Published on July 25th, 2018 | by Emergent Enterprise0
The Soul of User Experience: How UX Strategy Led to Legendary Music
In 1957 Memphis, Jim Stewart had a dream. Although working a bank job during the day, he had visions of starting a record company. A country fiddle player, he loved playing music and sharing music. Very early on he decided that it was important to release music that people were passionate about and wanted to hear and not just music that was “safe.” That was difficult at the time because Jim was white and he loved the R&B soul music that was being created and performed by the African-American community. Despite objections from many white friends and family members, Jim went ahead with his dream and founded the now legendary Stax Records with his sister, Estelle. He made his customers a priority and broke down walls to work alongside African-Americans to bring us great artists like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes.
There are many lessons in Jim Stewart’s courage to launch Stax and we can learn much about user experience from him. As Stewart and the Stax success proved, you must go to the users to understand what their needs and desires are, you should beware of playing it safe by repeating your same longstanding process and you need to be willing to take a risk so you can learn from your mistakes.
On the surface it seems very logical that you should understand your users, customers or learners but unfortunately it is commonplace that they are overlooked. In the world of training this happens when learners are deprioritized because of factors like budget or inaccurate assumptions and then the end result is usually a resounding thud with users. Training developers must exercise audience empathy in every effort so as to know exactly what learners need to help them do their jobs better. This usually means spending time with the target audience and understanding their world and how they consume information. It takes humility but empathy requires the developer to make the audience’s priorities their priorities even if it means taking a fresh perspective on the original goals of the project. The end user is the key stakeholder in any project so it only makes sense to give them a clear and strong voice at the table. Jim Stewart was in the streets of Memphis alongside his potential customers and could hear how soul music could break down color barriers and reach a wide audience. Before he released his first record he knew the audience was there.
That being said, his choice meant change. In order for him to execute change he would need to leave his comfort zone. That has been the challenge of learning creators. When mobile devices started to become more ubiquitous about a decade ago and training began to move to phones, developers and designers simply moved elearning modules that were made for desktop screens to the small screen. The user experience was understandably terrible. Page-turning training with lots of text was squeezed onto the smallest of stages and called “mobile learning.” All training needs to be evaluated to determine the best delivery method that will resonate with learners. Is on-time, on demand performance support needed? Then mobile devices could very well be the best choice. Is mentor-style training required? Perhaps augmented reality could deliver a powerful experience. The point is not to put the technology first but to consider emerging technologies in your objectives. Sometimes you have to be ignore your muscle memory and admit that the old process will actually hinder the training and not help it. And if your new training does involve change, your learners will be open to the new idea if you show them the value of the change. That’s why the records being released from Stax were being bought not only by African-Americans but by white listeners, too. Their ears and hearts told them it was exceptional music and worth looking beyond the skin color of the musicians to make a purchase of a new 45.
It was risky for Jim Stewart to start a record company not only for the reasons above but because it was a competitive and sometimes shady business. Every time he released a record it was a roll of the dice. To minimize risk, Stewart opened a record store in the recording studio and played their releases in the store and on the front sidewalk gauging the responses of the customers before sending the song out to radio stations and manufacturing lots of vinyl records. That was his “user testing.” User experience benefits a great deal by conducting user testing which means delivering the product on a small scale and getting user feedback. This can be done with a prototype or proof of concept to potential users. Let them use the proposed training in the context of how the full build of the solution will be and measure their interactions and responses. Making mistakes on a new type of training on a smaller scale can save time and money by not making those same mistakes when delivering to the wider audience. Take the risk but make it a measured risk.
Understand and listen to your learners. Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone. Minimize your risk by starting small and launching a prototype of your product. All of these steps can help lead to a more powerful user experience. Jim Stewart realized what it takes to deliver excellence in UX and we benefit every time we hear “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” on the web or the radio. By making user experience a priority, training professionals can increase their chances of releasing a “hit record” to their learners.