Environmental UX

Evan Samek
Oct 16, 2014 · 5 min read

As the field of UX expands and gets more defined, one emerging talking point is how impactful the effect of the environment is on users. By environment I mean the situation a user is in before, during and after the use of your product. Are they at the office? At home? Are they frustrated (about something other than your product)? Is it raining outside and they just walked home from work, now soaking wet? How do these things affect the user experience that you have designed for your product?

We commonly forget just how impactful the subtle emotions and experiences of our environment are. Interestingly, I happened to notice a real life example of this, outside of any digital product. This example has to do with my office building, jazz music and having a job.

Mural outside of our office

My office is located in the West End neighborhood of Washington, D.C. in building called the Duke Ellington Building. Appropriately named since the office is on the same ground where Duke Ellington’s grandparents lived when he was growing up. The building underwent a management change recently, and new management wanted to commemorate Duke Ellington by hanging art relevant to his jazz career in our lobby. In addition to the art, they also installed a Sonos speaker that infinitely plays jazz music. If I ever take the elevator, whether arriving or departing, jazz music is playing at medium volume in our lobby.

That jazz music has an affect on me – on my experience – every single morning. I love all music – being a multiinstrumentalist and having studied music theory back in high school and college. However, I would propose that jazz music is a poor choice of music for the lobby of an office building. To understand why, you need to have an understanding of what jazz music is, how its played and some basic understanding about music theory.

On Jazz Music

Jazz music is very unique in that it’s almost completely based on improvisation. Generally there may be a thematic idea that starts the song, but each player plays off each other creating a very unpredictable, though extremely impressive, experience.

Another important fact about jazz music, is that all players have the ability to traverse both the major and minor scales. Psychologically speaking, the major scale is happy, or a positive uplifting feel to it. The minor scale, on the flip side, is somewhat sad and a little bit more dreary.

When you combine together the improvisation of jazz with the fact that they traverse both the major and minor scales, you get music that has a wide range of psychological and emotional impacts on the listener.

If you’re a fan of jazz, this is exactly why you’re a fan of jazz. It’s about the art form of musicians playing off of each other and the serendipitous outcome it produces. Still, there is a underlying theme to jazz, its just not obvious to the untrained ear. There are usually no lyrics, but there is an overall sentiment that the composer or the musicians communicate based on whether or not they are in the minor scale or major scale. Even some rhythms from the drummer have emotional undertones.

The Day Jazz Ruined My Morning

Back to my office lobby, with a (seemingly) completely random playlist of jazz music set on repeat.

We all know the feeling of waking up on a weekday morning, faced with the task of going to work. But the real thing that matters is how we’re feeling that morning about the upcoming work day, or even what has happened the day before. Some days you wake up, and you’re ready to get to work and you’re excited about the day ahead. And other days you’re just going through the motions, just doing what you’re “supposed” to do.

If I’m in the latter situation – for me personally – I tend to listen to uplifting or upbeat music while I’m walking into work. This is my attempt to control my mood and bring it to a positive place. This worked extremely well; until that lobby music system was put in place. No matter what I listen to on my way in from work, I know that if I take off my headphones before I get into that elevator I am going to be subject to a completely unpredictable kind of music. Thus, I have no idea how I’m going to actually feel when I get on that elevator.

I used to take my headphones off right before entering the lobby in case I met a colleague in the elevator and they wanted to talk. The other day, I walk in and there is jazz music playing, and it was completely in the minor key. I was late, hungry and didn’t have enough coffee that morning. When I woke up, I wasn’t really feeling work. I played my happy music on the way in and just before I walked into the lobby, I was ready to take on the day. But as I entered and proceeded to wait for our slow elevator to reach the lobby floor, I was being bombarded by the negative sentiments of the minor key. Basically undoing all of the work I did on my walk-in to improve my mood.

I think this is a perfect example of how user experience needs to pay just as much attention to the environment in which the user is experiencing your product service as your designed in-product experience. If I were so motivated, I probably would want to run an experiment within my lobby, selectively playing different types of music that intentionally stays within the major scale or the minor scale and poll people on their emotions once they come up to the office.

For right now, I’ll keep my headphones on so that I can control exactly how I feel when I walk into work.

    Evan Samek

    Written by

    User Experience Designer, Engineer & Composer http://about.me/evansamek