is making music only for the young?

An elliott live video that I hadn’t seen before popped up on youtube today. Dated 1998, it really made me think about how cool it is that these guys had such proficiency at what they were doing at a relatively young age. ..and not only that, but they had also gone a long way to develop their own artistic style – I was going to say art form, but rock music wasn’t new, and there was a whole community even in just their geography.. but still, what they were doing had some new elements. I think that’s got to be a really fulfilling situation to be in. Very self directed.

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“Local” music / “The history of Lafayette Music according to Pat McClimans”

There’s some allure for me in music attached to a geography that I also am attached to. Last week I watched a documentary called “It’s Gonna Blow: San Diego’s Music Underground 1986-1996“. It was pretty good. I’ve gathered some “dots” of information about the San Diego music scene past, but this helped me connect them and make a little more sense of it.

Hearing about some of this stuff in a chronological context reminded me a lot of some things that I saw and heard about in Lafayette. In my formative years (1998-ish) there, I ran a local music website, and at one point around 2001, my friend Pat was kind enough to write me a fairly comprehensive history of the Lafayette music scene from his vantage point. It coincides with the timespan covered in the aforementioned movie quite well, and I’d guess that similar other stories across the country match too. Kind of a Dischord Records to post-Seattle era. I can’t tell if this was a particularly good window of time for music, or if I’m just partial because it’s when I was young and into music.

Anyway, here’s Pat’s history of Lafayette music: Continue reading

Business and design – Street Fighter II

I’m going through my old blog posts and trying to dispense with the many posts I started but never finished. This is one of those..

Based on this amazing “Oral history of Street Fighter II” published by video game website, polygon, I had intended to dig deep into some thoughts on how business influences design positively. This is pretty relevant to me, as most of the time it seems like the constraints that business puts on design cause things to be terrible for everyone involved. (don’t get me started on the computer hardware and software industries’ ploy to keep us buying new releases and new crap to run it on, year after year)

Anyhow, I started this post In February of 2014. I’ve slept many times since then, and therefore can’t remember what my contribution to this discussion was to be, but I still think the text below is worth sharing. Yoshiki was the head of arcade development at Capcom Japan. If you’re unfamiliar with the game Street Fighter II, it was a pretty relevant title at the time just before video arcades were overtaken by home consoles. It’s big contribution to the video game world was the two player, head to head setup. I think games like Gauntlet (’85) were already multiplayer, but not in a head to head way, which really increased both the social aspect (I remember the lines to play SFII at Aladdin’s Castle in Castleton Mall, Indianapolis) but also often shortened the play time per quarter, in a “fair” way.

Anyway, a fun story. Check the full tale at polygon – http://www.polygon.com/a/street-fighter-2-oral-history

 

YoshikiokamotoYOSHIKI OKAMOTO:

Back in the day, people at arcades weren’t happy. Space Invaders was popular and cost 100 yen ($1) to play. And we were thinking, if you’re playing a shooter and there’s a lot of bullets coming at you, that’s a lot of fun. But if it doesn’t last very long, then developers are happy and arcade operators are happy, but players aren’t happy. So we were thinking really hard about what would make everybody happy.

We thought about putting big machines in arcades, so you would need to spend 500 yen per game — developers would be happy because they would make more money, players would be happy because they would get a better experience, but arcade operators wouldn’t be happy because it would cost a lot to swap these big machines in and out.

So we thought about it more and came to the conclusion that if two people played at once … operators would get twice the money. Players would essentially split the cost so they could both play for longer. We kind of did that with Final Fight since players help each other out, but we realized some players still felt cheated because the game was too difficult … If we dictated the difficulty, players could always get frustrated. But if players were competing against each other, whether they won or lost would be up to them. So we were thinking that could take out the frustration.

On the topic of pop music driving anti-intellectualism..

As I’m trying to establish myself here in San Diego, I’ve found that I’m gravitating towards music again. I’m just a few blocks from a great concert venue that a lot of locals and larger names play, and I think that finding myself in that fray reminds me how much accumulated knowledge, and maybe even skill I have in the area.

While I’ve been thinking more deeply philosophically about music, expression and identity, I bumped into a couple of interesting articles. The first, The Assault on Intellect: How Popular Music’s Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy cites work by Andrew Powell-Morris on the topic of “Lyrical Intelligence” wherein the author uses some rubric to determine the reading level of lyrics on the billboard charts over the past 10 years and graphs it all out. The takeaway is that lyrically, pop music is getting dumber.

I don’t necessarily agree with the metric – I think I’d like to somehow measure the depth of the themes of the songs as well as the instrumental maturity.. but nevertheless, it’s a pretty interesting idea, and one that has crossed my mind in the past. Notably, I remember a paraphrase from a friend back in Lafayette on the topic of local bands – “I don’t like local bands; They all try to make their music difficult”. The last half of that certainly has some salience to me. I remember playing in one of my longer running bands, Summerfield, and trying so hard to create something original and challenging. I’ve come to understand this as something of an appeal to ego, but doesn’t make me value it any less. I think the flip side is a band that can go play a three chord song that people enjoy dancing to. Both are valid in their own ways.. Why I’m attracted more to the former, I don’t know. Leaving a lasting mark? Advancing an artform? Self fulfillment from conquering a challenge?

Back to the literature review though.. I saw another article around the same time that referenced a GZA interview on the topic of the absence of lyricism in modern hip-hop. I’ve heard a little of this material before in other interviews with the rapper, but this was a broader collection of ideas. GZA’s criteria of quality aren’t that well organized, but I’ll attempt to capture them in bullet point format here:

  • lyrical
  • Strong
  • Fresh
  • New
  • discussing the art of MCing
  • good analogies
  • good wordplay
  • good sentence structure
  • good visuals
  • not about negative things (?)
  • having a message
  • telling a great story
  • grabbing you / pulling you in
  • understanding life
  • witty
  • intellectual
  • smart rhymes
  • clever rhymes

I see three main themes in these items.. The first is embracing a kind of “meta” culture – describing your rapping skills, and maybe even bragging about them. This is definitely a prominent element in most music styles, but I’m not sure if is really a strong thread in what makes lyrics “good”, at least not for me, from a critical viewpoint.

Storytelling is another theme mentioned by GZA. This one definitely resonates with me and I’ve often cited a good story as the main driver for my preference of hip hop songs. In an era of popular artists bragging about material possessions and success at dubious endeavors, hearing a good story can make a difference.

The last, and largest theme in GZA’s list of preferred qualities seems to be a general intellectual depth and thoughtfulness. Both in terms of being a person with a broad knowledge to draw from but also displaying an aptitude for abstract thinking. This, I think, most relates to the example I cited above about local bands. GZA’s motivations to be creative, innovative and intellectual may be ego driven, but they do also push the envelope of what other artists are doing.

Looping back to the Lyrical intelligence rating, I suspect the criteria used there would probably call GZA’s works less intelligent since the main metric is application of grammar rules – something that is less important to the artist than the wit and craftiness he imbues.

So what?

I guess I wrote this all out to start a conversation with myself about how to make smarter music. I’m going to forego the question of whether challenging music is better or worse than simple music. What is “good” to me? and how would one integrate the conversational tradition of most music lyrics with something more heady?

 

big data needs big tools to sort it

The idea of “big data” is very popular in big business, but it’s trickling down into a lot of other things we use. This should be good; more is better, of course. Well, it is when it doesn’t add to complexity of use. I wanted to share an example of a less than great implementation of big data in a consumer use case…

strava heatmaps

This is the route builder in popular bicycle ride tracking app, Strava. It has a “heat maps” feature that is the big data implementation. It does some mathematical aggregation of all ride traffic to give an idea of how often individual roads are used. The idea, at least I think, is to help you choose “better” bike routes based on the logic that the most people would use the best route. (whatever “best” is a measure of) This is kind of handy in some areas.. Rural places. Small Towns, like Lafayette, where I moved from. But in highly populated areas, like San Diego, where I am now, it’s not as useful. There is a lot of tourist traffic, making some paths, like beachside walkways with high foot traffic, appear to be the right place to ride. My choice of “best” comes from wanting to get to work fast or wanting a hard training ride, so dealing with foot traffic is far from ideal.. but there’s no way to separate it out.

Strava has already started to divide groups by population in other features. “Segments” of routes show a listing by time duration of every user that’s ridden them. This feature has long had a gender segregation, but more recently for paid members offers filtering by age and by weight. Why is this useful? Well, it helps competitive cyclists know how they are doing against other people they might be racing.

I’d really like to see them add to this – it would be great if there was a way to break down the heat map by some categorization. Maybe it’s just max speed on that particular ride. This could weed out the beach cruiser people, or, depending on what you were trying to get out of it, could weed out the folks who are competitive/training.

Regardless, I think this is a decent illustration of lots of data needing more advanced tools to be useful. I think we’re going to be seeing more and more of this as time goes on. It’s a rife place for Interaction Designers to develop new standards.

Skills to help you land a UX job.

This past weekend I had the chance to attend the IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) Western district conference.  I’ve been to several IDSA events in the past, but skipped last years. It was good to get back and hang out with the Industrial Design “tribe”. (The idea of tribes were one of the themes of this years event) I met a lot of nice people, learned a lot of new things, and had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative “design swarm”.

On the flip side, as a UX designer, I was one of a minority. It’s not a huge difference – much of the methodology of the two disciplines is the same, and many Industrial Designers are taking work in UX as of late. Still, I felt like a bit of a representative of the UX side of things, and people were asking me questions.

Two of the most common questions I heard were: “How do I get a job in UX?” and “What goes in a UX portfolio?” These are both particularly salient areas of thought since UX as a field is still relatively new. Trying to come up with answers on the spot got my mind working, and I put together a short list of things that I think should go into a UX portfolio. I think these things are really representative of the work that happens in industry (at least as far as I’ve seen) and also the stuff that really provides value – whether that’s to clients, or development teams or project managers.

Situational Awareness / Presentation skills

This is not as much a portfolio piece as it is a factor in how the portfolio is presented. And this is a tough one to demonstrate. There are two main factors here:

  1. UX folks should be dealing with people who use, or will use whatever it is that’s being designed. We could pawn that off onto a researcher, but throwing this kind of stuff over the wall is a waste of opportunity. That said, a designer has to be sensitive to those being interviewed/observed and understand their needs; even if it’s just in the context of the interview.
  2. You have to present your work to someone at the end of the project. If you’re just presenting it to your design director, maybe it doesn’t matter as much how you approach the presentation, but there is real value in being able to talk to a dev team, a PM or even the C suite. You have to know what drives them, and address it as you talk about your work.

Structured Research

I’ve seen a lot of really nice student projects with absolutely no basis in research. (or reality) Make sure you’re showing that you can do the science to prove to your audience that you made the right design decisions.

Sometimes just having research isn’t enough. It has to be structured. What was your plan going into the research? Did you have key questions that you asked all respondents? How did you choose them? What did the results statistically tell you?

Insights

Insights are kind of easy. Most designers have these throughout. But as in the above, can you tie the insights to real data and real users?

Process

Industrial design has really provided us a lot of structure in terms of documentation. Any ID process book is a good starting point. It’s important to talk about all of the design activities you did, but maybe more importantly, you should tell why you did them.

Wireframes / Prototyping

This is a gimmie. Everyone should know how to do basic wireframes. But go further – make sure they’re annotated and explain the functionality and the reasons that design decisions were made.

Detailed Design

It’s the next step after wireframes. Know how to specify visual style in a “pixel perfect” way, and be able to show and explain design patterns.

Information Visualization

As we move further into a “big data” world, it’s important to be able to use visuals to help users make sense of statistical data. It’s one thing to come up with a flashy, novel idea, but another to make something that is easy for a user to get use out of.

Strategy

Strategy is emerging as an important part of the UX package as more businesses are using UX to drive sales. The idea is to understand the business goals, design for them, and explain why your design helps the company achieve them. You could say that this is designing with an eye to the business, but it should be more holistic – How does this impact the dev team? How can the marketing team make use of your work?

 

 

 

There are surely many other things I could put in here, but these are the things that guide my work. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in flashy presentation, which is great in it’s own right, but the real value is giving your clients a good return on their investment, and I think the above list does that.