Designing for fluency – Part 2 (by Mischa Weiss-Lijn)

Fluency, cognitive choreography and designing better workflows

If you’ve read part 1, you’ll know all about what Fluency is and how understanding it subtly, but importantly, changes the way you think about usability.  Now I’d like to take this one step further by introducing a couple of other concepts from Kahneman’s book on the fascinating world of modern cognitive psychology, as well as one that i’ve made up all on my own: ‘Cognitive Choreography’.

Let’s start by briefly explaining what I mean by the term cognitive choreography.  The workflows that we are called to design can place varied and diverse demands on our darling users.  It’s often about going through the motions; form fillin’ payment details, skimming content, navigating.  But people are often also being asked to make critical decisions and perform complex tasks.  These different types of engagements require very different types of cognition (as we’ll see later). And in this article I’ll go through some relatively new research that points towards ways in which designers can encourage the right type of cognition for the right moment; what i’ve called Cognitive Choreography.

The two Systems: Thinking fast and thinking slow

Kahneman’s book centres on what he calls the ‘two systems’; two modes of thinking, one fast, System 1, and the other slow, System 2.  These have very different capabilities and constraints, and as a result some important implications for design.

System 2 is what does the conscious reasoning; it is the deliberate, rational voice in your head that you like to think is in control.  System 1 is the automatic, largely unconscious, part of your mind where most of the work actually get’s done.  Although the reality is inevitably rather more complicated, it’s helpful to adopt Kahneman’s conceit of these systems as two distinct characters.

System 1: The associative machine

  • Fast
  • Effortless
  • Automatic and involuntary
  • Can do countless things in parallel
  • Slow learning
  • Generates our intuitions
  • Driven by the associations of our memories and emotions
  • Uses heuristics (rules of thumb), that are often right, but sometimes very wrong

System 2: The lazy controller

  • Slow
  • Effortful
  • Selective (lazy) and limited in capacity
  • Does things in serial
  • Flexible
  • Uses reason, logic and rationalisation

System 1 effortlessly generates impressions and feelings (“xyz link looks most relevant”) that are the main sources of explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2 (“I’ll click on xyz link”).  The problem here is that System 1 is error prone and System 2 is lazy.  System 2 can overcome System 1’s shortcomings, by critically examining the intuitions System 1 generates, but will often not.  I think that as designers we should think about how we can help System 2 spring into action when the moment is right.

Before looking at how we can help the right system spring into action, let’s look at how System 1 can sometimes lead users astray.

Biases: Thinking fast and wrong

System 1 has evolved to be quick and get things mostly right, most of the time, for your average hunter gatherer in the long gone Pleistocene (i.e. before we got all civilized, started farming and building urban jungles).  As a result it doesn’t adhere to the tenets of logical and statistical reasoning that underpin what we think of as ‘rational’ thought; it uses heuristics, rough rules of thumb, that are easily computed and generally work.  And that leads to errors, which, in our new fangled not-too-much-hunting-or-gathering-needs-doing kind of world, are more problematic than they used to be.

Here is a brief listing of some of the things that can go wrong.  If you want to really learn the slightly scary truth about how rubbish we (and yes that includes you) are at making judgements and choices then I refer you toKahneman’s book or perhaps take a look at this scary wikipedia list of cognitive biases.

System 1 is biased to believe and confirm what it has previously seen, or is initially presented (luckily for the advertising industry). So it tends to be

  1. Overconfident in beliefs based on small amounts of evidence (“The site would be better if it was purple.  My wife said so.”).
  2. Very vulnerable to framing effects (“90% fat free” vs “10% fat)
  3. Doesn’t factor in base-rates (i.e. a things general prevalence).   Insurance sales and the tabloid press play off of this all the time; it is the gravity of the event that matters, the fact that it’s very very unlikely, doesn’t have nearly as much impact as it should.  So for example, you may be tempted to insure your brand new fridge, against breakdown in it’s first year, because you’re so dependent having it work, even though it’s extremely unlikely that anything will go wrong.

This is because System 1:

  1. Focuses on the evidence presented and ignores what isn’t
  2. Neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt
  3. Exaggerates the emotional consistency of what’s new with what’s already known

System 1 infers and invents causes, even when something was just down to chance. So, for example, in The Black Swan Nassim Taleb relates that when bond prices initially rose the day Saddam Hussein was captured, Bloomberg ran with “Treasuries rise: Hussein capture may not curb terrorism”.  Then, half an hour later the prices fell, and the headline changed: “Treasuries fall: Hussein capture boosts allure of risky assets”.  The same event can’t explain bond prices going both up and down; but because it was the major event of the day, System 1 automatically creates a causal narrative; satisfying our need for coherence.

System 1 will dodge a difficult question and instead substitutes in the answer for an easier one.  So for example in predicting the future performance of a firm, one instinctively relies on its past performance.  When assessing the strength of a candidate, one instinctively relies on whether we liked them or not.

System 1 does badly with sums, because it only deals with typical exemplars, or averages. So for example, when researchers asked how much people would be willing to pay to save either 2,000, 20,000 or 200,000 birds after an oil disaster, people suggested very similar sums of money.  It wasn’t the number of birds that was driving them, but the exemplar was; the image of a bird soaked in oil.  Similarly with visual displays people can very easily tell you the average length of a bunch of visual elements, but not the sum of their lengths.

Let’s not forget though, that while it has its failings, System 1, does a pretty impressive job of things most of the time, for most people.  In fact System 1 is crucial to the kind of deep creativity that us designers pride ourselves on.  It’s what helps you get things done fast, and well.  It’s what results from practice and is the basis of most forms of expertise; you wouldn’t want to drive your car without it!

As a result, lot of the time it’s appropriate, and indeed better, for System 2 to put it’s lazy feet up and give System 1 the reins.

So what’s the overall takeaway for designers?  Well, one is that, if users are at a point where it’s important that they critically inspect the facts, and overcome their pre-conceptions and first impressions; then System 2 needs to be on the job.  Otherwise, we can leave System 1 in the driving seat.

So how can designers engage in Cognitive Choreography, and help ensure users have the right System in the driving seat, at the right time?  Well one approach is to use Fluidity.

Cognitive Choreography

Fluency and switching users between Systems

I would guess that there are many things designers can do to knowingly encourage users to engage the right cognitive faculties for the task at hand; but one interesting and counterintuitive approach is to use Fluency.  That’s what I’m going to focus on here.

To recap from my previous post on the subject, Fluency is the brain’s intuitive sense of how hard your poor brain is being asked to work on something.  Lots of things will impact your sense of fluency as illustrated in the graphic below.

As well as being the key to really understanding what is going on behind users perceptions of usability and beauty, it just so happens that we can use the Fluency of our designs to engage system 2.  From an evolutionary perspective, the reason we have this intuitive sense of Fluency, is to have an alarm bell that will wake System 2 up when things aren’t going smoothly and we need more careful, bespoke, thought. When an experience is Disfluent and creates what Kahneman calls “Cognitive Strain”, System 2 is mobilised.   Thus we, as designers, can actively engage, and disengage, System 2, by controlling the many levers we have at our disposal to change the Fluency of a UI.

So, in case you’re not convinced, here’s one of the experiments that demonstrate this sort of effect in action.  A bunch of Princeton students were given a set of 3 short brain twisting problems to solve.  These problems were designed to have an answer that would seem obvious to System 1, but was infact wrong. To get the right answer, you’d need to have gotten System 2 in the game.  Here’s an example:

If it takes 5 machines, 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

100 minutes OR 5 minutes

When students were shown the problems presented in an ordinary, legible, font, 90% of them got at least one problem wrong.  When the problems were presented using a small, poorly contrasted font, only 35% of them did.  Yep, that’s right, making the font less legible, resulted in an almost 200% uplift in performance.  (btw, the answer was ‘5’)

Low Fluency creates cognitive strain, which encourages the user to activate System 2, which thinks things through, and get’s to the right answer.  High fluency does the opposite, encouraging the user to leave System 1 in control.

So the design implication here is, that when you come to designing a portion of your flow where it’s critical that System 2 be fully engaged, it may be the time to purposely create a low fluency experience, using the array of tools at your disposal (e.g. font legibility, contrast, layout, motion, copy etc).

When to use Fluency and Cognitive Choreography

So we have a bunch of ways we can make an experience more, or less, Fluent, now we need to understand when to use this to encourage users to apply the right kind of cognition to the task at hand.

Perhaps the first, and most important, thing to say is that you will need to be sparing and purposeful with low Fluency UIs.  Low Fluency is by it’s nature unpleasant, and on top of that using System 2 takes effort, so, it’s no fun.

However the science of System 1’s failings give us some clear pointers as to where we should consider putting the brakes on Fluency.

You should consider engaging System 2, with a low Fluency UI when:

  1. Critical, high risk, decisions are being made
  2. The user is being engaged in a task that you know has features which will lead System 1 astray.  So the user will be asked to:
  1. Draw inferences based on very small sample sizes
  2. Draw inferences based on incomplete information; e.g. they are given a small part of the story, or no information about base rates (i.e. general prevalence of a thing)
  3. Make decisions based on potentially framed and biased messages from an interested party
  4. Mentally work with sums, rather than averages or prototypes

Wrapping it up

Most of the time you will want to maximise Fluency and thus usability, encouraging users to coast along primarily using rapid, intuitive outputs of tireless System 1.  But your can reduce critical errors, and increase the quality of significant decisions and judgements if you selectively lower the Fluency of your UI, to make sure the lazy, but smart System 2 is fully engaged.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck here, as designers we will be hard pressed to make the experience as disfluent as psychologists can when doing experiments.  In fact it would be super valuable if people in the HCI community would take a closer look at this, and measure the effectiveness of lowering Fluency to within the bounds of commercial acceptability.

Another interesting tension here, is that many of us designers, are working on systems primarily aimed at realising and increasing sales.  So even if users are making critical, and expensive, decisions, based on incomplete information, it’s in your client’s interest that System 2 stays as lazy and disengaged, as possible.  However, there are countless digital experiences that support productive and often critical processes or decision making.  That’s what we focus on here at RMA, and that’s where doing a little Cognitive Choreography could come in handy.

Designing for fluency – Part 1 (by Mischa Weiss-Lijn)

From the new psychology of Fluency to usability, beauty and beyond

Having had a background in (proper) psychology, before emerging as a designer, I’ve often been dubious about the value of this fascinating ‘science of the mind’ for the practice of design.  Every now and then, you’ll hear some strained reference to Fitt’s law from a recent MSc. graduate; but let’s face it, in our day to day, very little psychology is actually brought to bear.

So, it came as a surprise to find a treasure trove of design insights, when reading the excellent “Thinking fast and slow” by the Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.  Let me be clear; it’s not a book about design, it’s a pretty hardcore psychology book.  It’s about how we think and reason; not how we would like to think we think, but how we actually think.  Warts and all.  My hunch is that really understanding that, and the warts especially, could be a valuable tool for designers.


One example I’d like to pick out, is Kahneman’s treatment of a phenomenon generally termed ‘Processing fluency, which he calls ‘Cognitive Ease’.  Like it or not, and more ‘usability’ minded designers may well not, the perception of usability, trustworthiness, beauty is partially dependent on the myriad of superficially unrelated factors that drive the fluency of cognitive processing (don’t worry I’m about to explain).

Yes that’s right.  You can do things to make people think a design is more, trustworthy or beautiful, without actually making it more trustworthy or beautiful.  At all.

So let me explain.

As Kahneman explains it; our brain has a number of built-in dials (you could think of them as a bunch of sixth senses), that are constantly, effortlessly and unconsciously, updating us on (evolutionarily) important aspects of our environment.  So, for example: “What’s the current threat level?”, “Is anything new going on?”.  One of these is, Processing Fluency, which is basically a measure of how hard your poor brain is being asked to work.  It’s basic raison-d’etre, is to let you know when you need to redirect attention or make more effort.  However, interestingly for us designers, it ends up having a much broader impact on the way we evaluate things and make decisions.   Anything that increases fluency (and there are lots of things that do) will bias many types of (and perhaps all) judgements positively.

This is a, somewhat scarily, broad phenomenon.  Who would have thought that:

Rhyming statements seem truer than equivalent non-rhyming ones

Shares with more easily pronounced names outperform on the stock market

Text written with simpler words, are judged to have been written by a more intelligent author

To usability, beauty and beyond

But let’s focus on how this relates to design.

It turns out that anything that increases fluency, will positively effect many aspects of the way people perceive, judge, and presumably experience, something.  Fluency will make people trust something more, make it feel more familiar, more effortless, more aesthetically pleasing, more valuable; fluency will even make people feel more confident in their own ability to engage with the experience.  And these effects can all potentially be brought to bear independently, and on top of, the actual content of the experience.

What’s powerful here is that there are lots of ways in which you can increase the fluency of your experience; ‘manipulations’ in the parlance of psychologists.  I’ve tried to summarise what I’ve been able to glean from the psychology literature around this in the infographic below.  The thing to remember is that any of these manipulations will positively impact people’s perceptions of your experience.

You can make your copy more fluent, your visual design more fluent, and your flows more fluent.

Making your copy more fluent

Let’s start with copy.  A bunch of the things we normally think of as best practice, such as using simple straightforward language and uncomplicated syntax, increase fluency.  It’s interesting to realise that such simple things could end up impacting how much people will trust the experience!

Looking at copy from the perspective of fluency gives weight to more flippant techniques, such as the use of rhyme, alliteration.  It guides us to think carefully about how easy copy is to say out loud.  All these things improve what is called ‘Phonological Fluency’ i.e. how easy something is to say; how easily it rolls off the tongue.  If it’s easier to say, it’s easier to think.

Then, consider ‘Orthographic Fluency’ i.e. how easy one can translate written text into spoken words and meaning.  This guides us to avoid creative spellings (e.g. “Tumblr 4ever”).  It gives a clear rationale for always using the most direct, succinct and approachable notation available (e.g. “1” not “one”, “%” not “percent”).

Making your visual designs more fluent

Font designers will be happy to hear that there have been lots (and lots) of experiments that show the impact of the clarity and readability font on fluency, with all the many fold benefits this brings.  Readability is not just about readability – it’s about fluency.

Font selection is one thing that contributes towards ‘Physical Perceptual Fluency’, and psychologists have shown that having a good level of contrast does too (for fonts in particular, but presumably it will be just as important for UI elements).  Of course that’s not where it ends, even if psychologists haven’t really looked much deeper, much of the principles behind good, functional, visual design, such as leveraging Gestalt grouping principles, must surely drive this Physical Perceptual Fluency.

There’s also been a bunch of work looking at how the length of time people have to see and absorb a display impacts fluency; they call it Temporal Perceptual Fluency.  The less time, the less fluent.  This probably doesn’t have too much impact on most design applications unless you are presenting stuff for less than 1 second.  But my hunch is that judicious use of motion design will also contribute to this type fluency.

Make your flows more fluent

There has been a bunch of work looking at the role memory plays in fluency.

Most obviously using common UI patterns will create a more fluent experience by virtue of their familiarity.  Similarly when experiences are designed to be easier to learn and remember they are going to be more fluent. But you could have guessed that.

Something you might not have guessed is that you can use ‘Priming’ to make an experience more fluent.  Priming is a psychological technique that basically boils to exposing people to related stimuli before showing them the experience you’re interested in.  This activates the relevant areas of your brain making it easier to process the experience once it comes along.  Is this something we could use as designers?  Perhaps we can.  For example, we could sequence content and interactions to prime parts of the experience that we expect to be challenging.

What else?

While psychologists have already discovered lots of ways to manipulate fluency, I’d guess that there are many more waiting to be discovered.  Psychologists, haven’t been thinking about design, so they’ve not really been looking in all the right places.  In fact, i’ve taken a couple of liberties to add some obvious candidates to my graphic which are not (yet) grounded in empirical evidence (motion design and visual hierarchy). One area that doesn’t seem to have been explored at all is how to make interactions more fluent.  And there is surely much more we can do to create fluency in user journeys and IA. Perhaps someone should look into it!

And so… what?

Is this just dressing up our time honoured notions of usability in fancy new scientific jargon?   Or does it give us a genuinely new and useful conceptual tool for creating better experiences? After all we’ve had related concepts before, for example Cooper’s ‘Cognitive friction’ in his classic Inmates are running the asylum book.  Making experiences as easy and frictionless as possible is at the heart of all good digital design techniques.

To be honest, I’ve only just started thinking about this, and so haven’t yet been able to put it into practice.  But my hunch is that there are a couple of key things that the concept of fluency offers which are interesting, and potentially useful.  Firstly, there is the evidence of there being a broader set of qualities that go into making an experience frictionless or fluent, then we’ve traditionally allowed for.  Secondly, and more importantly, there is the discovery that any and all of these, impact on the full range of people’s perception and memory of an experience. We want to create experiences that people feel good about.  Depending on the experience, we want our users to come away persuaded, happy and confident.  An understanding of how to create fluency, gives us a new way of thinking about how to get the design outcomes we’re after.

Further reading for the curious

Part 2 of this fine blog: Fluency, cognitive choreography and designing better workflows, which looks at how we should be using our grip on Fluency to help users think in the right way, depending on the experiences they are engaged in.

Alter, Adam L, and Daniel M Oppenheimer. “Uniting the tribes of fluency to form a metacognitive nation” Personality and Social Psychology Review 13.3 (2009): 219-235.

Daniel Kahneman “Thinking, Fast and Slow” 2011

Google logo above reception

Sketchy behaviour at Google

Google logo above reception

Cropped image because my iPhone camera just couldn’t do justice to the view over London from reception at Google towers

Jason and Sam visited the big G on Tuesday to run a workshop building on the hugely popular Sketching Interfaces session they did at Interactions12 (Dublin) and HCID (London), earlier this year.

Even though the Googlers rated themselves a mixed bunch, in terms of confidence and ability, there was some impressive sketch action on display throughout the session.

post it notes showing how workshop participants rated their confidence and ability (before the session)

Despite the spread the standard of sketching at the session was pretty high

We had designers battling with producers and developers in live sketch-offs and the smiles even lasted when Sam sent them all back to school and gave them lines (to practice their labelling skills).

The tips and tricks were popular as ever and Sam’s custom rubber stamps (sketch it nicely once, stamp it as many times as you like) were a real hit.

2 of Sam's custom gesture stamps (great for cheating at sketching and user-testing sessions alike)

2 of Sam’s custom gesture stamps (great for cheating at sketching and user-testing sessions alike)

Huge thanks to all the guys at Google who made it a really fun session to be part of.

Imagine the form of the future

If you had a time machine (and didn’t have anything better to do with it) and travelled back to say, 1997 and brought back a bunch of forms from webpages and applications, and then compared them to the forms we’re using today, it might be difficult to tell the 2 sets apart.

Branding aside, forms haven’t moved on much in the last decade or so

Fifteen years down the line and the way we capture data online and in applications hasn’t fundamentally changed all that much. We’ve refined the process bit by bit, and thanks to folks like Luke Wroblewski and Chui Chui Tan we understand more about how to design more effective forms, but in terms of innovation the form remains firmly stuck in a circa 1997 rut.

The form is one of the basic building blocks that underpins the way we use websites and applications. It’s the gateway that allows us to build interactive systems and services on the web rather than limiting us to just consuming content. But the way in which we use the web is in the process of fundamentally changing, and this has to force us into looking at the way in which we engage with the web around data capture.

As mobile devices, and the infrastructure that they rely on, continue to improve and tempt more and more of us away from the desktop and laptop in our use of the web (through browsers and native apps alike), many of the lessons we’ve learned and relied on are having to be re-learned to work on devices with smaller screens and no physical keyboard or mouse.

Part of the problem is that we’re still using design solutions based on systems that were developed a decade and a half ago on devices that are not the same as those that we’ve ‘learned the rules’ for. Navigating and using a traditional form on a mobile device is a clunky experience at best. Putting aside the problems associated with non-physical keyboards, reduced screen real estate and touch-based navigation, many of the lessons we have learned about form design don’t work for mobile.  This hasn’t gone unnoticed and there are some additions to the established learning that take into account mobile device form factors and mobile user behaviour, but essentially these are just tweaks to the same old form paradigm.

Let’s face it, forms aren’t sexy. What they are is frustrating. No one relishes the prospect of filling in forms, in fact they are regularly cited as points of pain in user feedback. So why is it that something that has been so fundamental to our use of the web and something that causes so much frustration, hasn’t seen any real innovation in over a decade and a half?

As someone who works as part of a design team that specialises in complex, day-in, day-out applications I come up against a lot of form-based interaction. I’ve read Luke’s book and Chui’s excellent blog posts and try to incorporate the benefit of their learning and experience into the forms that sit within the systems I design. But a recent project prompted us as a team to think about breaking away from the traditional and thinking about how we might capture data in the future – on the assumption that surely we won’t still be using the same old forms in another 15 years.

We spent time thinking about alternative means of capturing data that weren’t necessarily tied to keyboard entry. We covered our studio walls in sketches and ideas that used voice recognition, gesture, 2D barcodes and QR codes – even ‘magic’ pens. But we also tried to look at how we could improve the data capture experience without relying on these things.

Amongst some of the more future-looking ideas we spent time refining several ideas based on how the form itself might be improved as well as the means of entering data. After all, not everyone has an iPad or a Wacom Inkling and regardless of how groundbreaking our ideas are – the majority of people will still be using a keyboard (or touchscreen) to fill in forms for a while still.

We wanted to design a form that wasn’t tied to a linear process and that allows the user to enter data at any point and in any order. We had seen similar form-based interfaces as part of field-based observation but for all the benefits that the structure of the form gave, the fact that every single field was displayed on a single screen with no visual hierarchy and the most basic of styling, convinced us we could do better.

From many concepts, we are in the process of refining an idea that allows complex forms to be created in the back-end, but that strips out the complexity in the front-end and places a focus on just the field that is being used.

We want to show that it is possible to create a usable and beautiful form that doesn’t fit the traditional mould. Our thinking is based on:

  • Focus – stripping out any distracting or irrelevant content and only showing what is required at each stage
  • Flexibility – creating a structure that wasn’t reliant on the user following a prescribed, linear process
  • Working with the user, not against them – inspired by old-fashioned greenscreen systems that seemed to be well-suited to data entry
  • Shortcutting – predictive data entry, short codes and keyboard shortcuts that support expert users without compromising the novice user experience
ARC music controller

Musical Interactions – part 1 – (by Jason Mesut)

I’ve known for a while about the Strategy and Innovation MA that John Boult runs at Brunel, and as well as collaborating with John as part of Big Potatoes, he recently asked me to come and talk at the Digital Brand Jam event at Brunel (30th of May 2012).

When he learned that I was deeply interested in musical technology, John suggested it might be relevant to some conversations he was having around experience design and brand. Either he was incredibly insightful and in tune with some of my raw thinking, or he was just looking for some random spice. Either way, I thought it would be good to do a rapid re-hash of one of my Musical Tech interaction design talks. I did the first one at MEX in November 2010 as a 20 minute rollercoaster ride through physical music tech interaction, and extended it to a 1-hour geekfest at London IA in January 2012.

Getting even 20 minutes down to 10 minutes was always going to be hard for me – I have too much to say on most subjects! It wasn’t made any easier by having to juggle this with exciting new business activities, large account management challenges, my ever-tiring recruiting mission and the need to solidify a plan for my UX practice with my team.

Even so, I gave it a shot, using some of the videos and imagery I had dug out previously and giving thought to a new framework of discussion which I thought was pretty interesting to share.

My main premises:

  • The ways in which we interact with technology are always changing but some things always stay the same: our physiology, our need to show off and control multiple parameters at once
  • Music technology innovates and lasts in this space, standing the test of time and forging new paths I showed how this is demonstrated through four areas of transition for interaction design relating to analogue, physical and digital electronics and systems design.

Physical Analogue: Electronics with fluid paths

Technics 1210 turntable – the DJ’s instrument.

Technics 1210 turntable

one of my most prized possessions

The theremin – an early example of free-space gestural interaction, demonstrating the imprecise nature of Kinect, Wii and similar free-space gestural interaction systems.

The Roland TB-303, without which there would be no acid house or techno. After 20+ years these units sell for £1500+ despite flaws. These things have lasted well and retain a set of avid fans.


Fairlight CMI

The cumbersome Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument)

From tape-machine to Fairlight sequencing and sampling, the cumbersome and the sonic flaws get replaced by convenient, but arguably colder interactions and sound.

As we move to fully software-based powerful Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like Ableton Live or Logic, we can use our laptops to make orchestral masterpieces or ear-piercing dubstep soundclashes wherever and whenever we like.



TENORI-ON – A 16×16 matrix of LED switches creates a “visible music” interface

Moving from Technics 1210 turntables to CDJs meant that DJs could take their whole collection with them without fear of luggage handlers at Heathrow nicking their most prized vinyl.

When synthesisers began to hide their power behind small-screen menus with limited controls, others re-exposed the innards in software editors controlled by a mouse. These days the VST software control is almost a de-facto complement to the hardware synthesiser to allow more flexibility in programming.

As new instruments like the Tenori-On and the Monome (see my talk from a few years back, here) emerged they brought with them newer and more flexible ways to compose and create music, without having to know much musical theory or go through the rigmarole of learning a new instrument.

At the same time new products like the Teenage Engineering OP-1 combine aircraft-quality industrial design and engineering with powerful digital synthesis and sequencing to give us a powerful audio workstation in a unit smaller than half a Macbook Air.


ARC music controller

ARC music controller – simple, elegant, and expensive

Synthesizers are starting to expose hardware controls again, but these controllers manipulate digital electronic signal paths rather than analogue ones. We are empowered by this hands-on control.

Increasingly we are seeing the use of cheaper and dumber control surfaces and devices. It’s not uncommon to see banks of linear faders or rotaries (knobs) that can be easily programmed to control a number of parameters on other physical devices or within musical software. You can even get plugins for controlling Adobe’s Lightroom these days.

And people are making their own controllers, including the biggest knob I have ever seen, and some of the most gorgeous and polished knobs ever to be created.


Scratch DJs always struggled with the idea of CDJs; they just don’t have the tactility of vinyl on turntables. Serato, Final Scratch and Traktor have been working hard to fill this gap bv using real vinyl with time-coded high pitch sounds to control MP3s. Mind-blowingly cool as this is (even 5+ years on), you need bulky turntables to play with it.

Recently, Numark created some CDJs with real vinyl platters to better reflect the tactility of vinyl but with the power and convenience of hooking up to an MP3 collection on a laptop or CDs with MP3s or higher quality recordings.

Meanwhile increasing numbers of cheaper and dumber controllers are helping to better control the digital brains behind the glass screens of iPads and laptops. For a mindblowing example of this check out Korg’s iMS-20 iPad app, which uses the Korg MS20ic Midi controller keyboard with patch cables. Just move the patch cables on the physical device and it will connect them on the iPad. I bought one straight away on eBay when I saw this.

Then you get things like the Reactable, where the digital brain complements physical objects allowing collaborative Simultaneous Multi User Interface (SMUI) interaction.

Expanding this topic for forthcoming IxDA London

I am looking to curate an event pretty soon for IxDA London on Music Tech interaction design. I believe this subject needs some full-on airing. I am, however, very biased.

In the meanwhile, please check out some of presentations and video around this subject:

designer and developer caricature

10 ways to improve your working relationship with your developers

— a UXers guide by Amanda Wright —

1. Respect your developers

As user experience professionals we demand respect for our ‘craft’ and so you should respect your developer’s code. Remember, it’s easier to imagine than it is to build.

2. Don’t throw things over the fence
There’s nothing worse than finishing everything to the nth degree, handing it over to the developers and then vanishing, with scarcely a thought given to the implementation.

If you leave the developers to their own devices, don’t complain when they start to fill in any blanks or make decisions for you. Make sure you are around to answer questions and help with the QA and release process.

Being available post-release to monitor feedback channels can provide you with valuable feedback and help identify bugs that may have slipped through.

3. Work (largely) in parallel
This is a controversial one, particularly in agency environments where signing off deliverables and meeting deadlines is key. Once sketches have been agreed, developers can start thinking about how to structure the application, giving you a chance to move onto higher fidelity wireframes. Once these are agreed, developers can move onto building the interface. This allows for problems to be identified and solutions to be devised as a team (and documented for posterity if needed).

One caveat is that the visual design should be relatively fixed before you hand over to development as a complete rework of CSS and Javascript is painful. This shouldn’t prevent you from tightening up things as part of a normal design review process.

4. Embrace developers’ problem solving powers
We often like to think of ourselves as the champion problem solvers, but guess what? Developers like to solve a challenge or two as well. I’ve found that identifying the areas in which developers can add value, or even just leaving them a little space to make their own mark on the experience, can do wonders.

During implementation, if they identify a problem that needs resolving, allow them to suggest a solution first before you jump in with one of your own, they might just surprise you.

5. Involve developers in user testing
Bringing to life the voice of people who use to your website or service is one of the key objectives for someone in a user experience role. Go one step further by sharing videos and feedback from testing with your developers. If possible, allow them to observe if they have time to attend sessions. Watching people struggle in a user study is worth a thousand times more than just banging on about a user-centred design approach.

6. Use Shared Nomenclature
For an industry that intends to make things clearer, we do love a good buzzword and have a tendency to use lots of acronyms. Using plain language should start when you communicate to your developers and the wider team. The user experience community has recently adopted development terminology and made it our own (Agile and Lean UX spring to mind) so it’s important that everyone is clear what we mean when we use these terms, especially as the mental models can often differ.

7. Make time to share learnings from your industry
Just as you have to contend with countless user experience methods, new interaction paradigms and fine tuning your soft skills, developers (I’m talking largely front-end here) need to overcome the latest browser quirks, keep up to date with new languages and the endless parade of new shiny devices. Both tribes face significant challenges in order to keep up to date. Make time to share what you’ve learned so you both are aware of what’s going on in each other’s world.

8. Learn to be lazy
Sounds a little odd but there is a long running joke that a good programmer is a lazy programmer. Developers will strive to overcome redundancy and automate anything that needs to be done more than twice. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we should look to adopt standard patterns where appropriate and build upon existing user experience work. One way of doing something, is always better than three – especially on the same website or service!

9. Be pragmatic
This doesn’t mean that you should stick to something ‘safe’ when you are designing an experience, it means that you should be realistic about budgets and technical constraints that you have to deal with. A simple, functional and well-executed solution is more valuable to your client or company than a stripped back, half-finished solution that would have been great if all the bells and whistles were included. When it comes down to the crunch, the bells and whistles are always the first to go.

10. Don’t be the “I” in team
As the cliché goes, “there’s no “I” in team. It doesn’t matter if you designed the best experience in the world, if the implementation is poor, slow or full of bugs. You are only as good as the developers you are working with.