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:

Drummer Lessons: Serve Your Team, Your Designs, Your Users

My sons are drummers. One is a killer-good drummer who can riff in a drum-line or a kit all day long. The other is just starting out, but already lays down a groove that compels me to pick up a guitar and jam along with him.

They just make me want to play with them…because they make me sound better.

Well, now I know why. Their teacher just published three drumming books (Get them…you’ll love them). The forward of the third book is so inspiring I think we all could learn from it in how we work with our team at work, how we approach our designs, and ultimately how we can delight our users.

Especially the last line:

“What actually makes drummers of great value in the professional world is not the amount of fills they know but rather their ability to make the rest of the band sound as good as possible”

Imagine: While a drummer has the ability to be the loudest one in the group, the most impressive (selfish?), the most showy, what Alec shows is that by serving the band and letting them shine, you will actually be the most valued and sought-out drummer of anyone.

What could it be like if we used all our talents and skills solely to make the rest of our ‘band’ sound as good as possible, rather than to make ourselves look good? How motivated would our teams be? How focused would our designs be? How great will our user’s experience be…because we are serving them, not furthering our own agenda/portfolio?

Do me a favor: As you read the image below, replace “drummer” with “designer”, “leader”, “general manager”, or heck, even “dad”.

After you read it, list below who your ‘band’ is. your family? your team at work? IT administrators? Developers? A youth group? Your users who are skeptical of any software because they’ve been burned in the past? Then, describe what you could do to make the rest of your band sound as good as possible.

Ready? Go.



PS: I’m serious. Go get these books. At least, go read the intro yourself

Don’t Always Rely On Users?

I write songs. Some I think are pretty good and some are just ok. I’ve been wanting to take the craft of songwriting to the next level.

But, to do that I’m not going to walk the street asking what kind of song users want to hear. I’m going to ask songwriting experts. Those that have experience writing great songs that truly connect with the listener know far deeper what it takes to write a great song, the pitfalls, the rules, and when to break the rules than those that listen to those songs.

Now certainly there is a spark of imagination, a connection to an audience, that creates the core of a great song, but it certainly takes expert skill to craft a song into a work of art that deeply connects with a listener…especially as it works its way through a recording studio to the listener’s ears.
I wonder if the same applies to user experience?
I’m the first to agree that deep user research is required to understand what users needs are, and what can truly delight them. However, lately I wonder if we risk creating something less than exceptional if we focus only on user feedback and not receive peer/expert critique once we enter the design phase?
I’ll admit that a songwriter doesn’t really know how exceptional a song is until it’s played in font of an audience, and I agree that a designer doesn’t know if it’s an exceptional user experience until we see users smile while using it, but I’d bet my next royalty check from Spotify that a users smile will be bigger, an audience reaction louder, and the actual product better if we get peer review and craft the song/UX using that expert critique.
What about you? What kind of peer critique do you run for your designs?

Star Trek, AC/DC, And Your Killer User Experience

I compose music (Listen here), and years ago I took a film composing workshop. The teacher was Ron Jones and if you don’t know him, you know is music from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He scored the first few seasons including the awesome season 3 finale “The Best of Both Worlds”. He said the key to being a great composer is to always ask this question:

“What’s The Main Thing?”

Meaning, at any moment in time, any measure, any beat, ask yourself:

“What is the ONE thing you want your listener to pay attention to?”

He explained that while humans think we can hear lots of different things at once, when it comes down to it, we really focus on one thing…and if a composer isn’t thinking about the “main thing”…and crafting the music to make the “main thing” stand out, then the listener might focus on something else and not really hear what the composer thinks is most essential to that moment in the song.

The “main thing” in music may surprise you. You might think it’s the melody or the lead guitar solo, but in a rock song, the “main thing” might be the rhythm guitar. In a dance song, the “main thing” might be the snare or kick drum. The “main thing” could change measure by measure from guitar riff, to snare, to vocal, and so on. For example, take the song “Back in Black” by AC/DC. (Note: for those that now categorize me into a certain genre, again, take a listen to what I write…it might surprise you)

Anyway, AC/DC’s Back in Black. That song has one of the best intros in any song. If you listen, the intro quickly moves from string mutes/high hat, to the guitar riff, then adds bass and off it goes into the vocal. But listen again. The “main thing” is actually the snare. Notice how the guitar riff stops so the snare can breathe…there’s nothing interrupting that glorious “SMACK” as the snare (and guitar) set the tone, beat, intensity of the whole song.

The “Main Thing” in Your UX may also surprise you.

While our instinct as creative designers is to want to show off all the cool graphics, colorful gauges, and awesome capabilities your product has, you need to ask yourself,

“What’s the main thing?”

Or more specifically,

“What is the ONE thing you want your user to pay attention to…to focus on?”

It may force you to dim, remove, or alter the flow of your designs so that the user is delighted with how easy your interface is to use; not because there are so many awesome capabilities to choose from, but because they instantly see what they need to focus on.

For example, in our newest PowerVC product, we have all kinds of cool capability, pretty gauges, data, and graphics giving the user much-needed information on how to manage their virtual machines. However, when users are first starting out, the “main thing” is none of that…it’s simply a “Plus” icon guiding users to add hosts, storage, and network. Nothing else should have the users’  focus.

Focus on Most Essential

I truly think we’re only tapping the surface of what this simple question could do to our user experience. I’m excited to see how much more we all can improve our products by asking this single question.

How about you?

What’s the “Main Thing” in your user experience?

Craft A Killer UX: “Listen” To Your UX

I’m a big fan of music.

I love to compose it, play it, listen to it, and share it.

In my years of composing, I’ve used melody, harmony, tempo, and so on to craft the best music I can. In those years I’ve learned to listen, I mean really listen, to the song as it is played to see what’s missing…or what’s extra that needs to get cut. Sometimes the song is lacking energy (fixed with adding a fast guitar rhythm track) or sometimes the song is unfocused (fixed with removing entire tracks).

The result?

A better song.

Critical listening, at least for me, is key not only in crafting the best song I can, but also in crafting the best user experience I can.

Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Install and configure the product yourself. Listen to the product unfold…does it flow well? Are there hiccups that force you to pause, look something up, scratch your head? Is there some step you can remove (automate) or is there guidance you should add?

Too often I get numb and don’t notice all those irritating shards in the UX that if removed would make for a much smoother experience. Listen to that nagging little voice that moans at every dumb behavior, bad icon, or poorly worded button. If you hear yourself saying, “We will need to add help to describe that”, then you need to fix that area. By listening to that voice, you may find all kinds of things to remove!

Listen for assumptions you make as you navigate your UX. Will your users make those same assumptions? Are there gaps in your UX that you fill with your expertise that your users will trip over?

Many of our product focus on a particular area of our users work. In their world, our product is only one of many they need to use to keep their business running. Listen to how customers work. Is there additional integration, sharing, awareness that your product can add? You don’t need to solve the world’s problems, but if you show you are aware of where they need to go next, users will be much happier.

Those are just a few examples…so how do you listen to your user experience?

Everything I Know About User Experience I Learned From Jimmy Buffett

One of the best ways I learn about user experience is to, well, experience it. In 2009 I went to my first Jimmy Buffett concert, and while I enjoyed a great show, what I learned about user experience I will never forget.

I was so affected that I had to write what I learned. I initially wrote this for an internal publication, but my organization thought it was ‘not right’ for our development org. To be honest I was sad since I really thought it could help others understand the importance of paying attention to the WHOLE user experience.

Since one of my long-term goals was to get published in “Interactions” magazine, I put on my ‘get it perfect’ hat, re-edited for a while, and submitted it. To my delight it was readily accepted, but in trying to get the right mix of articles, I had to wait around a year to receive the published article.

It was very much worth the wait.

Click HERE to read the article

Not only was I inspired by a great concert, but my love for music helped me directly achieve one of my career goals. At the time it was my 75th published article, and while have 92 published to date, this one still holds a special place in my heart.

I look forward to chatting about how I’ve positioned user experience in my work…

Question: Where have you had a great user experience that affected how you design in your work?

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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