UX Review – Musical Instrument Museum – Phoenix, AZ

How many times have you truly been surprised at a user experience? Not in the “I can’t believe they shipped this piece of junk”, but in the “I’m giddy with delight…I want to bear-hug the lead designer of this project!”?

It just happened to me at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.

As I described in my design session “How to Craft (and Measure) a Killer User Experience”, a user experience goes far deeper than just shiny objects and fancy artwork. User Experience, at least the way I’ve come to understand it, includes six themes, or doors, the user walks through (Figure 1): Presentation, Navigation, Relevant Scenarios, Trustworthy Feedback, Initial Bring-up, and Connectivity…and they are all essential to create a killer user experience.

Killer User Experience Themes

Figure 1: Killer user experience themes

 So how was the experience at MIM? Let’s dig in…

My wife and I walk into the MIM, and pay for our tickets. Unlike the Louvre, the audio guides (earphones and device) come with the ticket. A small thing, but nice!

We walk to a nearby gallery filled to the rafters with guitars…my love language. After studying my favorite (Figure 2, a Paul Reed Smith Double Dragon), we walk up stairs to the museum.

photo 1

Figure 2 – My favorite guitar

We put our headphones on, and as we walk to the first display, we suddenly start hearing what these instruments from 19th century Africa sound like. The audio connects seamlessly and synchs so we can hear, and see on the TV how they play the instruments as well.


I can’t tell you how delightful that was. No numbers or channels to figure out, no fancy touch-screen to palm and screw up, nothing. The mere act of moving closer to the TV automatically immerses us into the musical culture right in front of us (Figure 3).

Figure 3 - An awesome display

Figure 3 – An awesome display blending sight, sound, and history

Their attention to detail was impressive. For example, as I walked towards the display, the music faded in at a smooth, natural rate…reinforcing that this whole experience should be a leisurely stroll through the music of the world. As I walked away…or as the device switched between two nearby TV audio signals, it calmly faded, and once out, the next audio faded in. This reinforced that the designers knew experiencing the music was the top focus, rather than just making sure the technology worked. I actually expected an abrupt beginning and end, but instead I was gently waved goodbye by the display I was leaving and warmly greeted by the display I was approaching.

As a side note, it was almost erie to take my headphones off and hear complete silence..even though hundreds of people were strolling throughout the museum.

What the designers at MIM figured out is how to provide an effortless connection to experience musical instruments from around the world. I mean effortless…walking closer to a display activating the audio? With nothing for me to dial in? And not having to share audio with others or have 198 displays blaring its own audio for all to hear? Yes, effortless.

Was it perfect? Nope. But pretty darn close. There were a few times that I could not sync to the TV. 98% of the time the device worked flawlessly, but when it didn’t I did feel a bit at a loss. Since there were minimal controls on the device (start, stop, volume), the only thing I could try was to press stop and start in hopes it would re-synch. When that didn’t’ work, I’m sure I looked a little funny doing a little 2-step as I moved farther away then closer to the display in hopes it would synch up 🙂  I even found myself waving the device towards the TV and wondering if the ‘front’ of the device should be pointing directly at the TV or not.

Of course, as I write this, my wife asked, “didn’t you see the transmitter at the rim of the display that listed the order of artifacts?”

One other minor issue had to do with the “Relevant Scenarios” and “Navigation” user experience themes. Being a musician, I wanted to play these awesome instruments…like these from South Africa. (Figure 4).

Figure 4 - These were screaming for me to play them!

Figure 4 – These were screaming for me to play them!

The problem was, I wasn’t told about the “Touch-It” lounge downstairs until we found it later. It would have been awesome to have a little “Touch-It” logo next to the display label for that instrument…so I knew instantly I could either play it or something similar to it later on.

So, with these “Hintervision Killer UX” themes, let’s see how MIM did:

Presentation: A
Navigation: A-
Relevant Scenarios: A
Trustworthy Feedback: A
Initial Bring-up: A+
Connectivity: B+

Overall:  KILLER!

I realize that user experience is usually referring to software interfaces, but I think we all agree that more and more interaction with our environment does not have a detailed screen to look at. The designers at MIM should be awarded with their awesome, relevant, delightful, and in the end, killer user experience.

How about you? Have you visited the Musical Instrument Museum? What did you think?


Usable vs. Useful: It’s All About Being Relevant

The Great Interweb is filled with sites about designing a product that is usable as well as sites about designing a product that is useful. If you google “usable vs. useful” you’ll even find a lot of great conversation debating the two, but I’ve never really internalized the difference.

My personal moment of clarity came with I picked up my wife’s iPhone.

With its familiar interface, fluid navigation, and multi-touch gestures, I can tell you right now that her iPhone was instantly usable. But after just a few minutes of frustration, I can also tell you right now that her iPhone was completely useless!

…for me.

Using her phone I couldn’t get to my email, my personal calendar, and and I couldn’t even tune my guitar with my favorite guitar tuner app!

That experience was a very eye-opening for me and made me realize that regardless of how shiny the presentation is, and how easy the navigation of a product is, if it is not relevant to me personally, the product is not worth my time.

That made me think: Is it more important to be useful than usable? Can you have one without the other? Also, why do I love products that are not shiny? Craigslist, for example…or my Library app? Neither are examples of awesome visual design, but they are so relevant for me I don’t really care.

That led me to think a bit deeper: Is it an individual personality/generational/character thing that determines which user experience characteristic is most important to a user? If a person is more concerned with the kind of car they drive or other external appearances, does that affect their opinion of a products outward appearance regardless of how useful it is?

How about you? What is most critical for you to have a great user experience?

String Break, System Crash, Show Must Go On

I broke a guitar string during a big gig…nearly 25 year ago…

…as a result, I’m regularly asked to perform live technical demos.

Let me explain…

I grew up playing in a band. My first big gig was at a “Battle of the Bands” contest, where we had only one song to show our skills…

We start: the song I wrote sounds strong…the chorus ends and I’m just about to go into the big solo and…

…my high E string breaks.

That’s bad. What’s worse is I’m playing my Charvel with a tremelo and all the strings are tuned relying on the tension of each other…and when one breaks, the tension moves from the broken string to the other strings.

Now, while this sounds noble and all ‘how a team should work’, but in this case it just made my whole guitar awful. I was lost, frustrated, and the song completely failed. The solo was awful, and since I didn’t know how badly the guitar was out of tune, I just played with my normal hand positioning…terrible. Not playing anything would have sounded better.

I was not prepared for the worst, I did not have a backup plan, and I did not have the experience in doing the best with what I had at that second.

What I learned:

Since then, I prepare for the worst during live events. For technical demos, I bring backups:  Backup demo systems, backup pre-recorded movies, and even backup slides on an iPad.

Overkill? Lets see: My primary system has failed. My backup system has not, but the wifi to CONNECT to that backup system did. Once I did the whole demo to a pre-recorded movie. Another time I worked with a crippled system, verbalizing much of what I would have done while moving my mouse around a limited system.

I’ve learned that effective presentation is putting on a good show. Sometimes shows props will fail, but the show must go on. So plan, practice, and prepare for the worst. You may never need your backups, but you’ll never regret having them.

How about you? What event caused you to plan, practice, and prepare?

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