How the Underground Dance Music Scene Makes Me a Better User Researcher

Akshay Verma
Jun 19, 2018 · 7 min read
At Terraforma, a dance music festival I attended in a Renaissance-era villa nestled in the northern Italian countryside.

I first fell in love with underground dance music while living in Amsterdam, one of the electronic music capitals of the world, on and off for the past few years. I quickly became excited, captivated, mesmerized, inspired by it all: the energy, the late nights that turned well into mid-day, the conviviality of these parties, the seeming ease with which I could make friends, and the electronic beats that you could not help but dance to for hours.

User experience research is all about a nuanced way of looking at the world — observing, noticing, listening, and synthesizing information around you. Turns out that frequenting techno and deep house parties around the globe has helped me to become a better user researcher. Sound crazy? Hear me out.

Dancing to a Ben UFO set in San Francisco the other month.

What is underground dance music?

It typically refers to house and techno music, specific sub-genres within the larger umbrella of “electronic dance music.” This specific music scene had its origins in the subcultures of Chicago house and Detroit techno before slowly finding its way to European epicenters like Berlin, where it continues to thrive and dominate the nightlife today. In major urban centers like San Francisco, New York, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London, this scene is often dubbed as the “underground” nightlife scene that is typically intertwined with the city’s art, queer, and youth subculture.

But it’s not the Calvin Harris-esque “EDM” that you might hear on the radio these days, although it’s often mistakenly dubbed as. Instead, a New Yorker essay on Berlin’s infamous techno scene explains it best:

Techno is repetitive, relying on subtle changes over time to intrigue the ear. It eschews lyrics, melody, and, arguably, harmonics. It doesn’t resolve. You don’t get crowd-pleasing drops … The pleasure comes in repetition, in sly referents, and in the nature of the sound…

Most people tend to have a hackneyed, exaggerated view of this scene: abandoned industrial warehouses-turned-dance-spaces, parties that last well into the next day (or the next, next day), and lots of young people dressed in all black. Well, alright — these are all fairly accurate part of the charm of it all, but this is a scene that’s much more than that. It’s a scene all about letting go and having fun, about shared spaces that are uniquely successful sociological experiments in bringing people closer together.

In fact, the underground dance music scene has a vibrant history intertwined with the urban fiber of cities. It’s said to have unified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall and today is the soundtrack of swooping social change in cities like the post-socialist Tbilisi. These nightclubs and dance spaces are inextricably tied to tourism, gentrification, and other significant urban happenings that are pushing and pulling cities around the globe. Some even consider this “culture of getting together and dancing” to be an anti-fascist movement in itself.

How has underground dance music influenced my work as a user researcher?

While seemingly disparate from these underground dance parties that I’m describing, user research actually has quite a bit in common with them. Here are some ways that it continues to make me a better researcher.

It’s trained me in noticing the subtleties.

Whenever I attempt to introduce non-electronic-music loving friends to my obsessive love for dance music, the primary complaint that I’m sure to hear is that there are little to no lyrics to the music.

It’s precisely this: techno and deep house, the main musical subgenres of “underground dance music,” tend to be long tracks consisting solely of instrumental music. The DJ sets that I can spend hours and hours listening to interweave these long-winded beats and tracks that make you move and dance. To me, it’s utterly enthralling.

I’ll be honest in that I don’t possess the vocabulary to understand the intricacies of what I’m listening to.

I didn’t know at first the intricacies of what I was listening to. I couldn’t distinguish between different notes and I barely knew what a synth was. But despite this, I grew to love dance music, and am now plugged into it almost the entire day: on my commute, at the gym, and at my desk when I need to focus. Upon thousands of hours listening to and appreciating this music — and over the years, I’ve trained myself to notice, appreciate, and listen to it all.

Similarly, as a user researcher, I must notice, appreciate, and listen to my participants and users in what they’re telling me. Effective, nuanced listening is at the crux of being a researcher, too — and years of listening to long-winded techno tracks has trained me to notice the subtleties in what I’m hearing. When conducting research, subtle shifts in someone’s tone or inflection can speak volumes and help uncover deeper insights or take conversations to new, unexpected places. They can shed light into deeper levels of motivations or painpoints, which might ultimately drive innovations.

My training in the subtleties of techno has allowed me to become better at noticing all sorts of subtleties in conversation, driving my empathy as a researcher.

It’s taught me to be an expert in reading the room.

The art and craft of a well-executed DJ set includes a myriad subtleties; a great DJ is able to calculate the pulse of a room and properly steer her music to reflect how the dance floor is moving. I’ve noticed this many times in my proper nights out. If she’s noticing a drop in the floor’s energy, let’s amp it up with the proper heart-throbbing dance track — there’s really no prescribed tracklist that can fit any venue, any city, or any particular night. It’s all about understanding the moment and running with it.

Just as two nights out are never the same, as a researcher, no one conversation or interview is ever identical. If it were, there would be no new insights to glean. Oftentimes, these conversations don’t go as planned, and you might end up discussing experiences and ideas that you never imagined. That’s all part of the fun. While conducting research, I have to be acutely cognizant of the room to appropriately probe and point my conversation into the right ways. That’s part of the art of conversation that is crucial to effective research, and is certainly something I’ve become better at as a dance music enthusiast.

It continues to push me to be a “people person.”

People have always been at the heart of everything I do and love. A deep desire to befriend and understand people has made me travel to countless cities and meet all sorts of unique, interesting people from around the globe.

In fact, some of the best friends I’ve made today are people I’ve met through underground dance parties around the globe. There’s a certain shared understanding in these spaces that you’re all there to experience something together, and this has always pushed me to speak with people and hear their stories.

Frequenting the dance music scene has allowed me to step miles from my comfort zone and meet interesting and diverse people around the world. That’s what a great user researcher does, too. As a researcher, I build empathy with my users by getting out of my comfort zone and speaking with them, whether it’s through structured interviews, intercept testing, or ethnographic observation. It’s all about being unafraid to talk to people and understand who they are, what they do, and what excites them — actually very similar traits to a night out.

Ultimately, it’s made me a more curious person.

Dance music is really all about curiosity. It’s about the late nights out, connecting over shared experience, and seeing where the intensity of electronic tracks might cut through you throughout the night. That same curiosity makes me love what I do as a researcher, allows me to push boundaries, and pushes me to observe, notice, and experience.

I’m a User Experience Researcher and a dance music enthusiast. While not conducting qualitative research, I can be often found dancing at some of my favorite dance floors around the globe, from Brooklyn to Berlin.

Akshay Verma

Written by

Design Researcher; into all things art, architecture, design, & underground dance music. SF — Boston — Amsterdam — LA — etc.

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