User Testing, Play Testing, and Composing Music

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My friends who mastermind the arts salon/dinner party series With Interesting People were kind enough to let me run an experiment on their guests last night. (Btw, the photo is of dates stuffed with goat cheese and almonds, alongside some mango & persimmon, all drizzled with honey. The chef, Phil Lacey, is pretty darn good.)

I tested out a new piece for acting cello with several participating audience members, called Imaginary Gardens, Real Toads. The audience members have to read some text very quickly in a stage whisper; they’ve also got to stop and start a few times, and change dynamics a few times. It’s important to the piece itself that the people reading are audience members, not performers, and that there’s a conversation about the piece, and how it works, as part of the performance.

But I didn’t know that it would work. And I certainly didn’t know how it would work. So I did something I’ve been doing more and more of in recent years: I borrowed some skills from product management and applied them to my composing. Specifically, I did some user research. I gave some of the attendees an interactive experience to test, I got some good descriptions of their experiences, particularly their pain points, and I got some great ideas for the next iteration of the piece.

Users are great.

There isn’t really a rule book for this kind of testing in music. There’s the development process, usually used for theater, but that isn’t traditionally driven by user needs in the same way. It was kind of like the playtesting experience for a game, with a group’s live interaction and discussion. It was kind of like any reading of a composition, honestly, in that we went through from the beginning to the end and talked about what worked.

Software testing is about meeting clearly specified user needs. Most artistic development is about getting more grist for the mill inside the artist’s head. I’m trying to live somewhere in between those two things.

I don’t know quite what the next stage for Imaginary Gardens, Real Toads will be, but after last night I know that the audience interaction piece definitely can work, and that it will involve a more structured script for the process of selecting volunteers and explaining what they’re doing up there, a series of cue cards (probably), and a quick game of telephone for the one special effect the audience needs to perform.

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