“I believe I have the possibility of a future in music.”

An Ableton Guerilla Exploratory User Research Project

Interested in getting to know Ableton users, I decided to spend a week putting together a small exploratory user research project with the aim to understand their musical contexts and ultimate music technology goals. As a music lover and a user researcher, Ableton interests me because it’s constantly innovating and invested in developing their user’s experiences. I wanted a small project to work on, and I thought it would be interesting to explore what users valued about Ableton in order to see if I could attempt to add to their experiences in any way.

Objective

Identify experienced and potential Ableton users and explore their experiences with Ableton and their future goals for music technology in order to understand potential paths of opportunity for Ableton.

Target Users

Musicians, Producers and DJs who have experience working with music technology programs, and Ableton in particular. I had no specific age range, but my users tended to range from early 20s to mid 30s.

(I based my target user assumption on the description of users on the Ableton website, which seem to be targeted towards “a community of dedicated musicians, sound designers, and artists” and run by musicians, producers and DJs. In the future, with more available time I’d love to include sound engineers and artists, but decided to focus on music production and performance based on the responses I received. I gathered my informants by utilizing the Ableton User Group Facebook pages, which can all be located on the Ableton website here. I introduced myself to a select group of people who had attended Ableton User Meetups in the recent past through private messages, and asked them if I would be able to chat with them about their experiences with Ableton and music technology. Most of them happily obliged. I also reached out to a handful of musician and DJ friends who had prior experience with Ableton but were not necessarily frequent users to talk about their experiences as well, and followed along on a few DJ sets for a little “inspiration”.)

Questions

I wanted to answer 3 main questions:

  1. In what contexts is Ableton used?

2. In what contexts is Ableton not used, and for what reasons?

3. What were users ultimate goals in terms of what could be done with digital music technology?

Method

I asked users a set of eight questions to try to explore their contexts, product knowledge, and experiences:

Context

  • Could you tell me a bit about yourself? What do you do professionally, and what is your music background/experience?
  • What is your age/age range?

Product Information

  • What Ableton product(s) do you use, and what do you use it for?
  • Have you used other products in the past? What drew you to Ableton — why do you prefer the product you use now (if that’s the case)?

Experiences & Goals

  • Can you tell me about a specific positive memorable experience you’ve had using music technology and/or Ableton?
  • Can you tell me about a negative memorable experience you’ve had using music technology and/or Ableton?
  • Have you used Ableton in any creative ways (or ways the product hasn’t been designed for)?
  • In your wildest dreams, what do you wish you could do with music technology that you’re not able to accomplish with it right now?

I conducted the majority of these interviews through online messaging and e-mail, but also did a handful through Skype or face-to-face. Both methods had their pros and cons: face-to-face and Skype interviews allowed for a more natural flow of conversation to identify what users were concerned and happy with, and allowed users to talk about things I may not necessarily have thought to ask about prior to them being brought up; whereas the survey method allowed for a more structured flow of answers that was easily comparable and made for an easier analysis, especially beneficial for a quick week-long project such as this.

User Feedback

Based on the feedback I received, I organized my users into a set of three personas, listing a few of their uses and reasonings for using or not using Ableton. I also included other digital music technology products they mentioned using.

Organizing different types of Ableton Users into personas

Common Findings/Key Moments

There were three common findings I came across throughout my interviews, all mostly concerning live performance.

First of all, many DJs struggled to use Ableton during live sets because it’s difficult to use when playing club sets that are lengthy and have not been prepared in advance, and when they are prepared in advance it takes a lot of prep time. Even an hour set was assumed to take a few hours to prepare in Ableton, which many non-professional DJs do not have the time for.

“I would compare Ableton to a Mercedes rather than a Volkswagen.”

Second, many DJs enjoy working with vinyl. Even if they are not scratching or playing electronic sets, there’s an air of romanticism to using vinyl and handling the physical object. Some DJs playing non-electronic sets feared that the crowd would be skeptical if they brought their computer, and did not think that vinyl and digital technology worked well together. Others who were open to the idea of using digital technology with their vinyl decks opted to use other DJ products like Serato that was compatible with turntables.

“[Ableton] enables [DJs] to do things that I can’t do with just two turntables, but being a club DJ, that stuff would go unappreciated anyway. I can’t spend that kind of time on prep for 2 reasons: 1) I don’t have the time for that and 2) I never know where my sets are going so I need to just load the track and figure out how to blend them without requiring previous prep.”

Third, when it came to asking what users wished to do with digital music technology in their “wildest dreams”, many people expressed the wish to explore how digital technology could be used to make music performance more interactive. This included using digital technology to trigger lights and video clips that would change or match the beats of the song or clip, or using sensors that could sense body movements/dance/light/distance to trigger sounds or create music. People emphasized the wish to use digital music technology to create the opportunity for music creation to become more intuitive and accessible to people through physical interaction.

Potential Opportunity Suggestions

Based on these patterns, I think the biggest potential opportunities for further research is through exploring performance features. I think this could take two routes of exploration.

Enhancing Interactive Performance

Firstly, the value of visual and interactive live performance can be explored as a potential avenue for new features and products. Users expressed their gratitude for how Push has “pushed” (horrible but necessary pun, SORRY) the boundaries in terms of connecting production with live performance and interaction with loops and samples, so how could you take this further with new interactive features or products? How can bodily movements be integrated into triggering sounds/tracks in an intuitive and enjoyable way? How could music technology be used to enhance live performances through triggering visual effects like light & video?

Exploring Usability for DJs

Secondly, I think a potential valuable avenue of exploration could be researching how Ableton Live can be made easier to use for DJs without too much prep time and more flexible for club DJs who don’t have time to plan their sets in advance, who prefer to plan their sets on the fly, or who enjoy working with other music mediums like vinyl. How can production/DJ software like Live be used to remix things more seamlessly during live performances, or how can turntable-use be integrated into the software?

In general, I think Ableton creates extremely impressive music software and hardware, and all the people I talked with expressed this same sentiment whether they were regular users or not. I created this because I’m interested in user research and music technology, and I wanted to learn a bit more about Ableton users and see if I could come up with an idea of what they valued and how Ableton could potentially make their products even more valuable to them!

If you found this interesting or have something to add, leave me a comment or you can find me on Twitter @gilliancmacd — I’d love to keep this conversation going.

*I’m not affiliated with Ableton in any way