals where a couple of the biggest new releases are offered for £4.99 - £5.99 instead of the standard £7.99 for their first week of release.

Let’s see what else 7digital offers in UX and ease of use.

Homepage

It’s a simple layout, nothing too showy or ‘in your face’ which immediately makes for a refreshing experience.

The carousel works well, I’m not normally a fan, but 7digital completely updates it every week with new releases (offered at discount), a brand new interview with a relevant band or artist from that week and a spotlight on a particular subject or trend.

It does look a little dated though, due to its small size and lack of dynamism.

I would suggest that the albums highlighted under the carousel are far too small in terms of image and text.

It’s also not entirely clear that by clicking on the tabs above the albums (Recommended, Pre-orders and New Tracks) that this will bring up a whole new selection of choices. I always figured the tab above related to the albums underneath.

Search

As a control for testing the search field I’ll be using my favourite band in the world, seminal riot grrrl three-piece Sleater-Kinney.

Excellent in more ways than just having my favourite band. 

As I typed, 7digital immediately provided popular search terms in a drop-down menu, before separating the relevant results into the most popular albums, artists and tracks.

Search results are presented very neatly and clearly.

Product page

Here is the typical 7digital product page. I apologise for the obscurity of the band, but I figured while doing a UX test, I may as well get some shopping done at the same time.

I like the fact that the artist copy is specifically written by the 7digital editorial team. I’m also pleased that MP3 and M4A formats are available (although you can argue amongst yourselves which one is better).

Unfortunately missed details like this are a huge oversight:

It smacks of a lack of tagging when the album was uploaded, and is leading to missed opportunities for sales. Other releases by the same artist are hidden beneath the fold.

For each song available, a 30-second high quality preview can be accesssed if you click the ‘play’ button, each song can also be purchased separately. Again my criticism here is the fiddly buttons provided by 7digital, a trend that is rife throughout the whole site.

Basket

Clicking ‘buy’ drops your selection directly into your basket that simply opens up as a drop-down menu without navigating you elsewhere. 

You can easily continue shopping, remove an item, close basket or go direct to checkout from here.

Checkout

If this is your first time you will be taken direct to a sign-up screen. Although if you are regular customer you will remain signed in.

As soon as you’ve typed your email address and chosen a password, that’s it, you’re all signed up. 7digital doesn’t ask you for anything else in terms of personal information.

You’re taken directly to the single checkout page where it’s a quick credit card input or PayPal password and your purchase is complete. 

Post purchase downloading and streaming

You now have the option to download the album in MP3 or M4A format, or you can play it now in the browser from a cloud-based ‘locker’ where all of your previous purchases are stored.

Here’s a little window into my soul:

You can download any of your tracks to your desktop as many times as you like, which is great if you ever accidentally lose your music, and of course they can be played via whichever media platform you like (iTunes, Windows Media Player etc).

If you wish to play any of your music, you can, although it’s not terribly clear how you do this. It’s a tiny green ‘graphic equaliser’ button in the bottom left of the album cover. This opens up all the tracks available and launches a player at the very bottom of the webpage.

It took me a while to find this. 

The player remains, with play unaffected wherever you navigate to on 7digital, however if you go offsite it will disappear. It’s easily done, especially when we’re used to separate programmes providing our musical enjoyment while we browse from one site to the next.

Perhaps if 7digital launched a separate browser window dedicated to the player, much like NPR.org does when you stream music from its site, this would be a better, more fluid experience.

Mobile site

7digital offers a mobile site and an app.

Here’s the mobile site:

7digital mobile

Search isn’t quite as good as the desktop site, there’s no keyword prediction, however it’s very kind on searchers who spell artist names incorrectly. 

7digital mobile

Also on the plus side, it has the same functionality as the desktop site in terms of sign-in (or sign-up), ease of purchase and you can even stream all of your purchases in a neat little player.

7digital mobile

Although if you navigate away from the ‘Your Music’ page the playback is interrupted.

If you want to download your music direct to your iPhone however, this message appears:

7digital mobile

It’s clear that the constant app advert at the top of each screen saying ‘get 7digital for iPhone’ is there for a reason.

App

In order to download your music to your iPhone, you have to go to the app store and download the 7digital app.

The app itself can be linked to your desktop account, so any music in your locker, purchased via desktop or mobile site, can be downloaded to the app.

You can also sync your iTunes library to the 7digital app, so you can choose to use this as your sole music player on your iPhone if you wish. Bear in mind that it doesn’t work the other way. If you download music bought from 7digital on your mobile via the 7digital app, you won’t be able to play this via the Apple music app.

Finally the one detrimental factor of the whole 7digital mobile experience is that you cannot use the app to buy new music, as it provides no access to the mobile store

So if you want to purchase, download and play music from 7digital on your mobile, you have to do it via two different platforms. This is a pointless, arduous and frustrating experience that I’ll never repeat.

Better than iTunes?

There are many positives in using 7digital:

  • 7digital can be accessed through a browser window rather than having to fire up a separate programme on your desktop which can take a while to load.
  • It is often cheaper than iTunes. 
  • It has a better sense of curation and editorial voice.
  • Awesome search and navigation.

Unfortunately with a ridiculously complicated mobile experience for iPhone users and a desktop site that just isn’t quite user friendly enough in terms of size and accessibility, it’s not quite the giant killer I was hoping it could be.

Next time: I’ll be looking at Amazon MP3, Google Play and HMVdigital.

For more digital music UX from the blog, check out seven reasons why I love Spotify and 17 why I don’t.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 5 March, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (3)

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Robin

I buy a fair amount of digital music, but never from iTunes. Apple's insistence on sticking with proprietary formats, coupled with the fact that the iTunes desktop app is awful mean I've kept well away and tend to use a combination of Amazon, Google Music and 7Digital (plus the likes of BandCamp and Pledge Music for lesser known acts). It's not quite as convenient as having everything in one place, but for me a little bit of file management between accounts is still preferable to using iTunes

over 2 years ago

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Chris

You should also check out fairsharemusic.com as an interesting alternative. Same choice and prices as the others, top quality MP3's but the main difference is the charity aspect.

over 2 years ago

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Kai

Probably WIMP is worth a try as well; they are streaming music, but you can buy it as well ...

over 2 years ago

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