Illustration by Irin Kim

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only UXing)

Down the Highway

Bob Dylan has been many things to people over the years. Minstrel, enigma, teacher, guru, entertainer, chronicler of our times, philosopher and more. A troubling troubadour with an uncanny knack of encapsulating those most exquisite of sentiments in a few well-chosen lines. While Dylan’s work has been cited as influential in many areas over the years, I think his role as user experience sage has been sadly overlooked.

My interest in Dylan pre-dates my career as a UX designer, and his songs have provided the soundtrack to many a session of wireframing, pixel pushing or spec writing over the years. With a body of work stretching five decades and a back catalogue of hundreds of songs, there is a surprising abundance of material chock full of insights and advice that Dylan has for us UX professionals. What follows is a taste of the richness that awaits the UXing Dylanologist.

Bob Dylan’s Dream

Dylan’s affinity with the basic tenets of UX practice are evident right from his earliest days. The opening lines of his 1963 debut are a rallying call to all us toilers amongst the furrows of user experience.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?

Blowin’ In The Wind, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963

How many indeed Bob? I guess it’s all down to what you’re trying to find out about his (or her — let’s not get hung up on the technicalities) journey down those roads. In strictly quant terms one is not a great sample rate, and even for qual it is probably not going to hold water in the team meeting. But it’s not about the numbers, it’s about the sentiment — and the sentiment is spot on.

What Dylan is clearly saying here to all of us designers, researchers, prototypers, copywriters, or whatever branch of the family you belong to, is that we need to be constantly dipping our toes in the water of life. Only through compiling, analysing, and understanding our own hard-won experiences of life, love, hope, and despair can we have the credibility and insights needed to influence the experience of others.

A further exhortation to make the most of the time that we have and use it to good purpose, surfaces a couple of years later, on Dylan’s fourth release.

From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
 Plays wasted words, proves to warn
 That he not busy being born is busy dying

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), Bringing It All Back Home, 1965

In addition to the rallying call to action, these few lines are also a timely warning to avoid those whose empty rhetoric and vainglorious showboating saps both time and energy. Trust in Bob to help you keep it real and you can’t go too far wrong.

The same album also contains the seminal “Subterranean Homesick Blues, a phenomenal free-fall of allegories, allusions, and anecdotes delivered at near breakneck speed. Here Dylan manages to beautifully sum up one of the most self-evident truths in the world of UX when he sings the immortal couplet:

You don’t need a weatherman 
To know which way the wind blows

Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bringing It All Back Home, 1965

These disarmingly simple lines expose the most profound truth of all about UX — 90% of it is straight-up common sense. Sure, you need to be able to knock out a detailed research plan every so often, throw together the occasional wireframe, and maybe even lovingly craft the odd icon or fully-functioning multi-platform prototype, all of which take skill and dedication. But it’s mostly about having an open and inquisitive mind, a halfway decent aptitude to empathise with others, and the ability to sideline one’s own innate biases in favour of the neutral perspective.

My Back Pages

One of the enduring traits of Dylan’s work that is also a signpost for us UXers is his ability to confound and surprise. As a teenager I would often spend Saturday mornings in the record department of Birmingham Central Library. Strange as it now seems in this age of streaming media, a whole half a floor of that brutalist cathedral (sadly now decommissioned and in the throws of destruction in favour of a recently arrived glass and steel interloper) was given over to rows of raised wooden boxes filled with a treasure trove of vinyl delights.

The first Dylan I plucked from the racks and took home for a spin was 1979’s Live at Budokan. It wasn’t what I expected. Take for example “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” I was already vaguely familiar with the original’s solemn echoey strains, but I knew it only as song filled with a poetry born of world-weariness and loss. The Budokan version on the other hand turned out to be a lilting reggaefied version with a chirpy upbeat and swagger in its step. I was by turns appalled and amazed by what had become of the song as I knew it, but it taught me a valuable lesson about the power of reinvention. Often the simple act of rearranging an existing set of components can open one’s mind to strange new vistas and produce insights you have never countenanced before — a lesson that any UXer worth their salt knows well and makes use of on a daily basis.

Gonna Change My Way of Thinking

The first Dylan album I owned outright was 1976’s Desire which introduced me to two key aspects of Dylan’s UX genius. Firstly, it is an album that brilliantly showcases the way that a good story simply told can educate, enthrall, and entertain. Be it “Hurricane” (the story of a boxer’s false imprisonment), “Isis” (a tale of treasure and betrayal in the desert) or “Joey” (a maudlin peon to a fallen gangster with a heart of gold), all these narrative songs show us UXers the power of creating a context for our creations to live and breath in.

Secondly, Desire is awash with examples of Dylan’s amazing ability to squeeze a rhyme out of the most unlikely of circumstances. The lilting four verses of “Mozambique” (co-authored with Jaques Levy but Dylan through and through) is a veritable cornucopia of linguistic delights (as well as the best free advertising the only nation to feature an AK-47 on its flag has ever had). Take the first verse for instance:

I like to spend some time in Mozambique
The sunny sky is aqua blue
And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek.
It’s very nice to stay a week or two.
And maybe fall in love
Just me and you.

Mozambique, Desire, 1976

Not only does he manage to wrangle a rhyme out of Mozambique and cheek (a stunt repeated in later verses with speak and peak) he also throws in a hook-up between cheek and week, before finishing with a flourish with two/you. To me it is a fantastic reminder of how the power of looking for patterns and symmetry can be brought to bear to create things that flow together in unexpected but intuitively harmonious ways.

Illustration by Irin Kim

Blowin’ In The Wind

As we all know, much of the work that we UXers do is ephemeral in nature. Situations evolve, products come and go, fashions change, paradigms get shifted, and strategies are re-aligned. All we can do is focus on the present, try and meet the needs and aspirations of our users, and not worry too much about what fate has in store (for us or our creations). Needless to say Dylan is there right by our side with a few fatherly words of advice to help keep it all in perspective and remind us of our (small) place in the total order of things:

Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow

Oh, Sister, Desire, 1976

Bob also has plenty of sage words of advice about how best to roll with the punches as the world around one turns and spins. There are many examples to choose from but for me the second stanza of the title track on The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the most adroit and poetic. Here, Dylan both warns of the dangers of presumption and an overly narrow focus, reminds us that good design is always adapting to the realities of the present, and that past successes are no indication of those of the future.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

The Times They Are A-Changin’, The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964

Shelter from the Storm

So what other lessons does the Dylan songbook hold for user experience designers and researchers? Too many to mention here I suspect for fear of overstaying my welcome. So let me finish with a few final UX-related thoughts from 1974s Planet Waves—it’s not the strongest of his records, but still has a couple of standout tracks. Firstly, the phenomenally bitter “Dirge” with its coruscating opening salvo:

I hate myself for loving you and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down suicide road

Pretty virulent, huh? By the fourth verse he has really warmed to his theme:

There are those who worship loneliness, I’m not one of them
In this age of fiberglass I’m searching for a gem
The crystal ball up on the wall hasn’t shown me nothing yet
I’ve paid the price of solitude, but at least I’m out of debt

Dirge, Planet Waves, 1974

Thirty plus years later we UXers are firmly ensconced in our own age of silicon, searching for gems of insight and inspiration to help make the wonders of technology applicable and understandable to people.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

The second notable track on Planet Waves is “Forever Young.” Some people consider it to be an overload of schmaltz, but I think it’s both a great song and also a wonderful rallying call to all UXers out there. The first stanza extols the virtues of teamwork:

May you always do for others
And let others do for you

Dylan goes on to encourage us all to remain young and fresh in our thinking and in how we approach our work, bowing out with this third and final verse.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

So why not keep your UX career eternally young by taking a tip or two from Bob Dylan? Use your experiences to help create and shape the experience of others; don’t be afraid to mix things up and see what shakes out. Roll with the punches and keep a close eye on the future, because the present is always shifting and evolving. And last but by no means least, approach each situation with an open mind—ready to explore and learn from what you encounter. After all, you never know where a simple twist of fate will take you next.

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