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Does UX For Good Know What's Best For New Orleans' Musicians?

Ux-for-good-logoUX for Good is a project that takes user experience designers into the field to see how their research and solution-generation skills can be put to use in real world settings. In May they assembled a group of designers in New Orleans for a brief fieldwork investigation followed by presentations of possible solutions to address the needs of musicians in New Orleans. It's an interesting if limited experiment that ultimately depends on the desires of New Orleans' music community to have an actual effect.

UX for Good went to New Orleans in partnership with The Grammys, MusiCares, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. There's a lot to dig into here and due in part to my own research training (PhD in Cultural Studies, Ohio State University, 2000) I've spent more time on this post than any blog post to date. Yet I still have more questions than answers. Given the realities of blogging, I'm going to focus on the resources presented by UX for Good, their main recommendations and a few points that raised my concern.

UX for Good - New Orleans 2012

UX for Good has created multiple resources including the above minidoc, a SlideShare presentation and a final report (blog post links to downloadable PDF).

I'm going to focus on the "solutions" as articulated in the final report. They're described a bit differently in the SlideShare presentation which is probably the most quickly accessible of all these resources.

UX for Good's Solutions for the New Orleans' Music Community

1 - Remaking Management

UX for Good found that many if not most musicians in New Orleans aren't generating enough income to attract the attention of traditional music managers. They suggest "taking advantage of digital tools in order to aggregate the managerial intelligence of everyone below the existing professional threshold."

In particular, they "proposed a digital toolbox that could be effectively used...to manage and promote live New Orleans acts." Such tools would range from basic management tools for musicians to discovery apps for tourists.

In the process they suggest that a new form of music manager might emerge that acts more as a "curator" or facilitator and "would more likely be 'super fans,' amateur musicians, or employees of other New Orleans cultural institutions" than full-time managers in a traditional sense.

2 - Establishing Embassies

UX for Good found that many of the informal spaces where experienced and inexperienced musicians exchanged information prior to Hurricane Katrina no longer exist. While they haven't disappeared, they inspired UX for Good to consider a " new kind of institution built for the generation after Hurricane Katrina."

Terming these new gathering spots "music embassies", UX for Good described them as "spaces where musicians could jam without the pressure of performing for an audience. But they would also host 'jam and learn' sessions where players could gain managerial skills, organize to improve the community, or discover how to gain access to services like medical and dental care."

Such spaces would combine the needs of musicians from community building to information exchange to the provision of social services.

3 - Re-Tooling Tips

UX for Good found that tipping, even in venues, was the dominant form of payment to musicians in New Orleans, sometimes supplemented by additional food and drink. They also found that musicians preferred to get paid but had little leverage with venues due to widespread competition for such gigs.

UX for Good came up with such solutions as:

  • "Adding a 'tip the band' section to New Orleans restaurant bills."
  • Including "digital tipping tools" in the previously mentioned management and discovery apps.
  • Undertaking a "city-wide 'Tip the Band' advertising campaign."

These are interesting ideas that are well worth considering even beyond New Orleans.  Please do check the above linked resources for more details on both the process and the proposed solutions.

Issues to Consider Regarding Process and Recommendations

I initially tried to contact the organizers of UX for Good via email. I had numerous questions that remained unanswered even after tracking down one of the organizers by phone.

That exchange took place prior to the release of the above reports. One of my questions at the time was whether or not they were aware of the wide range of relevant web and mobile tools being developed for DIY musicians. I can now see from the reports that such investigations were not part of their work and I find this lack of interest rather disappointing.

However I was more disturbed by statements given to the press by the organizers.

They explained that during a presentation at the end of their trip they discussed their ideas about tipping. A local music organization representative said that they had been "trying to figure out how to do this without tourists." One of the UX for Good organizers said that this seemed to be a "politically charged topic."

Another stated:

"The people who want to support the New Orleans music community seem absolutely dedicated to being able to support themselves organically without relying on tourists coming into town. It's really interesting to watch. It's also completely silly and nonsensical."

I can understand their surprise and concern about musicians in New Orleans and/or the people that support them not wanting to focus on the tourist trade given its huge size and impact. During my one phone conversation with one of the organizers, I asked him to explain more about the concerns voiced in New Orleans.

I was extremely surprised to discover that he didn't seem to know any more about those concerns and that apparently they had not tried to find out more.

All researchers have attitudes about the people they research. However for someone claiming to do community research to not only disregard such a concern but to speak dismissively to the press suggests a lack of understanding of appropriate research conduct and an unwillingness to work with the community rather than to propose "solutions" from afar.

I found this exchange disappointing especially as it evokes a colonial research mentality that has little place in contemporary approaches to such work. In addition, if one doesn't understand the perspective of the people one is attempting to support, then one's recommendations are likely to go unheeded.

Nevertheless, I think UX for Good is doing some interesting work. I would suggest adding social science fieldworkers with an awareness of research ethics and experience with practical implementation of research if they actually want to make a difference in the world without simply imposing their views on a "silly and nonsensical" population.

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch) maintains a business writing hub at Flux Research and blogs at Crowdfunding For Musicians. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.