Designing UX in the pocket

Emilio Passi
4 min readJan 28, 2019
Photo by Matthijs Smit on Unsplash

You’re about to watch a live band. A crazy, huge, live band.

There’s a lead guitar player. There’s also a lead keyboard player, a few lead bassists, a couple lead drummers, a lead trumpeter, and a lead saxophonist. Each is playing their own song really fast and really loud.

There’s also a large rhythm section of drum, horn, keyboard, guitar, and bass players. Unable to hear themselves over all the lead players, they play it safe with a predictable pattern, striking the same chords over the same beats.

Now imagine the song this whole band is playing. Can you hear it?

No discernible melody. A monotonous pulse of chords occasionally breaking through. A few instruments droning indecisively in unison, dragging slightly behind one another.

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But as people who try to champion UX in large organizations — places with lots of personalities, agendas, and past experiences — we sometimes end up making this kind of noise ourselves.

There’s this amazing thing that happens in a jam session when all the parts of a song lock together. Everyone in the band is evaluating how the entire sound is forming, listening for the missing parts, then filling them in to build a coherent and spellbinding groove.

Some musicians call this playing in the pocket.

Designing a great user experience is like playing in the pocket. Like musical instruments, several touchpoints need to align in a satisfying way: marketing, retail spaces, packaging, physical products, digital products, events, customer service, communities. But our band is often spread throughout large campuses all over the world, and we usually measure our success only by the quality of our individual contribution. It’s harder for us to experience the real-time feedback a band gets on stage, and the visceral reaction to hearing something that sounds wrong.

Playing in the pocket is intuitive to seasoned players. But it’s first learned by being mindful of a few things that we in UX can bring to our own bands.

1. Know the song.

Every band member has a chart with the key, time signature, and chords. As long as everyone understands the tonal and rhythmic center of the tune, they can explore individual interpretations that still sound right.

For us, the song chart comes from models: an experience strategy, personas, a customer journey, guiding principles, and anything else that outlines the system we’re designing. In the rush to market, it’s tempting to skip these. But investing in a little research and even just a few of these models will help us aim toward the same goal.

2. Leave space for others.

A good band member doesn’t overplay their part. If they know there’ll be others contributing to the sound, they start with a simple layer that’s just enough to enhance what’s already there. This leaves a pocket for other bandmates to play in.

This is just like focusing the purpose of a touchpoint or feature. We could think of this as designing for a “minimum lovable product.” A properly researched customer journey will tell us what people need at a specific touchpoint — and what they don’t need. It might also suggest solutions that are better solved outside our team’s area of expertise.

3. Play in the gaps.

Someone who’s just sat in with the band doesn’t thoughtlessly play the exact same rhythm, harmony, or melody someone else is playing. They listen for the pocket left by their bandmates: the space where no one else is playing.

There are many ways we play in the gaps. As implementers of a product or service, it’s understanding the role we play in the customer journey and how the existing organization is already serving that journey. As hiring managers, it’s looking for teammates who bring unique experiences and new perspectives. As business leaders, it’s recognizing ways to meaningfully distinguish ourselves from competitors.

4. Listen to the music.

Most of all, a great band actively listens to the music it’s making and adjusts in real time. If things start to sound boring, a bandmate might make more space, and someone else might use that space to play something new. And if things start to sound wrong, a musician might hang back for a moment to check the chart or listen for their place in the tune.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s harder for large teams to respond to this kind of feedback in real time. But we can at least start by getting the feedback.

In UX, this comes down to testing, measuring, and refining. Products and services are prototyped and validated with input from real customers. Decisions are made efficiently and objectively, based on guiding principles and priorities — not the whims of a few virtuosos. Completion is measured consistently, against success criteria informed by customer goals, business goals, feasibility of implementation, or social impact.

In spite of a career we’ve dedicated to clarity, when someone asks us to explain “user experience,” we’ll give a dozen different answers. Curiously enough, so will musicians if you ask them what “playing in the pocket” means.

But somewhere beyond all the different points of view, everyone agrees it takes conscious collaboration to make things work. Egos and silos are painfully evident when the music is playing.

Like great music, great UX starts with a great band: your band. Understand what everyone else around you is doing. Figure out the part you’re going to play. And above all, know why you’re doing any of it in the first place.

Sound good?