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RateYourMusic Case Study: an Examination of RYM’s UX Flaws

Working towards a better database.

RateYourMusic.com is a community-built music database run by Sonemic, Inc. The website’s main draw is both is catalog system for albums (sorted by release and issue) and its user review and rating system. The site also has user forums that cover various related topics and allows users to create their own lists, which other users can view and comment on. In addition, there are a series of auto-generated charts that can be sorted in a number of different ways; anything from the best/worst of a genre or by year. There is also an overarching “best of” chart. All of these charts are generated by weighing user reviews and user ratings. Individuals with more reviews and ratings are given more weight, and the number of user reviewers as well as the average rating are taken into account when generating these charts. The website is a fantastic way to discover new music and sort through not only artists and albums, but also individual releases like CDs and Vinyl pressings. This is something that RYM uniquely provides. However, the site has some general usability issues revolving around its dated user interface. Many users are “OK” with the current interface because they are used to it, but I remember that in my early days of using the website I had a great deal of complaints with how things were organized and presented. Here I will detail some of the main issues with the website and provide some methods of fixing them.

Pain Point #1: Aesthetics and Lacking Visual Hierarchy

RYM’s Landing Page

The first thing that comes to mind when you first visit RYM is not “sleek and modern,” in fact the website looks quite old. It has been continually updated for many years, but there have been no major revamps to its overall user interface. This main page has one obvious problem: where are you supposed to look when you first come to it? A new user’s eye is most likely drawn straight to the largest element on the page, which in this case happens to be a user review of Oxnard by Anderson .Paak. This is a featured user review, which are always present on the main page, and they cycle out on a semi-daily basis. These are a great thing to have on the landing page but are they the first thing that new users should be drawn to? The smaller elements are self explanatory, but might not be terribly useful or interesting for a new user. There is no call to action on this page, which in combination with the somewhat vague navigation system might cause new users to hit a wall. To their benefit, the landing page’s information will be different each time a user visits it because the “new releases” and “latest ratings” are going to be different every time the page is loaded.

Speaking of the navigation system, can you guess what the “$” and “[X]” buttons on the navigation bar are for?

The navigation bar for a registered user. On the right are the “subscribe (donate)” and “log out” button.
Lists page.

Let us continue our examination on the “lists” page. This is the page you are greeted with. Once again, there’s a lot to look at and its not clear what we’re supposed to look a because of a lack of visual hierarchy. However, on this page I don’t think it’s as bad as it was on the landing page since we came here for lists and we are getting a good number of immediately visible lists. Personally, I think it would be better to swap “popular lists” and “recently updated” lists. I say this because the first list we see by chance on the left in the “recently updated” section is somebody’s personal list made to keep track of what they want to listen to it. It lacks formatting and is basically a set of links. This could be avoided by switching the two sections so that we are more visibly drawn to the popular, and likely more refined, lists.

Pain Point #2: Superfluous Features and Organization on User Pages

Basic user profile page.

This is a general violate of Jakob Nielson’s “aesthetics and minimalist design” UX heuristics. The issue here is the variety of functionality available to the user on their profile page that are unnecessary or causes unneeded clutter. There are also some features that are oddly placed. Let’s begin at the top of the page, where on the right we see the user’s profile picture, some user settings (this area shows the user’s age/name/country if they choose to display it to other users), and a map of artists on the right. The biggest issue on this page is the map, as it is entirely unnecessary and doesn’t provide much utility to the user or those visiting their page. When clicked, it simply leads to another page that shows a map of cities where artists that the user has rated are based. This information is not only available elsewhere on the same site (such as on an artist’s page), but it also doesn’t serve a practical enough purpose to be located at the top of a user’s profile page. It might be better to put other information in this section, such as the user’s friends and favorites (which are located at the bottom of the page) or to move the user’s “favorite artists” list into that spot instead.

Basic user profile, bottom of the page

At the bottom of the page, we find the “friends” section of the user’s page where we also find the “favorited” tab. To this day, I’m not sure if the “favorited” tab shows what I have favorited or which of my posts have been favorited by others. Some clarification here is needed. The comment box is also located here even though it isn’t directly related to a user’s friends. In fact, this could take the place of the artist map located at the top of the page. The “friends” section as a whole could be seen as a important by a great deal of users, so it is perplexing that it is located far down on the user’s page. In addition, there is a cool function that is attached to the “friends” section of all of the user pages on the site. This is one of the coolest features that the site has to offer, especially if you have a lot of registered friends. It’s strange that it’s so small and obscure joined an element that is located at the bottom of the page. The “link your RYM page from your blog/homepage” button also opens a set of links meant for forums and websites, but this is also an obviously outdated form of linking user pages (it still references mySpace and LiveJournal).

Pain Point #3: User Settings Menu

User profile tab in the account settings

There are a few issues with the account settings page as well. The “user profile” tab and “change password” tab are both fine as they are, but the options page feels a haphazard collection of “miscellaneous” settings that could have made up their own unique tabs. For instance, within the options tab we have subscriber settings, image and content display options (filtering out NSFW content, offensive content, etc.), the amount of items displayed on charts and lists on each page, extra utilities that you can turn on and off (such as a notepad and inbox button in the nav), your inbox settings, the settings for the music map on your user page, as well as several other miscellaneous check boxes. Curiously, there’s even an option to turn off responsive web pages. I’m not sure why this setting even exists. Credit where its due, there are a huge number of ways to customize your experience and profile present here which provides good user control and freedom. But if you think there’s a lot of loosely related things under the innocent looking“options” tab you’re not the only one. Many of these could have been placed in their own tabs: “Subscriber Settings,” “Filters,” “Utilities,” “Inbox Settings.” this would simplify the user flow, instead of having to scroll through the options and read through them all in order to find an individual setting they could easily find what they are looking for based on the tabs. This “options” tab also contains the account deletion button, hidden deep at the bottom of the page with no warning signs attached to it, it just appears like every other link on the site. This is problematic not only because it’s difficult to locate, but also because it isn’t clearly marked.

Another small issue is that pressing the button at the bottom of the page that confirms your changes in the “user profile” tab will bring you back to your user page, while all of the other settings tabs do not. Let me describe a “user flow” that results from this that inconveniences the user. To enable 18+ content on the site, you must first set your age on the “user profile” tab; you learn this from the “options” tab. So, the user navigates to the “user profile” tab and changes their age, pressing the “submit changes” button and is sent back to their page. They must then press the “account settings” button again in order to navigate back to the “options” tab where they can change their filter settings. This must only be done once, but you can see why this is an issue: the user simply has to click on too many things to accomplish this task.

Pain Point #4: FAQ

FAQ page

This is the view that greets you when you navigate to the “Frequently Asked Questions” page linked in the website’s footer. Right away we can see how dense this page is. There’s a lot of different links here all set in the same point size and color with a similar amount of spacing between them. This is a lot to look through for a user that might have a simple question. Yet again, this issue is the result of lacking visual hierarchy. On the bright side, the sheer amount of information here should be more than enough to satisfy any questions any type of user might have. It even contains the privacy policy and terms of service (which are also linked in the footer). So, let’s say I’m a new user curious about how “score weighting” works, so I click on the link in the left column’s “FAQ” section…

Where did the rest of the index go?

Here we see an issue with clarity and consistency: when we navigate to a specific section of the documentation the links to the rest vanish from the index page. There’s nothing below what you see in this screenshot except for empty space down to the bottom of the page so why can’t users see the entire index? Now, if I want to navigate back to their database standards I can’t just click a link in the index, I have to press back in my browser and do it from the page I just came from. This is a minor issue similar to some of the problems present in the account settings, but this is beginning seem like a “death from 1000 cuts paper cuts” situation.

It may also appear that this violates Nielsen’s “Help and documentation” heuristic as well due to the sheer volume of documentation when he calls for documentation to “not be too large,” but because this site is primarily a user driven database the complexity is necessary to keep the voice, styling, and citation style consistent across every album and artist entry on the entire site. This amount of documentation also helps prevent user errors, should one choose to read them.

Pain Point #5: Review Writing Dialogue

Review dialogue box

When you navigate to an album’s page, you have an option to leave a rating and write a review for it. If you choose to do this, as many do, you will encounter this dialogue box that gives you a general overview of the standards for writing reviews. However, this shows up every time you try to write a review; even if you’re already written 50. Ideally, there would be a way to dismiss this because after your first few times most users should be familiar enough with the standards that they don’t need to see them anymore. It could be reduced to an expanding drop down menu after the user has published five reviews, or there could be a setting in the user account settings to turn this off. This is an efficiency of use issue. To add to this, the checkbox to post your review starts off unchecked. I would imagine that in most situations users would do not need to save their reviews to come back and edit later (most reviews are a paragraph or less), and starting with the box checked would still allow users who write more detailed reviews the freedom to come back to their work later. Another oddity with this menu is the fact that the “review title” is so far divorced from the actual body copy of the review that, as a new user, I was confused as to why it was placed where it is. This could be resolved if you were to add an option to collapse the user review standards. This is how titles appear when you press submit and view your review when it is published on the album’s page:

As you can see, the title gets added to the top of the review in plain bold text with nothing between it and the content except for a line break. The content entry section here functions like an old school forum, requiring some level of markup to add formatting to your content (bold, italics, links, etc.). For instance, if I want to make the title “Station to Station” italicized in my review, I would type [i]Station to Station[/i]. This is simply a product of age, I feel, and if Sonemic were to ever update this functionality I would recommend allowing users to write using Markdown because of its speed. Other sites, like Reddit, already use markdown so new users are more likely to be familiar with its conventions.

Conclusion

Despite RYM’s huge amount of functionality and the purpose it serves to music nerds, its user interface takes a lot of adjustment and acts as a barrier to new users that must be overcome. It takes more time than it should to become familiar with the site. I have been using the site for more than a year and during this case study I found things that I didn’t even know existed (the inbuilt notepad tool I mentioned in the account settings, for instance). There are other major usability issues with the site that I could go over more thoroughly as well, such as the fact that a lot of the website is not responsive to varying screen sizes; using this site on a mobile device is a nightmare due to the size of the buttons/text not changing enough to fit the platform. However, these issues are again the result of the antiquated site design. I believe that Sonemic were to resolve these issues that they would find a wider user base. The company has gotten much better at creating good user experiences with its newer sites for film and for video games, so I believe that they are well aware of many of these problems. The next step of this process is to iterate on the website and begin refining the user experience to make it as smooth as it can be.