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June 20, 2010

Summary: Thoughts on user-centered design through the lens of a flamewar on the DC-area bluegrass mailing list.

If you’re not familiar with bluegrass music, “Appalachian Jazz” wouldn’t be a bad description, nor would it be an insult to either genre. Both jazz and bluegrass are rooted in improvisation and a call-and-response dialectic relationship between the musicians. Both serve as frameworks for ever-expansive forms of music, yielding derivatives that build upon the basic assumptions (see also Jamgrass, Newgrass, etc.).

Both forms of music have a canon, their “standards,” which every novice has to learn in order to become proficient in the genre. In bluegrass music, standards are relatively simple pieces, generally using three chords with confined melody lines. Though bluegrass is characterized by its musical qualities (high tenor vocals, emphasis on fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, high speed tempos), its roots are geographical: in mountain music, and as close to oral history as you can get. Writing it down is a recent endeavor (as is its study by urban Jewish guys).

User-Centered Musicianship

The hot topic on the DC-area bluegrass mailing list these days is a flamewar about requests: members of the audience shouting out songs they’d like to hear. If you’re a national act like Del McCoury or Ricky Skaggs, you’re getting requests for your own work. If you’re a local act, the requests are for standards. The poor song chosen as the standard to represent all standards is a song made famous by the Osborne Brothers, Rocky Top. (It’s actually kind of an interesting song with a mode change in the bridge, but that’s another story.)

To take requests or not: those are the two schools of thought have emerged in this conversation. The former is epitomized by this quote:

Musicians who think they’re too good to play requests are missing the whole point of what it means to be a professional musician.  Being a professional means treating playing music as if it were a business, and the point of a business is to give customers what they want.

(No names to protect the innocent. Archives of the list are open only to subscribers.)

There’s another musician on the list who takes the opposing view, that taking requests somehow compromises his professional integrity. He said:

Let me put this in the perspective from the audience not from the stage.  I go to hear a band to see what they got. I want to hear them play and sing – I want to hear something new even if it is a twist on an old song. I don’t want to hear Rocky Top or any of the other beat-to-death songs. These songs bore me and are usually not played very well.

Performance Art

One of the things I love about music as an artform is that songs–to varying degrees–can be seen as frameworks. A piece of music can be played as written, but there are infinite opportunities for musicians to interpret, through rhythm, harmony, arrangement, and other stylistic elements. (Liz Danzico has been exploring the relationship between improvisation and design.)

When one musician remakes or covers a song by another musician, he or she sees an opportunity to explore the framework authored by someone else. (Heavy-handed interpretations can be as simple as “let’s play Aerosmith in the bluegrass style.” More subtle interpretations involve finding a way to put your own stamp on a piece, perhaps leveraging strengths of your band.)

This is what makes standards such a useful language for musicians. Simple frameworks for everyone to learn gives novices a common starting point. Seasoned musicians reinterpreting the canon provide models for students to understand the different ways to apply technique to a particular song structure. Moreover, seasoned musicians can enjoy a musical conversation with each other (a “jam”) even if they’ve never played together before, because everyone draws from the same frameworks.

The Audience

The flip side, of course, is that standards are “boring” to some musicians. When someone in the audience calls out “Rocky Top,” professional musicians hear “We want the lowest common denominator. We’re not interested in YOUR original music.”

This attitude is a useful input into the conversation about user-centered design, especially as products become more participatory. A few ideas:

Standards: The word “Standards” is appropriate. In both music and design, they represent meaningful starting points, a common language. Designers may resent standards because they don’t want to use the same old conventions for solving a design problem (just like musicians who feel like there’s nothing left to interpret on a song). At the same time, standards are a language to which everyone (at least in theory) can relate–designers and users alike. Apply a standard to a design problem, and you have at least some guarantee that users will have experienced the convention previously.

Requests: Musicians who resent simply having to fulfill every request by the audience parallel designers who don’t responsibly interpret user needs. Research may identify countless feature requests, but acquiescing to every desired feature does not yield a better product. Both musicians and designers need to incorporate requests into the larger, but more local framework: the project parameters, the business requirements, the technical constraints, and the designer’s own voice.

Ownership: Who owns the music? One musician calls it HIS music, and another calls it THEIR music. Still another uses the first person, OUR music. The nature of performance art makes the concept of ownership difficult, and each perspective is a useful lens with which to look at music. HIS music: he’s expressing his own compositions and interpretations; he’s demonstrating his aptitude for particular techniques. THEIR music: the audience bought the performance or the recording; they’re the customer, and they need to be satisfied. OUR music: playing music is a dialog between the musicians and the audience; musicians respond to the vibe, and the audience responds to the performance.

Interactive products, especially those that are attached to the internet, paint a similarly blurry line. I buy an iPod, but the design is Apple’s, no? I fill it with music, configure the settings, perhaps customize with a case, and it becomes “more mine”. This is less direct in web sites that allow me to contribute content, reconfigure the framework, and extend invitations to other participants. Twitter offers a useful example, incorporating features that came from emergent use, not from explicit user research. (This is a design technique called “paving the cowpaths,” that is, formalizing features that have become entrenched.) As a person who used the “RT” convention (to mean “retweet,” a feature subsequently incorporated into the product) am I partially responsible for the design of Twitter? Do I have some ownership of the product? (Even if the implementation is not ideal.)

The Future of Participation

In her interview on the Pipeline, Liz Danzico talks about the increasing blurry line between consuming and creating. Audiences become more active participants in the creation process. To see a drunken “Free Bird!” request as a parallel might be doing a disservice to the metaphor. Live performances don’t offer a useful framework for considering the future of user experience. Even more recent innovations like karaoke and open mic night, as well as old stand-bys like pulling a volunteer from the audience, don’t shed light on what a participatory medium looks like.

In a sense, user experience designers have it easier than musicians. We’re used to people taking products and finding novel application for them. As this practice becomes more pervasive, as products become more about their adaptability and their connectivity, musicians may find themselves in the hot seat. Some may be forced to revisit their assumption that performances are entirely within their control.

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