Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Musical Journey Shuffle, Part 1

In another life, I spent some time making money as a club deejay. Many factors contributed to my short stay in the field -- short money, bad hours, and overall lack of talent, among others. One in particular stands out, however -- it was pointed out more than once, by more experienced deejays, that I wasn't very good at creating the "musical journey."

According to this concept, you start from a musical Point A to a Point B, with each song feeding from and building on each other in a seamless flow of melody, rhythm and tempo. So, for example, Point A would be the unobtrusive music played as patrons arrived at the club, began ordering the first round, and scanned the club for new faces. The goal would be to take everyone steadily along for the ride to Point B, when the dance floor was in full swing, the waitstaff couldn't keep up with the drink orders, and the music ruled the room.

The musical journey is also prevelent in the way people made mix CDs and, now, make playlists -- aerobics instructors are notorious for this, starting the music at "warm up" and building a steady seamless journey up to "total impact," then down to "cool down." (Runners do this too.) I recently burned a CD that went from Lounge to Soul to Blues to Bluegrass to Folk/Pop to Classic Rock, all within 24 songs. (And the result wasn't bad -- my old DJ cohorts would be proud.) Listening to songs in a pre-programmed, "natural" order would appear to be the result of humans' innate urge to interpret and make sense of all experience.

What, then, to make of the popularity of "shuffle" mode?

"The Serendipity Shuffle," by Leong, Vetere, and Howard (2005), suggests that listening to familar songs in the context of "shuffle" mode helps facilitate serendipity (an instance of making fortunate discoveries by chance or accident). In effect, they say, shuffle mode creates a random event never before experienced by the user, allowing him/her to make new discoveries and unexpected connections to memory, sensation, emotion and environment in a way that is personally meaningful. While cautioning that such experiences cannot be determined solely through design, they maintain that a deeper understanding of serendipity and an emphasis on facilitating it through design will broaden the parameters for determining what constitutes a rich and satisfying user experience.

While doing some product development research for a recent client, I came across a lot of literature indicating that the future of online music delivery and experience will lie in the ability to help customers make more personally meaningful experiences through music -- which presumably would take on the dynamic of the musical journey rather than the shuffle mode.

While I would assume none of us prefers one over the other all of the time, I'm wondering which is the more viable concept that designers should be focusing on. Does our innate urge to create sense of the chaos tip the scales in favor of the musical journey? Or has shuffle mode so infiltrated our conciousness that randomness is now the preferred choice?

I'm planning on conducting a little informal survey of friends and family, iPod users all, to see what their opinions are. Results (whenever I can get them collected and analyzed) will be forthcoming in "Part 2."

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