Applied User Research on my own pile of synthesizer machines

Last year, I moved. Moving into a new apartment is very much akin to a major rewrite of a complex piece of software. A piece of software with a limited amount of users, maybe (well, me, my girlfriend, that’s it), but with an immensely sophisticated structure of requirements… despite the decade-long experience of “living somewhere” one usually has at this point.

For example, I have a scarce habit of hoarding hardware synthesizers – from Soviet-era monstrosities like the Поливокс to modern machines, they have a few things in common, as they

  1. take quite some space (due to their extensive wiring) and some are heavy
  2. idle around for most of the time (I mean, I have a job)
  3. are versatile enough not to have a clear-cut function in any workflow.

These are somewhat essential. All in all, I had some unassigned space in my new home and my machines instantly colonized there. Like his original version of “work expands to fill the time available“, there seems to be another Parkinson‘s Law correlating hardware synthesizers and the space you allow them to have. So basically, they now occupied one room of their own.

Which could be the end of the story and everyone would live happily ever after. If you have, like, a Googol amount of rooms. And considering Point 2 above – this solution feels quite like a waste.

Now – also last year, I began to deep-dive into the techniques of User Experience. And basically, my problem is pretty much comparable to a customer with a few quite diverging requirements. Who wants his problem solved, but hasn‘t yet figured out his actual needs to begin with.

Ergo, I should be able to use my insights of the field of UX, or Interaction Design, directly to my advantage, by applying techniques of User Research to my own behaviour.

And the first question should always be: By which approach do we get the largest understanding by the least effort? But the zeroth question is actually: How “wicked” is my problem?. Do I have an absolutely ill-defined, ever-changing, non-testable set of challenges? Or is my problem-solving rather a technical feat, implementing the best patterns, clearest details, best documentation?

Indeed. Point 3 above makes my problem rather ill-defined. On some wickedness scale, with 1 being a quick YouTube search for a How-To, 10 being a problem that I would need to go on a week-long mountain retreat with daily meditation sessions… I would give it a 6-7.

This feels like it should be in the range of difficult, but solvable with a kind of generalized abstract thinking. I choose to opt for the technique of the Five Whys: The goal is to find a consecutive number of deeper questions after my problem solving. But generally, I understand this as

  • “Five” is a general number one can aim for. There can be more, less, and there can be branches in the questioning.
  • “Why” is a placeholder for any qualifier that goes to a more abstract level. It can also be a „What do you want…“, „How about…“, „What‘s wrong with…“ serving that purpose

So. I consider myself sitting on opposite sides of a table and asking:

  1. What do you want to accomplish, and why?
    • I want to have a truckload of synthesizers, fully functional, and also not to waste my space.
  2. Why do you need your space?
    • Not only do I also have other stuff. Less clutter is generally a way to improve life quality.
  3. Why don‘t you just get rid of the machines, i.e. selling, basement, …?
    • Well. I do want to have access to spontaneous synthesizer jams. The pandemic makes it hard to get that creative input anywhere else.
  4. Why does this need to be spontaneous?
    • Because musical, like any creative flow, comes spontaneously. I don‘t want to have a great idea gone by because of long efforts in setting up.
  5. Why would set up times have to be slow?
    • Because in an strictly ordered system I need to collect stuff from various spaces, i.e. the synthesizer itself, the power plug from a box of power plugs, cables for MIDI, audio, control voltages, …
  6. Why would these have to be in their ordered boxes, for apart from the synthesizer?
    • Hm. Well, I guess they wouldn‘t have to be. That‘s just what one would do..?

Now basically, this example did not happen as straightforward as I just made it seem, but it helped me to channel my focus on a rule that is actually quite known in the design of enjoyable user interfaces: „Group things according to their usage, not their nature“. This is a form of reducing cognitive load. UI designers sometimes make this mistake, e.g. grouping “everything that is a filter” in one section, “everything that is a configuration” in one section, and so on; focussing more on the technical implementation of what these are, not on the proximity in the actual domain. This gets worse, the more technical any domain in its essence is, which is the mistake I did.

Wiring hardware synthesizers together is a very technical task, but there is much more use in grouping what belongs together when one wants to use it, not when one looks at its definition.

So now I have it. I, as a user, am happy that I, as a researcher, actually asked stupid questions like “Why don‘t you sell all the garbage?” in order to channel my focus to a system, in which setting up the whole stuff is rather quick, reducing the cognitive load, or rather shift it to the cleanup process – which is fine because I now can trust the system 😉

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