What organisations can learn from a country music-centred approach.


A lyric from a song by Sugarland still flaws me to this day: “Pictures, dishes and socks, It’s our whole life down to one box.” The simple attention to detail is a reminder that country music at it’s foundation is written for humans. Beautifully described by Bill C. Malone, country music is a vigorous hybrid form of music, constantly changing and growing in complexity, just as the society in which it thrives also matures and evolves, with no practical limitations.

I will now offer up a loaded statement: as designers we are finally catching up to country music.

We are beginning to focus not just on customers, but humans. This puts us in an exciting position, we are increasingly adopting a human-centred approach to design to create experiences while adapting to the same technology in tandem ourselves.

Large scale organisations are now (finally) zooming out and focusing their products based on the needs, habits, desires and motivations (as well as the context of use) of their customers whilst balancing this with technical and financial feasibility.

Companies like Netflix, Spotify and Uber have disrupted stagnant industries and markets. Their success is a result of not simply looking at where the industry was at the time, but where they wanted it to be. Bill Monroe did the same for country music in 1948 when he decided to place fiddle, banjo and mandolin at the front line of his music, creating a new style and genre known as bluegrass.

Outside of Appalachia, these companies now continue to experiment, grow, thrive and adapt based on how their customers use their product every day. If we like Netflix and Uber look at the long game, focusing on basic customer needs, habits, desires and motivations this will as assist us in understanding the activities relevant to our designs, products and the expectations of the humans we are designing for.

For the “non-disruptors,” the logical step is not creating small teams in pockets of the organisation, but how they can persist and continuously reimagine where humans are going at an organisational scale.

Time to cowboy up.

When we don’t build

There is an amazing talk by Wilson Miner titled “When We Build,” sharing his observations about our role as product designers in the new digital world. But what happens when do won’t build?

Sometimes you become complacent, but the creative brain never dies, it still wants to think, solve problems and design solutions. In my role at General Assembly I am experiencing elation watching my students rapidly evolve into user experience practitioners. While I am sitting there helping them grow, I find myself walking home every day feeling a little unsettled.

After some reflection I realised that I’m not infused with an action, I’m not working towards something tangible.

At the beginning of the course I began sketching every night as a drill to keep my hands busy and fluid. That drill and focus quickly turned into an indispensable design tool: it developed into a habit.

On Friday morning I was early for a meeting, I found myself pulling out a small notebook and drawing shapes, keeping my hands busy. My hands have now become conditioned to generate whenever I have a spare moment. The frustration of not building took a daily routine and transformed into muscle memory.

I was taught early on in my career that when you see your pencil, a sketch and the work that you are put into making something so simple, your creative wisdom grows. When we build, we become product designers, create stories symbolic of the milestones and moments in the lives of other human beings.

These ten weeks have infused my need to create. I have returned to my pencil and notepad, wireframing screens that I’ll never ship and constantly reading. I am not passively waiting for things to come my way when I can do them by myself, right now.

At this moment I’m not building an actual product, but I am helping to build tomorrow’s designers for the new world.

In four weeks I step out of my role as teacher and return to the world as designer. I’m excited.

We should work together.

Half way through: the joy of design and teaching at General Assembly.

This summer I spent a lot of kiteboarding, hitting the road and taking on small projects. I’ll be honest about playing the role of design troubadour…it’s really fun!

Then six weeks ago I was pinged by General Assembly asking me if I had a spare ten weeks to come on board as an Instructional Associate for their User Experience Immersive Class. I meditated on the opportunity for about five minutes, stretched, and emailed them back: challenged accepted.

Walking onto the GA campus for the first time was a little daunting, knowing that these people (adults, wow!) had set aside twelve weeks of their lives to jump feet first into something completely new. My role with John and Felicity is to help take them from inception to industry ready in just ten weeks.

Throughout my career it has been drilled into me by my mentors that knowledge is a gift, something that’s never to be taken for granted. It’s my responsibility to make sure it is shared, not restricted to my own mind.

I quickly found myself going back to the basics, revising things that I had not thought about in over half a decade. Card sorting anyone?

After spending time with the students it didn’t take me more than a day to get excited. Witnessing the curiosity from the students after exploring something as simple as contextual inquiry made design feel alive again.

“It is not enough that we build products that function, that are understandable and usable, we also need to build products that bring joy and excitement, pleasure and fun, and, yes, beauty to people’s lives.” – Don Norman

Teaching is intense and still feels new. There is pressure to be the person students turn to when they have a problem, to be the source of knowledge. It’s a positive pressure and a rare joy when work feels like a privilege, not just a necessity.

Half way in. Watch this space.