Redesigning the Symphony Experience

Eva PenzeyMoog

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has been playing world class music since 1891 and is among the five American orchestras known as “The Big Five.” Every year its talented musicians plays a variety of amazing shows to loyal Chicagoans young and old.


Although the CSO is a respected and award-winning establishment in the city of Chicago, it has struggled for a long time to attract young people to its performances. My team was challenged to design a solution that would get young people interested in classical music and attending the symphony.


Major symphony groups have existed for hundreds of years and are an important part of our culture and history. Symphony groups represent the only genre of music considered to be culturally on par with things like art museums and planetariums to the point where even government bodies officially recognize their importance and support their work.

Classical music written hundreds of years ago is still impacting every genre of modern music and is crucial to modern film scores and other musical experiences such as Broadway performances. The opportunity to engage young people in the roots of classical music was an opportunity to help them connect more deeply with beloved pieces of current pop culture and understand how things like the soundtrack to Star Wars are part of a long continuum of musical history that has been going on for hundreds of years.

My Role

UX research, iPhone design & website design


12 day


Symphonies have long held a stereotype of well-off, elderly patrons who have refined taste for things like classical music. My team and I set out to fully understand who attends the Symphony on a regular basis, as well as investigate the various reasons many young people don’t place it high on their list of outings, including what they do instead, and the appeal behind those activities. We would use this data and research to confidently inform our design decisions.


Contextual inquiry

One teammate interviewed employees at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s box office and gift shop while another attending a CSO performance. The CSO employees reported that the stereotype was true — they estimated that the average age of a symphony goer to be in the 60s and 70s. Meanwhile, my teammate reported back that while the symphony was filled with many older folks, there were a good number of people in their 20s and 30s. She reported that although she shared the feeling of “I don’t know enough to enjoy this” that our research showed most young people have, once she had attended the symphony, she felt much more confident and was excited to go back.


Step one involved gathering quantitative data that would help my team and me understand the motivations and constraints of young people in terms of attending the Symphony. I started by putting aside all the reasons I personally haven’t been to a Symphony in the last few years and creating a starting line where I assumed I knew nothing about the pros and cons of Symphony attendance.

We created a survey and pulled meaningful data from the nearly 70 Millennial-aged respondents:

  • 77% of respondents listen to classical music in some capacity.
  • 61% are interested in learning more about classical music.
  • 80% have not been to a symphony in the last year but would like go.

Insight: Most people are interested in classical music and attending the symphony, but something is stopping them from going.


From the survey respondents, we pulled a dozen people who were interested in the symphony but hadn’t been to one recently to interview and find out more. Throughout these interviews, some patterns started to emerge as my team and I heard the same things again and again:

  • “It’s so expensive and I don’t really know why. I’d go if it was cheaper.”
  • “The barrier to entry feels so high — like I have to be a classical music expert to enjoy myself.”
  • “I wouldn’t know where to start in terms of picking a show. Just seeing the schedule makes me feel like an idiot.”
  • “It seems like it’d be fun, but I don’t have a lot of time and want my weekends to be filled with more social activities than sitting quietly for a few hours.”

Insight: Young people don’t understand the value of the symphony and why it costs as much as it does.

Insight: Young people want their leisure activities to be social.

Insight: Many people feel a lack of confidence in themselves when it comes to classical music and the symphony.

It was this last insight that represented the majority of the people I interviewed and seemed to be the crux of the problem. No one likes feeling dumb, and we all go to great lengths to protect ourselves from that sinking feeling of not understanding something.

Competitive Analysis

I created a competitive analysis of common leisure activities and included the symphony. On one axis is the cost and the other is the guarantee of fun, or in other words, how confident the user was that the activity would be rewarding. I asked several users to place the activity circles on the graph based on their own opinion, and created this version based on an aggregation of my users’ responses:

It was important to find that attending a music was viewed as high cost and high reward. Clearly people are willing to spend more money on something if they feel confident that it’s going to be a good time — my team had to figure out how to make attending the symphony guarantee as much fun as seeing a musical.

Challenge redefined

At this point my team and I realized that this wasn’t just about how to make the symphony appealing to young people — the challenge is actually twofold:

  1. Classical music feels intimidating to learn about due to its long, rich history and tradition.
  2. The symphony feels unwelcoming to people because of the focus on classical music and its etiquette and culture.

Essentially, we were solving two separate problems: how to make both classical music and the symphony, as two very distinct entities, enticing to young people.


My team felt confident that we had enough information to inform our design decisions, and began to synthesize what we had learned.

User Personas

We created three user personas that encapsulated the pain points, needs and wants of all the users spoken to. We used these personas to help us ideate and prioritize features moving forward.

The personas Skyler and Dan captured the lack of confidence around classical music and the symphony.


My team and I had an ideation session with a different team who only knew about our user personas and what their feelings on classical music and the symphony were. Together we brainstormed dozens of solutions for each user. We grouped these solutions together based on the issue they were addressing and started to consolidate features, and a picture of what our solution might look like began to come into focus.

Feature Prioritization

We prioritized features that solved the main user issues: lack of confidence, lack of socializing opportunities, and not seeing value in the symphony and therefor finding it to be too expensive. We identified four types of features that our group had brainstormed:

  • Features that educate the user about classical music
  • Features that educate the user about symphony etiquette
  • Features that add value to the experience of the symphony
  • Features that make attending the symphony a social experience.

We began work on a trivia game that would educate users about classical music and symphony culture as well as a “song a day” feature that would break down the overwhelming experience of learning about classical music into small, less daunting chunks. We simultaneously began work on giving the CSO website a facelift as well as add areas that would advertise non-digital solutions that add value and socializing opportunities to the overall experience.

User Journey

We then created a user journey for Skyler in order to better understand how the full experience of learning about classical music and symphony culture and actually attending a show.


My team and I began to develop a native iOS app as well as a website.

Testing & Iteration

We ran usability testing of medium fidelity wireframes until we reached solutions that were validated. This ended up cutting out the game feature all together — it felt too much like an entirely separate app that didn’t mesh with the music player/education feature. We replaced it with a series of simple flashcards to learn the vocabulary of classical music and an icon the user could push while listening to their daily song that would give information on the composer.

I realized through user testing of my original site redesign that it was very hard to make a website that could be both extremely appealing to young people but still work for users of every age. I scrapped the idea and began to work on a sister site that would exist alongside the existing website.



The app, Symphony 101, is broken down into features the user can use to learn about classical music, composers, instruments, history, and composition. There is also a profile page and an events page with suggested events that are based on the user’s liked songs. Annotated wireframes are shown in the image below.


The sister website to that my team created caters to a younger crowd by featuring a streamlined navigation that doesn’t overwhelm the user and immediately induce feelings of not being educated enough by being presented with many jargon-filled events. Users can click “get educated” to view the same infographics used in the app. The “#CSOcial” link takes the user to a gallery of images pulled from social networking sites.

Non-digital Solutions

Our non-digital solutions included more ways for users to build confidence through education and interact socially:

  • “Behind the Curtain”: A special symphony that pauses throughout the performance to explain to the audience what the conductor’s movements mean, why the musicians are arranged the way they are, and much more.
  • “Sidewalk Series”: Humanizes CSO musicians by staging quartet performances in parks, farmer’s markets and coffee shops.
  • “Happy Hour in the Ballroom”: The CSO building has a beautiful ballroom that will open an hour before select shows and sell wine and beer for a pre-show happy hour
  • #CSOcial: a hashtag for users to tag their pictures with when they share them on social media, creating a virtual community of symphony-goers.
  • Partnership with Special meet ups hosted through that allow users who become especially interested in classical music and the symphony to find one another.


Working on a team allows for the opportunity to both teach (and refine your knowledge) and learn, and has loads of benefits for the young UX designer.

Don’t assume anything — my own reasons behind not going to the symphony were not necessarily representative of the reasons of others my age. Pushing aside bias while creating surveys and interviewing is key to finding reliable data that you can use to draw the necessary insights that inform your design.

Eva PenzeyMoog

Written by

Tech | Design | Code | Feminism | Minimalism

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