What Can Live Music Teach Us About Designing Engaging UX?

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Photo by Gavin Whitner

While it might seem UX design and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra don’t have much in common, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the aspects they share. I recently had the pleasure of attending a symphony performance in Atlanta and found myself with two questions on my mind.

  • What does music have to do with digital experience design?
  • How can my experience at the symphony affect my approach to crafting engaging UX?

As your night at the symphony begins, you’re immediately engulfed in a hail of emotions. Directly beneath the theatre stage, an orchestra warms up in the pit. The drone of musicians tuning their instruments resonates through the packed room. Cushioned velvet seats hush the anticipatory murmuring from the balcony seats above. Rising to the podium, the conductor flourishes a baton to silence orchestra and audience alike. With a furious upwards swing, the performance begins.

Over the next hour, many things happen: Memories are forged, tears are shed, intermission snacks gobbled, occasional naps taken, and thunderous applause lasting until all bows are made. A designed experience was had.

Like many UX designers I know, looking for inspiration in alternative creative mediums helps to strengthen deliverables, challenge conventions, and advance competencies. On a daily basis, I see our UX team voraciously consuming designed experiences that impact their practice, but seldom hear of a song or concert that will change anybody’s mind on a product detail page design comp. For me, live music has seemingly always been a difficult art form to translate into representational inspiration. Why is this? How do you draw a picture from a song?

Music isn’t visually representational

While representational methods for communicating music do exist (sheet music, tabs, etc.), the concert hall audience will not see the art performed visually represented in the same way they would by watching a movie or visiting a website. You can physically touch musical instruments, CDs, and vinyl records which CONTAIN music, but cannot physically hold the sounds emitted from an instrument or speaker.

Music provides organized structure to the air molecules hitting your ear. This makes any graphic correlation between my sonic concert experience and designing a frictionless checkout flow a little less obvious. The thought experiment deepens.

Music is personal and subjective

I like to think of music as the great divider. Because so much of it exists across a variety of genres, it splits peoples’ opinions more than any other form of art or media. With that degree of subjectivity, what music means to a person often varies widely. Furthermore, the interpretation of a musical piece differs from musician to musician, or conductor to conductor.

In an agency setting, similar challenges exist. Modern browsers render the same line of code with slight aesthetic variations, and no two designers will make identical design decisions given the same prompt—heaven forbid the client wants browser support for IE 9. This makes sharing inspiration from experiences with music, or establishing a common musical vernacular between colleagues difficult.

The elements of music should be used to analyze other mediums

Does the client want a heavy metal homepage experience, or an improvisational jazz number? Is our checkout flow the right volume? Is information delivered rhythmically? Understanding the elements of music (detailed below) and evaluating digital creative against these elements may reveal new ways to consider digital production.

Rhythm – the placement of sounds in time, or the ‘beat’
Dynamics – the volume of the performance, or the quality of being loud or quiet
Melody – the memorable series of pitches, sometimes considered the main ‘tune’ of a song
Harmony – supporting tones perceived as a single entity, generally producing ‘chords’
Timbre – the tonal color of the sound (i.e. a guitar and piano playing the same note have different timbres)
Texture – the number and relationship of sonic layers
Form – the order of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic events (i.e. the structure of a musical piece)

This isn’t to suggest that other design evaluation techniques are not valid, but merely suggests an extra layer of musical scrutiny can be valuable. Supporting UX design decisions with data-driven results and qualitative rationales shouldn’t be ignored.

In many ways, crafting evocative digital experiences in an agency setting doesn’t stray too far from the goals of the symphony. It’s a group of creatives in concert, making use of their tools for aesthetic expression and end-user enjoyment. Or, maybe to sell a ticket or a personalized Coke bottle.

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