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All I Really Need to Know About UX Design I Learned from the Orchestra

In third grade my school hosted a kind of musical instrument petting zoo where we got to see and try different instruments. I was immediately drawn to the woodwinds, but couldn’t decide between the flute, which sounded nice and was shiny, and the saxophone, which was even shinier and looked super-cool. I picked the clarinet. It was literally listed between the flute and the saxophone, and it seemed to my third-grade mind like a good compromise.

In retrospect, I couldn’t be happier with my choice. The clarinet led me to an exciting music career. I studied performance at DePaul University, held the role of Principle Clarinet with the Denver Philharmonic, and played with a Balkan brass band on bar tables and in New Orleans-style parades around the country.

I didn’t realize it then, but along the way, the clarinet also taught me these six user experience design lessons:

#1: Never Underestimate the Power of User Experience Design

In music school, there was a feeling that we were living in a museum. The audience for classical music was getting older, and the general sense was that classical music was struggling to stay relevant. So, it was refreshing when I got to the Denver Philharmonic and the board of directors was proactively coming up with new ways to engage younger members of our audience.

Instead of asking people to turn off their cellphones, the Denver Philharmonic asked the audience to silence their phones and to follow @DenverPhilOrch on Twitter. One of the assistant conductors would live-tweet performances with information about each piece as it was played. The board also organized tailgating parties with local food trucks and hosted themed events related to the music being performed.

We began to see our audiences double, if not triple, and soon we were selling out every performance. While I wasn’t directly involved in those decisions, it gave me insight into the importance of crafting the entire experience surrounding an event (or product).

#2: The Best Teams Have a Diversity of Thought and a Singleness of Mind

The beauty of an orchestra is the way different types of instruments come together to create one melodic ensemble. That beauty would be lost if the music was played by just one section — the woodwinds, brass, strings, or percussion instruments alone — but the beauty could also be muddied if those instruments failed to harmonize with each other.

Just as an orchestra’s magic comes from having a diversity of instruments come together to create a unified sound, a UX design team’s strength comes from a diversity of thought and a singleness of purpose.

If everyone in the brainstorming room thinks the same way, you’ll always get the same solution. Or, if everyone comes with different backgrounds but doesn’t have a focused goal, you end up with Frankenstein designs, where everyone’s disparate ideas get mashed together. The best designs come from diverse minds working in harmony toward a well-defined, common goal.

#3: You Need To Sweat the Details Before You Can Collaborate

When you perform in an orchestra, individual practice is the time you spend learning your part, and rehearsal is the time to learn everyone else’s. In other words, each musician must sweat the details in the practice room so that when everyone comes together in combined rehearsal, each member of the ensemble can learn the others’ parts. As a musician, if you don’t know your part well enough, you can’t learn everyone else’s, nor can they learn yours.

It’s similar in the brainstorming room. If you don’t know your craft or haven’t done your research, you’re not going to be able to contribute as thoughtfully. You won’t have as much to offer to your peers, and you won’t be able to build on their skills and ideas.

In user experience design, this is especially important when it comes to knowing your users. If you haven’t spent time reading through user personas, reviewing the research, and putting the problem in context, you’ll be playing catchup during the ideation and design sessions. If you don’t sweat the details beforehand, you won’t be able to contribute effectively.

#4: You Don’t Need To Be the User To Understand the User

There is an unsettled debate in the music world whether or not a musician needs to adopt the emotion of the piece in order to express it accurately onstage. If the piece has a melancholic tone, does the musician need to feel melancholic when he or she performs it?

Regardless of where you stand, music does have a unique and undeniable ability to evoke emotion. Playing music of different emotional content has given me an opportunity to experience emotions I might not have otherwise experienced. That informs my ability to empathize with users and to understand others’ emotions even when I might not fully understand an experience.

For instance, I contributed to a fertility app for women who are having trouble getting pregnant. I had to empathize with a user group that was very different from myself. Music strengthened the empathic ability that helped me recognize the emotions the women were experiencing and to sensitively design for their experience.

#5: You Shouldn’t Have To Be an Expert To Enjoy an Experience

At times, Western art music (the official way of referring to what is typically played on a classical radio station) has ventured into mathematical complexity with experimental music such as 12-tone and aleatoric. Behind the scenes, composers were doing all of these complicated mathematical manipulations of melody and harmony, but it never really caught on because untrained audiences couldn’t appreciate the theory behind what they were hearing.

It’s important for audiences to be able to enjoy music even when they don’t necessarily understand it, and that carries over to user experience design. You want a product to be usable, even by people who don’t know how to write code or engineer an electronic device. Users shouldn’t have to understand the technology to use it effectively and efficiently.

A great musician distills something complex into a pleasurable experience for the audience, so you don’t have to be a musician to enjoy the music. Great UX design distills the complexity of a service into a usable product so you don’t have to be an expert to have a delightful experience.

#6: You Are Not the Audience

Musicians must remember that music is meant for everyone. As a member of the Denver Philharmonic, I enjoyed what I was playing, but I knew the music was for the audience and not only for me.

One really important parallel is the axiom: You are not the user. As much as I’d like to design things I like and are intuitive and helpful to me, I must constantly remind myself that the products and experiences I’m designing are not necessarily for me. Solutions need to focus on addressing a problem for a specific, pre-defined group of users before they’re stretched out and applied to broader user groups.

Just as musicians must mind the gap between themselves and their audience, designers must be aware of the separation between themselves and their users.

Crafting The Future I Want To Live In, One Delightful Experience At A Time

My favorite part of my career as a musician was crafting delightful experiences for my audiences. In that sense, I’ve been an experience designer for most of my life. But when I saw the way technology can change and is changing the world, I decided to shift my career into formal UX design so I could have a more direct hand in shaping technology toward a more positive future.

Whereas I used to be a professional musician crafting experiences, now I’m a user-experience designer incorporating lessons learned from the craft of music. My job title may have changed, but I’ll always be a musician — and in many ways, I see my music and design backgrounds as inextricable.

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