Methods Used: Competitor Analysis, Contextual Inquiry, Crowdsourcing, Interviews, Kano Analysis, Questionnaires, Rapid Digital Prototyping
My Role: Writing questionnaires, conducting interviews & contextual inquiry, sourcing participants, designing digital assistant, mid fidelity digital prototypes, improving visual hierarchy
Tools: Axure RP, Sketch, Google surveys, Ableton, pen and paper sketching
Deliverables: Research summary and raw data
Ableton is a piece of software that has changed how music is made in the 21st century. It allows musicians with minimal sound engineering experience to record and produce their own music. Since its introduction in Berlin in 2001, its ease of use has fueled the rise of electronic music and festival culture. As its versatility and depth have increased over decades of updates, the learning curve for new users has grown steeper. Ableton faces an inflection point as education drives adoption in the crucial 30 day trial window before purchase.
Since this project’s scope was ambitious, I recruited fellow musician/UX designer, Brandon Ford and suggested we install Ableton to focus empathy on the new user. A competitive audit established Ableton had strong value at their price point and held a massive cultural advantage in adoption among younger musicians. Drawing on my decades of experience recording and performing, I drew up a questionnaire that would allow us to take a deep dive into this space with our users.
”It’s the perfect DAWS” ~ Chris S. , producer and composer
We reached out to our network to conduct interviews and establish pain points, leveraging in person time to observe workflows.
Several things quickly became apparent:
1) Ableton was much loved. Hard bitten thirty year veterans of electronic music said things like “It’s the perfect DAWS (Digital Audio Workstation)”
2) Despite this most users had issues with workflow and file organization arising from the depth and versatility that are Ableton’s strengths. Many blamed themselves.
3) The learning curve was not as brutal as with some DAWS, but it was still tough. New users (including Brandon and I), really struggled to get going.
“I wish organizing audio and midi tracks and dropdown arrangements within arrangement view was easier to execute. It feels like a chore to do.” ~ Frank S. , musician
To its credit, Ableton knows this - its body of knowledge includes instructional videos, articles, and even schools. Every part of Ableton’s screen comes with preloaded on-hover instructional text.
However, our users were telling us that this only served to mitigate their difficulties, not eliminate them. We heard “it’s probably me” a lot.
feature creep and complexity
simplify while retaining power and versatility
“They use that font because Ableton’s devs are working on giant 4k screens” ~ forum commenter
Interviewees echoed community complaints about font, aesthetics and eyestrain and it occurred to me that we could kill two birds with one stone. Ableton currently assigns a random color to each waveform in session view. What if every drum track was red, for example? This idea was echoed by Tim, a dj who told me he used color coding by beats per minute so that he was never at a loss transitioning between tracks. Insights like these gained from our users during Contextual Inquiry led us to develop several prototype feature sets:
After an initial session where I sourced and selected fonts, Brandon sneaked them into Ableton’s code and tackled the visual build out of sorting and customization.
Meanwhile, to address workflow and learning curve, I further developed my Back Pocket and Digital Assistant concepts.
Ableton senses and responds to a user’s workflow over time.
Seldom used instruments, sounds and effects are tucked away in the Back Pocket where they can be retrieved later
Cleaner, less cluttered interface and improved workflow result
CPU load is mitigated by running a leaner, lighter version of Ableton with only what this particular user needs for their music
I prototyped three different digital assistants which could live where Ableton kept its explanatory text in the bottom left of the screen (click through below). A short video of the Axure prototype I built out follows.
Ableton prompts new users to help them keep tracks organized.
He timestamps and fetches files you need, and you can kennel him when he’s not needed.
Helps new users develop muscle memory and workflow
Helps all users find and organize files
This was a passion project for me as a musician: an opportunity to apply my UX research and design skills to the field of audio engineering, and my experience recording digitally to the UX design process. It was also a great chance to leverage my relationships in the Minnesota music community to get a broad and rich data set. It’s my hope that the research we’ve provided Ableton will play a small part in the saga of a piece of software that has changed our culture.