Most Boring & Most Important User Experience Quality

When I was 16, I was a drug dealer.

Well, that’s what my friends parents assumed since all I talked about was the music gear I kept buying. I believe their comment to my friend was, “how on earth could he have that kind of money while unloading trucks at Dayton’s!?!”.

Truth is I just never spent a cent on anything else. If I couldn’t play it or drive it, it never really was of interest to me.

I loved buying and talking about gear. “I love my new Oberheim Matrix 6…especially the…”, or, “You’ve GOT to listen to this new patch on my Korg Poly 800″… and on and on. The vibe, sounds, (and smells) of “Knut Koupee”, “Torps” or “The Good Guys” are some of the most fond memories I had growing up.

Over the course of a year, I created a respectable electronic studio where I created some pretty cool sounds and songs


But through all the analog goodness, I discovered one thing that the music instrument industry got right that almost no other consumer industry has yet to achieve:

Interoperability.     <yawn>

I know. Boring. But it’s true.

MIDI – Musical Instrument Digital Interface…an inter-company interface that let one electronic instrument (synth, drum machine, sequencer, …) talk to another, regardless of who built it.

For me, a musician, MIDI enabled the ultimate user experience: MIDI lets musician use the tools they want, to create something new and wonderful, without having to adjust their behavior due to greed, or fear, or whatever it is that prevents companies from providing complete interoperability.

Further, the musical instrument industry blossomed! Nobody was trying to “build their ecosystem”, or “Capture the market”, they were driven to create amazing instruments to delight their users … they were trying to outpace their competitors not in proprietary environments, but in awesome sounds…awesome experiences.

Some of my favorite moments is composing a song with the following all working seamlessly together (ready?):

Keyboards (modules):
Yamaha DX7
Oberheim Matrix 6
Korg Poly 800
Roland RD-500 (which could talk to all of them at the same time)
Roland XV5080
Proteus 1

Drum Machines:
Oberheim DMX
Yamaha RX-5
Alesis DM-Pro

Yamaha QX3

And it was all synched from my click track on my Yamaha MT1X 4-track recorder where my vocals and guitar tracks lived.

Look at all the companies that focused on the user! (I know, you’re about to say, ya, but some of them are not in business…and while true, it was mostly from the analog/digital wars…impressions that analog synths were crap…which we now know they’re awesome…and just another set of tools to help musicians create amazing art)

But there’s hope!

Just yesterday Amazon and Microsoft announced that “Alexa and Cortana have become friends”. If they really are working for full interoperability, I think this could be the beginning of exponential growth in great experiences. The skeptic in me is wary since they’re currently just passing control to each other based on user commands like “Alexa, open Cortana”… which creates ‘modes’, an awful experience.

But just imagine…what if there was VIDI: Voice Interoperability Digital Interface; where a user could just speak into the air, and all the variety of voice assistants would chat amongst themselves to see how which one…or which combination of them…could delight the user…

THAT is a future direction that is truly focused on user experience…and one that could see growth in the industry that would dwarf where it is now.

Here’s to the future learning from the past: How a growing industry can achieve UX greatness…delivering outstanding user experiences, interoperability…and here’s to MIDI…the technology EVERYONE should love because it is a shining example of what can happen if we collectively work to delight our users by just making our stuff work together.

To read more about the Alexa and Cortana friendship, start here:

To read more on MIDI, start here:

Another Reason We Don’t Have Time To Think

Last time I wrote about how our machines still don’t give us the time to think because those same machines inundate us with casual mind-fillers that at best distract us from the time we set aside to think, and at worst provide us an excuse to just not think because thinking requires effort we don’t want to exert.

However, there’s another answer, too…one that happens to me all the time.

For me, these machines are not designed nor built well enough and force me to trouble-shoot…destroying both my “muse” and the time I’ve set aside to think.

How familiar are these examples to you?

  1. I prepare to sketch a design idea, but spend 20 minutes fighting a printer in order to print out my basic grid
  2. I sit to record a guitar solo for 30 minutes, and end up fighting the Firewire connection to get my guitar into Logic
  3. I start writing some thoughts down and 15 minutes into a great essay I get the ‘beach ball of death’ and lose everything

In all these examples, the intended design is awesome and my time to think is there to start with, but something about the tool, usually the connectivity, completely fails. My think-time is snatched away and I end up frustrated and fruitless. To me it just reinforces yet again that a user experience mostly has nothing to do with the shiny UI nor the promised capabilities of the tool, but is completely about the product’s connectivity and reliability, which provides the underlying foundation for a great user experience.

So while we can dream of our machines being our personal trainer to help us think more, we could all be more pragmatic and just test the crap out of our software so that the intended design shines through and isn’t crippled by frustrating connectivity issues essential for an awesome user experience.


Do We Still Need Machines to Do the Work So We Have Time to Think?

This is a quote from an old IBM Design documentary:

“We need machines to do the work so we have time to think”

It’s noble, and inspires us technologists to create better machines to do our daily monotonous work so we have time to think about more noble efforts, more serious problems to solve, and become better humans.

The problem, I think, is that while we’ve succeeded in creating machines that do the work giving us the opportunity to think, we still don’t. It takes effort to think, and a lot of us just don’t want to take that effort. Further, since our new smart machines provide an endless stream of mildly interesting information, games, or even ‘IT administration’ activities like downloading apps, cleaning up messages, reading detailed logs, and other mundane activities, we have ample opportunity to do a new kind of time-wasting work that fills up any time intended for us to think, while at the same time giving us an excuse not to have to think because we were ‘being productive’.

Unlike my dog. For her, she LOVES to learn new tricks and she enjoys thinking hard and figuring out what I want her to do. Teaching her tricks is mentally exhausting for her because she has to think, but she loves it. I love it, too, because I have to think to always be one step ahead of her to reward her, guide her, and when we’re both thinking towards the same goal, it builds our relationship.

I wonder why we waste these “think opportunities”? Is it because our problems are too big? Na. Is it because we are afraid of the companionship we will build together? Maybe. Is it because we’re exhausted? Probably.

Or, is it simply that the machines we’ve built give us unprecedented access to information and ideas but fail in the one primary purpose that these machines were invented in the first place? Did we lose sight that that these machines were built so we actually have time to think?

Is it now that after all this time we realize that quote was wrong…or at least incomplete…that it’s not about the machine but about the experience the machine offers? It’s not the machine’s fault we’re still not thinking. Rather, it’s the user experience those machines deliver that fail in achieving the true goal.

We need time to think. To become a better version of ourselves, to build a better version of today. But thinking takes effort that not everyone is up for.

Maybe our new machines need to be like personal trainers…guiding us to think even though we don’t really want to at that second…forcing us to discard the ‘productive’ activities like sifting through email, logs, playing casual games, and forcing us to think through hard problems. Maybe our interfaces need to ask, “Why are you doing this? Is it helping you solve the difficult problems on your list? As you do this activity, here is a space to list ideas, ‘a-ha’ thoughts so you can build on them later”

Then, at the end of the month, just like a personal trainer, our machines help us look back at all we accomplished…and how much we actually did think.

What do you, well, think?


Isn’t “Horrible UX” A Bit Harsh?

Last time I wrote about my experience at B&H web site and how the “Horrible” user experience eventually saved me $500 and cost B&H $2000.

I wanted to dig in a bit to why I used “Horrible”. After all, a LOT of what I experienced was actually pretty great! It all comes down to how B&H violated the six themes of user experience, and the expectations they set up through those user experiences all with one simple message:


As a refresher, here’s how I wrap my head around user experience: User Experience is composed of six themes: Presentation, Navigation, Relevant Scenarios, Trustworthy Feedback, Initial Bring-up, and Connectivity.

Killer User Experience Themes

Each theme acts like a door. Each door needs to be interesting enough to the user that the user takes a small risk to walk through. The responsibility for the product (and the designer) is that the door through one theme sets the user’s expectations for how the user will experience the next theme.

It’s this failure of handling expectations that made this web site’s user experience horrible. Let’s take a look at how B&H did on each theme:

Presentation: A
B&H’s web site had a great presentation. The home page is easy to look at, has some nice graphics reinforcing what it offers, and I start to build trust that they know what they’re talking about after scrolling down the home page.

Navigation: A
B&H simply helps me navigate to what objects and tasks I want to perform. I searched for iMac, and instantly found it. I also saw “Used” and “Refurbished” and found older ones but decided on a new one (not to mention a nice menu bar at the top showing the kinds of items they sell from video to photo to computer to recording gear…they’re experts at everything!)

Relevant Scenarios: A+
Right next to my iMac was “Add to Cart”, and what makes it an A+ is that instantly after I added it to the cart, I was surprised by being offered free software and discounts on photo editing software I was wanting to buy but didn’t even know they sold.

Trustworthy Feedback: A
I saw my items being added to the cart, saw the total, and I was pumped! I was completely sold not only on the product I was buying but in the way that B&H led me through the transaction with expert reviews, peer reviews, and fast performing “Added to Cart” response.

Initial Bring-up: B+
I had no problems getting started with the web site, but there was a small point of confusion where it didn’t remember my ID so I couldn’t get to my ‘wish list’ as simply as I expected. No biggie. In the end I was led through.

Connectivity: A … then F
I moved between devices and since it offered a user account, I could connect from anywhere and the web site offered instant chat and other features I could have tried.

…and then it told me it couldn’t connect to the check-out process.

Now I actually think this is on purpose, but I can’t think of why. They might as well offer a “Buy from Amazon Instead” button on the dialog above.

I did envision one possibility: I imagine a dimly lit basement in the B&H warehouse downtown New York. A young, but strong intern stands in the basement of B&H with sweat rolling off his back as he turns a heavy crank. His muscles are sore, covered in grime, and quivering in exhaustion. Next to him is a two-story rusty mechanism with 12′ gears slowly turning while creaking and complaining at each crank. Above is a sign that reads, “Turn To Activate Your Internet Checkout Subroutine”, and since he’s the only guy strong enough to turn the mechanism, he needs a few hours each Saturday to rest.

Other than that possibility, I just don’t get it.

This experience does strongly validate the importance of the WHOLE user experience. Companies can invest a ton of money in how a product looks, navigates, that it is relevant to the user, gives feedback, and is simple to get started. However, if the back-end fails at the most crucial point, if the whole reason for the web site’s existence is off-line, everything ounce of investment was a waste of money and the whole user experience is a failure.

Even worse, it lost a customer (at least for that day).

I think that’s why I called it a horrible user experience.

How about you? What do you think the most important part of a user experience is?

Why I Loved This Horrible User Experience

I own a recording studio, and while I’m quite happy with what I’ve recorded and released, I knew it was time to upgrade my studio computer as well as recording software. After many months of research, I decided that my core computer would be a new iMac with 27″ display.

I searched and found the cheapest price new was at B&H Photo and Video for $1695. Awesome! I love their web site and also look there quite a bit for camera stuff. I added the iMac to their cart, found I could buy extra memory, Applecare, and Lightroom 5 at a discount when I bundled it all together. The total came to $2010, just below my budget. Satisfied, I clicked “Check Out”, and I got this message:

“Shopping Cart is down for maintenance…it will be open in 4 hours 27 minutes”

What? This is the Internet! It never closes! I was hoping to get on the last truck so it would ship that day, but since our band was playing that evening, I had to leave it for later.

An hour later, as we were setting up, we started talking and I was reminded about Apple’s refurbished section. “Of COURSE!” I said, “I get refurbished iPhones and iPods from Apple!” I couldn’t believe I hadn’t checked that option out.

When I got home later that night, I went to the Apple refurbished store and found the exact same iMac for $1529!!

I was pumped $170 less! I ordered it right away (after clearing the iMac from B&H’s cart). I then searched forums and found that for recording work, the 8GB of memory should be enough for what I want to use it for, and if it wasn’t, I could add it later. I also found I could add AppleCare later if I wanted, and then found I could get Lightroom for $113 on Amazon…only $30 more than the bundle.

In the end, I saved nearly $500 and didn’t have to hit my budget limit. I was thrilled!

B&H? They lost $2000!!! …and a bit of trust.

So the moral to the story? There’s actually 2:

To the Seller: If you have a web site that brings in money, NEVER put it in maintenance. And if you do, bring in a backup, or at least keep it running during a high traffic time.

To the User: If you encounter a bad user experience, use it as an opportunity to try something different. You may end up a lot happier with what you find and it may save you time and money!

How about you? Have you ever had a similar experience like this?

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