User 3.0: Notes on the STEM Player
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October 30th, 2021

I ran a seminar on Iteration and Playtesting this week in class at the Parsons School of Design. My aim was to showcase a product’s creation process as reactive to its technological context then run a playtest of that product using Sharp and Macklin’s framework for evaluating the design efficacy of games.

Specifically, I was interested in how users were able (or not) to achieve their goals of “Playing Music” using an iPod, the original portable music player released by Apple in 2001. I was curious to see if 20 years later the intended experience was still intelligible by a much younger audience. Most people in my class were 1 when the iPod was released.

In evaluating the playtest, we looked at actions, goals, challenges, information spaces, feedback, decision-making, player perceptions, contexts of play, takeaways, and emotions.

After the playtest, we incubated and brainstormed on potential improvements to the first iPod.

Student holding the iPod trying to change the date to 2021 using the Calendar feature
Student holding the iPod trying to change the date to 2021 using the Calendar feature

Following the playtest and iterative incubation session on the iPod, I presented the STEM player, a new audio player designed by YEEZY and KANO, to the class, with no introduction or instruction besides that the device was on and could play music. The STEM player is an interactive audio player that allows the user to remix the song they are playing. It comes loaded with Kanye’s latest album DONDA but any song can be uploaded to the device. The songs on the device are split by their stems: drums, bass, synth, vocals. Users can control each component as well as create loops and control pitch and speed. Finally, the player is also a recorder meaning the user can record and save their newly created remixed track.

Student holding the STEM trying to figure it out
Student holding the STEM trying to figure it out

Insights from the iPod playtest

Here are some of the insights the class adduced with regards to the iPod.

In terms of Actions, answering the question of whether they knew what they could and could not do, users, at first, found it difficult to understand the directions when using the wheel. However, it does not take long for the user to gain familiarity with the repetitive motions of the wheel. The main challenges they faced were in adding music using the iTunes software and using some of the Settings functionalities such as date- and time-changing.

Behind the iPod

The iPod was a device that attempted to correct the mistakes of its predecessors. The team behind its design, Steve Jobs, Sir Jonathan Ive, Jon Rubinstein, and Michael Dhuey, sought to create a “better MP3 player”. It was made possible by technological advancements in hard drives, as well as a will to create an accompanying music store to facilitate the music transfer process. Up until now, other flash players were mostly drag-and-drop and storage capacity for portable players was limited.

The competitive landscape was fragmented amongst many electronic companies.

The MPMan, released in 1998 by SaeHan, had a 32MB and a 64MB version
The MPMan, released in 1998 by SaeHan, had a 32MB and a 64MB version
The Rio PMP300, released in 1998, the first commercially successful portable audio media player, with 32MB of storage and a slot for additional memory
The Rio PMP300, released in 1998, the first commercially successful portable audio media player, with 32MB of storage and a slot for additional memory

This table from Wikipedia shows some of the specs of the different media players and a better overview of the market Apple was entering in.

Comparison of portable media players
Comparison of portable media players

Each media player had a set of features it inherited from previous media-playing technologies, such as cassette players and CD players. A player should allow users to “Play”, “Pause”, “Stop”, “Go to Next Track”, “Go to Previous Track”, “Raise Volume” and “Lower Volume”.

Although the goal was to create a device with the above features as well as improved memory and a computer interface for music transfer, the team at Apple sought to differentiate the product not only technically but also aesthetically. While the design of other media players borrowed from futuristic aesthetics with bright colors and advanced plastics, Apple’s design team borrowed from the past to create a product that was as beautiful as functional. Namely, they drew inspiration from Western European designs such as Dieter Rams’ work at Braun and the luxury home technology products of Bang & Olufsen.

The Braun T3 Transistor by Dieter Rams (1958) next to the iPod (2001)
The Braun T3 Transistor by Dieter Rams (1958) next to the iPod (2001)
The BeoCom 6000 by Bang & Olufsen, the inspiration for the wheel
The BeoCom 6000 by Bang & Olufsen, the inspiration for the wheel

The STEM player

After this long preamble presenting the iPod, I introduced the STEM Player. Here are some videos of the playtest.

First Impressions

Here are some of the tester’s first impressions following the experience:

  • In comparison to the iPod, they felt in much less familiar territory
  • The product has no language which makes comprehension more difficult (language-free)
  • It took about 4 minutes for the users to figure the basic features and commands of the STEM player
  • The sound was subpar
  • Users felt guided by the haptic feedback in the player
  • Its toy-like design made it more approachable than the iPod
  • Even after providing them with the user guide, the testers felt like the drawn instructions were insufficient to completely figure out the product
Users comparing the instructions for the iPod and the STEM player
Users comparing the instructions for the iPod and the STEM player

Design comparison

Near the end of the seminar, I invited the class to compare both products

  • Aesthetic
    • The iPod has a Western European aesthetic inherited from Braun and Bang & Olufsen. Its shape is geometric and the edges slightly rounded.
    • The STEM player veers towards natural design, both in terms of colour, the player is sand-coloured, and shape, it is shaped like a pebble. (We were having a harder time finding the inspirations here…)
  • Materials
    • iPod: Glass and aluminium
    • STEM: silicon
  • Design Associations (what words does the product bring to mind?)
    • iPod: House technology, fragile, luxury, style
    • STEM: Toy, bouncy, hard-to-break, soft, safe for children
  • Emotions (how does the product make you feel?)
    • iPod: Satisfied (it helps me achieve my goals in a straight-forward fashion with little fuss)
    • STEM: Curious (it puts me in a more exploratory mood, it feels ludic and open)

What do both of these objects say about their users?

The iPod user is a tech-savvy individual who utilizes the product’s simple design and UX to achieve their goal in a defined and concise manner. The iPod user is a consumer but a discerning one, one who buys into the Apple brand for its promise of beautiful albeit closed objects. They live in a set of boundaries that are hard to break. The tool does not really allow the user to break free from the product’s designed walls.

In 2017, I presented a talk at the University of Quebec in Montreal, where I spoke about fan-based shitposting groups and their artistic practices. Specifically, I presented a “Manifesto for Shitposting” that adduced the idea that the members of these groups were a new type of audience, they were no longer passive, their practice was heavily participatory.

I quote from the Manifesto for Shitposting (2017)

Nothing stands in the way of the consumer-become-creator
Nothing stands in the way of your hollowing out the peach's pit and turning it into an apple
We are no longer passive
We are the new creators
There are sequels to variations
and variations on these variations
Sequels to these sequels
We have created a franchise outside of the franchise
We have created a universe outside of the copyrighted universe
There is no author
the author is dead
there is no author
only participants
there is no author
only creators
only hollow words
only hollow images
waiting to be filled
with new meaning

the franchises of the future are our franchises

You may see where I’m going with this but these two products differ in how they conceive of their users. The STEM player represents a new paradigm for audio media players in that it treats its audience not as listeners but as producers. It allows them to create the strongest connection one can have with a piece of music, making it your own. I have no idea if the player is part of a larger corporate strategy or just marketing from Yeezy’s last album. However, I am very excited for this future of music that allows users to directly engage with music in an active manner.

Kanye, even after releasing the album, has already changed and tweaked many of the songs on DONDA. Now, so can you.

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