Instrument Design


I recently watched a documentary on the making of a concert piano – Steinway L1037. This film presented thoughtful insights into how a Steinway concert grand piano is made – focusing on the people whose lives were defined by the piano: the people who made the piano, the people tuned the piano, and the people that played the piano. It wasn’t so much about the technical process, as much as it was the contribution that each craftsman made. One theme that was expressed time and time again throughout the film was the craftsmanship, pride, and feeling of accomplishment in making something great – each person doing their part, adding to the development and evolution of this beautiful piano.

The cadence of the film allowed for deep reflection and I found myself thinking about the process of making software – something that is also handmade and often involves many people, each one doing their part. I longed for a similar experience of making something great with others, something that could absorb contribution and embody meaning. I saw time and time again, each craftsman understanding their role in the process of turning wood and metal into a beautiful instrument, having a sense of pride in the instrument(s) they were making. In trying to apply the resonating principles found in this film, I’ve outline three ideas for designers and engineers that would increase quality and contribution to an equally impressive technical field, the making of software.

First: lets stop calling the labor of our hands – software. We don’t make software, we make instruments. People use the instruments that we build to accomplish work, leisure, and communication efforts. Using the term software to drive a conversation around needed qualities of a customer experience can’t be properly framed by using a term that is technology focused. Each instrument has a personality. It has tone. It has weight. It responds and resonates. It has a range and a voice. These design themes should be attributes of the software devices we build. I believe these instrument qualities exist in all software – whether or not they are intentionally designed. Using terminology and language that allows us to more easily account for them is key. Let’s stop making software and releasing updates, instead let’s make instruments and enhancements.

Second: our systems of making instruments needs to include space for a signature. Exposing one’s contribution in collaborative systems can strengthen commitment, quality, and a sense of fullfillment. I saw this time and time again in the film, where each craftsman would sign off on the piano’s manufacturing ledger as it left their station. As I saw this procedural step in the making of a piano, I wondered how software makers could sign off on their contribution? Could code building systems be designed in a way where checking in code offered a signature and that each signatured was a symbol of quality and finishing? Could the teams I work on come up with a “stamp” of quality and fulfillment as the projets left our station? More than just a signature, this artifact seemed to represent pride, and was a hallmark in the transformative statements from “I make pianos” to “I made that instrument”.

Third: I was amazed by the number of references in the film to each instrument having a personality. Some of these piano craftsman worked on and built 40 pianos a week – yet they all were slightly different. This absolutely amazed me. In my mind, each piano had the same number of keys and offered the same number of notes, cut from the same quality of wood and passed through the same stations of manufacturing… but it was very apparent that each one was different. The differences were felt and perceived by the craftsman making them, and sometimes even by the piano players that chose them. These differences were not measurable by ruler or scale, but were instead felt. This film often showed craftsman setting measurement tools aside to run their hands over the surface of piano parts, sensing and feeling differences. Most impressive was the vignette of a french pianist who was shown throughout the film trying to find a piano that was capable of expressing the richness and range of a piece he was to perform. He searched, tested, and played different instruments until he finally found the instrument that was capable of such range. It was a good reminder that people (users) are sensitive to response and ranges of expression – and that we value these qualities.

As a UX manager for Adobe, I’ve been trying to find ways to increase my team’s awareness of user experience principles, pushing our products past the software threshold to something more valuable and meaningful for customers. I think I’m going to make my team watch this film as part of our next “Day of Design”. I doing so, I hope we can become more sensitive to the qualities of software that can turn buttons and keyboards, into instruments of accomplishment – responsive tools that are appreciated for their quality and craftsmanship.

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  • Dan Wilson

    I fully agree Matt! I’ve always told people that I don’t build software, I create a (hopefully elegant) solution to a problem. It’s the creative process that I enjoy.

    If only we could each understand what we are doing. We need to create master pieces, not just write code.

    And it all starts with UX. It sets the tone of the “instrument” and provides the basis for the subsequent “craftsman” to build upon.