How my training as a musician makes me a better UX researcher

Cultivating the art of listening and how it applies to user research.

Note: this aticle was published by the UX Collective on Medium, please click here to view it there.

Since I first week of my User Experience (UX) Design Immersive at General Assembly in January 2020, I have contemplated the question of why I feel so alive and engaged as I practice UX design. As I have reflected on this feeling, I have discovered many overlaps between my passion for UX design and my pursuit of music.

What I have come to observe about the connection between music and UX is that the two disciplines have a clear structure and process, which once mastered, allows for incredible creativity and improvisation.

For the first 5+ years of my career, I honed my skills as a music director, rehearsal leader, and conductor. When I reflect on how my training as a music rehearsal leader connects with the skills I use as a UX designer, what stands out to me are the listening skills I developed. These listening and communication skills I refined while leading music rehearsals directly correlates to similar skills I use when conducting user research.

Photo by Manuel Nägeli on Unsplash

Rehearsal Leading

One of the most important parts of preparing for a rehearsal is the planning I do beforehand. I outline what the goal of the rehearsal is, determine the elements I will cover in the rehearsal, and visualize how the rehearsal will flow. Additionally, I have to be prepared with exercises and answers to questions to address any issues that will undoubtedly come up in the rehearsal because as the leader, I have to be more prepared than everyone else in that room.

User Interviews

The way I prepare to lead user interviews and usability testing closely mirrors how I develop and plan my music rehearsals. I begin by determining the goal of the interviews, then I create a framework and outline of questions and topics that I will explore with the users.

Just as I imagine and choreograph what a rehearsal will look like beforehand, I think through what a user interview would look like and craft questions that are open-ended, not leading, and will allow me to get the most useful insights into the user’s mental model.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Listening and Adapting

Through the course of leading hundreds of music rehearsals, I have refined my listening skills immensely. What I love about rehearsals is the immediate feedback you receive about whether or not your instructions were understood.

For example, I may notice that my ensemble of vocalists is not matching its vowels, which leads to a poor vocal blend. In order to try and fix this, I may ask the vocalists to sing a line on one particular vowel and make sure they listen to the vocalists on either side of them while they sing. I will be able to hear immediately if they understood my instruction or not and were able to implement it. If that didn’t work, I may have to do further work in blending and vowel matching as a rehearsal leader, for which I have many exercises I keep up my sleeve.

You may be wondering, how does this relate to User Research?

In the same way, when I am holding a user interview or usability test, I use these acute skills of observation and listening to pick up on what is happening for a user when they are interacting with the product I am testing. While running a usability test, I pay keen attention to my participants’ posture, any vocal or other body language cues they may exhibit, and what they say aloud because in those subtle (or not so subtle cues) the users speak volumes about the effectiveness of a product.

If I notice that they are saying one thing but their body language is telling another story, I may be prompted to ask a clarifying question, or delve into what is really happening for the user.

While some fields and professions may seem to have more clear connections to UX Design, such as graphic design, psychology, computer science, etc., I think it’s worth exploring how other disciplines, such as music, teach skills that are relevant and important for UX designers and researchers to possess.

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