Max 7: Where is the Fun?


    One of the biggest challenges in designing software is dealing with what is known as the first user experience. We’ve been looking at this problem for the last four or five years, and I have to say, observing someone else try to use what you’ve designed is a devastating experience. Everything you assumed to be true is exposed as wrong. You can retreat into your shell and declare your work is art and simply misunderstood, or you can try to figure out why your assumptions are wrong. It is an endless process, with well-meaning attempts to be “more user-friendly” usually falling flat for reasons that suddenly seem obvious and make you feel like an idiot. And that’s putting it mildly.
    In response to these challenges, Cycling ‘74 formed a Product Team a few years ago. As an old-school engineering-driven organization, we had never taken any sort of formal approach to product decisions or design before, and the product team started out pretty much as a weekly seminar where we tried to unlearn the old habits of making decisions. Inspired by a process I had observed at Ableton, we solicited posters from everyone within the company with the simple request: illustrate your dreams. The poster collection is both hilarious and profound, and the team was overwhelmed trying to figure out which ideas were worthy of future development. This was intentional. If you aren’t overwhelmed with the possibilities, you aren’t paying attention, so part of our unlearning process was to broaden the base of ideas and experiences that we used for making decisions.
    One of the most influential posters was created by our colleague Darwin Grosse and is reproduced above. It is called “Where is the Fun?” and is a thinly veiled critique of the Max 6 welcome screen, essentially suggesting that for the user Darwin had in mind, none of the choices we offered on the welcome screen were really that fun at all. Had we even considered the idea that the first encounter with Max should be fun? I don’t think we did! The way I now see our overriding concern was that we were always worried about the user passing some sort of mythical Max exam. “Hey listen, there’s some stuff that’s really important that you understand before you even think about connecting a patch cord, OK?” It took this poster, a lot of user tests, and a fair amount of soul searching before we started to see that we could give people a sense of Max without trying to tell them some key piece of information. As members of the product team reflected on how we ourselves were exposed to Max for the first time, it always came down to looking over someone’s shoulder. How could we try to reproduce this experience within the software itself?
    Let me describe our first attempt at emulating a looking-over-the-shoulder experience. On the first launch of Max 7, you are offered a tour providing you with a general idea of the software, followed by the opportunity to experience some of the typical patches Max users make. Initial feedback from our testers suggests that taking the tour is a better experience than being faced with a choice of six not-so-fun alternatives.
    More generally, in designing Max 7, we looked at eliminating the ways the software itself can stop you from having fun. Why can’t I just drag that file into a patch and use it? Why do I have to connect four objects together to play an audio file or a video? Why do I need at least ten objects connected in a specific to do anything cool with Jitter? These are hurdles no one should have to deal with.
    Now, if we were a real company, we’d find a way to take all the fun out of having fun and come up with a metric for having fun. So instead we’ve come up with imaginary metrics. For example, time to trip (or T3 for short). T3 can be measured as the time between when you start up Max and the point where you are tripping. We’ll be interested to hear your opinion of whether we’ve hit our goal of reducing T3 by at least 24.7%. Quarterly bonuses are on the line.