A couple of years ago I listened to an episode on UXCafe with the title “How to write the perfect pop song”. This was a live recording of Holger Eggert giving his talk to an audience (who seamed a bit suspicious of how this whole mindset had anything to do with UX).
Using a guitar and a Robbie Williams song as an example, I heard the talk deeply enjoying myself. Let me explain why.
I am a sucker for analogies and metaphors. I love using them so much I am a certified Lego Serious Play facilitator (which basically means metaphors are a big deal to me).
What stood out to me at first was the title of the talk, especially with the use of the word “perfect”.
Perfection is not the goal in song writing, or in UX designing for that matter. To me perfection is an unnecessary goal because of the bias. You will not obtain perfection because it is not a universal concept. With that out of the way, let’s continue with how to write a pop song (perfect for some, imperfect for others).
Song writing and UX work are strangely alike. Making a good interface, flow, app or experience has a lot to do with having creativity, structure, testing and refining. It’s a powerful analogy because of the amount of dependency, interference and risk taking that goes in to writing music and/or UX work.
If you work with Agile you know what dependency means. Working with a team is crucial for success, and therefor selling your “pitch” internally is as important as testing it with an end client.
Let’s break this down; in a squad every member is working towards the same objective (if that’s a feature, new flow, new interaction, etc), when the Product Owner choses the sprint theme it’s similar to when the record label choses/suggests a new hit song theme/concept. I’m going to take a bit of risk in saying that as a song writer one of your responsibilities is to create drafts of what a chorus should sound like based on the listeners approval (if you are a song writer and want to share any comments on this, please do so!).
When I say chorus I am attempting to make the analogy a bit more realistic. No song writer is going to make lyrics, chords, vocal mixing, orchestra effects, etc, alone and in a short period of time. A full finished song takes time, work and outsourcing. Making a hit pop song however takes time, work and outsourcing, but also creativity, tough choices and taking risks.
The easiest way I can describe what makes a pop song a pop song is that it’s a song you want to hear over and over. Some people will instantly think, Well, that means it’s simple and stupid. The truth is that it’s the opposite. What song have you played 10,000 times? It’s probably not something basic. It’s probably a song that validates your experience on Earth.
A song you play over and over again can’t possibly be simple and stupid (surely there are exceptions). The lyrics, structure and composition design need to be well orchestrated. A hit pop song can sound simple, but more often then not, the process wasn’t.
“Design is only simple in retrospect”
The amount of “self criticism” that goes into evaluating the song is also decisive. Could this line be different? Could the beat be slower? Could the vocal be softer? It’s not an easy job.
Launching the song is also crucial to guaranteeing a hit (maybe distant to the work a producer/song writer does). It needs to weigh out all the risks, the how, the who and the when the song is going to be launched. This in itself is also a form of art.
According to Eggert all pop songs basically have a similar structure; theme, contrast and metaphors (does that remind you of something?).
No UX designer is going to make a full funcioning app in a 2 week sprint. It’s not because you can’t, it’s because you don’t need to. You need to outsource some of the work, and sometimes the end result will not go according to what you as the “creator” had originally planned. It’s so important to not obsess over making a whole product at once. For Eggert “a finished shitty first draft is better then one polished line”.
Creative patterns alow you to know where to begin, but also when to stop. Again this process needs the creator to let go of his vision and embrace feedback. At times you will need to make small adjustments to the rhymes, and at others you will need to change the entire rhythm.
So what happens when you need to outsource and things don’t go your way? Again, don’t get attached to your vision. What matters most are the users, creating something meaningful to them should be your ultimate goal.
Serving your vision can be a kind of quicksand, though. A common problem is when you get attached to something because of how it happened instead of how it sounds. It’s taken me my whole life to understand that you can’t emphasize your process at the expense of the final result. All that matters is if that result speaks to people, because that’s the whole point of a great pop song.
Now let’s look at the entire “user journey”. In a song the experience itself has many interferences (who you with, headphone your using, timing, etc). You need to consider which are the aspects that can interfere with the listeners experience towards your song. If you have a terrific pop song, but you played it during a rap concert, the audience will not appreciate it. The song itself isn’t bad, you just didn’t consider the journey of the listener.
When your trying to make the “next big think” in tech, the pressure is on. So many forces go into your process. Being a creative genius, having a dream team, money to do research, amazing marketing, user advocates, and so on. All these aspects can take a toll on your work.
The point is: being a UX designer is awesome, intriguing, fulfilling, exhausting, creative and unique. Every design can be a “hit pop song” if you follow your gut, trust the process and have your users at heart at all times.
And also, have fun doing it 😉