March 1, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Herd.fm’s Social Playlist Makeover: a Good Idea… in Theory

herd.fm social playlist music iphone appWe first checked out Herd.fm about a year ago, after it had been a finalist in last year’s SXSW Accelerator contest. Back then, the app shared music based on your physical location, allowing you to “drop” tracks at various venues for other users to “pick up” and listen to — a pretty neat idea. Unfortunately, various quirks within the functionality of the app kept it from being of much practical use.

Since then, Herd.fm has received a full makeover and emerged a much more traditional social music app. Unfortunately, our assessment remains essentially the same: good idea, poor execution.

Herd.fm (free) is meant to be a quick, easy way to share music with friends. It allows you to create playlists from your iPhone’s music library and share them with other users. And by culling music from SoundCloud, YouTube, and iTunes, it can play songs your friends share with you, even if you don’t have them stored on your device.

It’s a pretty cool idea upfront, but then things start to get shaky. First and foremost, Herd.fm crashed frequently, and sometimes, nothing short of deleting and reinstalling the app brought it back to life. This happened several times on both of our test iPhones (a 4S and a 3GS, both running iOS 5). To be fair, we were eventually able to get the app running stably, but only after several reinstalls on each phone.

Things didn’t improve much from there. Herd.fm has clear potential to be a good “lean back” app — meaning a way to listen to lots of relevant music without having to select songs manually. Your friend sends you a playlist, and you press play and listen to enjoy the music she’s picked out for you without much fuss on your end. It’s the iPhone equivalent of trading mixtapes — or at least it should be.

But this potential is squandered by the fact that for some reason, the default playback option is the iTunes 30-second sample. Unless you take the time with every song to check for and manually select either the SoundCloud or YouTube version each time, you can only hear Apple’s short snippets.

herd.fm social music facebook post

The ad Herd.fm posts to your Facebook profile when you install it. There are three of them because that's how many times I had to reinstall it before it started working correctly.

Making matters worse, the folks at Herd.fm evidently didn’t get the memo about social network etiquette.

When users agree to let an app access their Facebook and Twitter accounts, they generally take it in good faith that their trust won’t be abused. Sure, we’ll give an app a little free advertising by showing off all the cool stuff we’re doing with it, but we expect apps to respond in kind by not flagrantly posting things without prompting us first. Not so with Herd.fm –if you connect the app to Twitter or Facebook, it posts an ad to your profile as soon as you install it, without asking if that’s okay.

(Update: Herd.fm tells us the automated tweets and status updates are a known bug, and that they plan to roll out a fix to all users in about a week.)

After my third or fourth post-crash reinstall, I accidentally pushed the “Forgot Your Password?” button upon logging in. My password was automatically reset, and I was informed that they’d e-mailed me a new one. For some reason, Gmail marked that message as spam, and for a while, I thought I’d been locked out of Herd.fm forever (updated). That I received this news with a sigh of relief should be a good indicator of the kind of experience I had using the app.

If the user experience can be smoothed out a little, Herd.fm might have something good on their hands here. For now, the frustration outweighs the reward.