User Research – Product and Service Innovation: An interview with Gideon Bullock, Design Director at Songkick

User Research – Product and Service Innovation: An interview with Gideon Bullock, Design Director at Songkick
The aim of User Research – Product and Service Innovation series of interviews is to act as a source of inspiration and information about the role of user research. We have just started working on the series of interviews and if you would like to be interviewed please do not hesitate to contact Richard Linington.

Hi Gideon could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Songkick?
I started doing web design in the early 1990s with one of London’s first web agencies. When I graduated there was only one computer with internet access at our university, the web was grey pages with default blue links no styling options, this all framed in the first version of Netscape. In my first year post graduating I was designing websites for the likes of Barclays, Post Office and The Body Shop, everyone wanted a web presence – it was an exciting time. In the late 1990s I went on to working at the BBC where I was a lead designer on the bbc.co.uk homepage design and a bunch of key properties such as Radio One. Around about this time the idea of user research and user centred design was starting to take shape, Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug was published in 2000 and methods and practices were starting to take shape.

Gideon Bullock

Post BBC I found myself at Skype – my first taste of start-ups and it was a really interesting time to join the company (pre-eBay acquisition). At that point the marketing director was Saul Klein who went on from Skype to become a partner in Index Ventures and founder of Seedcamp. Fortunately it was Saul who was one of the early investors in Songkick so when the co-founders Ian, Peter and Michelle were looking for someone to push the pixels he pointed them to me. I joined the business approximately five years ago.

What is Songkick?
We’re building products to bring bands and fans closer together. Fans can track their favourite artists and we’ll send them a concert alert when artists announce concerts in their area. We’ve seen pretty explosive growth on our web , mobile and Spotify apps. Songkick has listings for hundreds of thousands of upcoming concerts worldwide and over 3.4 million past concerts. We have about 8 million uniques a month which makes us the second most visited live music website after Ticketmaster.

Songkick 1
Image kindly supplied by Songkick

Songkick Mobile
Image kindly supplied by Songkick

Tell us a little bit about your design team
In the early days of Songkick both Michelle and I worked on the detailed interaction design, the broader user experience and product strategy. I picked up the web and mobile visual design. More recently we have grown the design team and hired some super talented UX and UI designers. There’s five of us – Aaron, Karim, Tracey, Matt and I.

We were fortunate to have a user research and UX specialist named Jo Packer work with us as a user research lead although she worked more broadly on interaction design and UX thinking. What Jo did for us, among many things, was ingrain within all of us user first thinking. All of our decisions are based around the customer rather than our own expectations and assumptions. She got us to a point where our Product Managers and design team are running our in-house usability tests and we have a good sense of when and how to approach more qualitative research.

Could you provide an overview of the design process you used to move from identifying and defining the opportunity through to the development and testing of the Songkick service?
I guess you could say we practice Lean UX and there are a few copies of Eric Ries’ book in the office. However, like any small team we’ve found a process that suits us, one that plays to our strengths as a team and is as frictionless as possible. We cycle between discovery mode and product delivery. The discovery phase will see us talking to both existing and potential new Songkick customers, we’ll balance this research with behavioural data and analytics. Then we take what we’ve learnt and go broad with our ideas and concepts, we build hypothesis and design experiments that will tell us quickly if we’re moving in the right direction. Validated experiments make their way in to the product delivery backlog, We define and measure the success of everything we design and build. Tracey our lead UX has introduced us to Milan Guenther’s adaptation of the Design Council’s double diamond which is a pretty good representation of how we work. Tom Chi’s presentation at Mind The Product last year was a big inspiration for us, he shared his experience working on Project Glass, and how he used rapid prototyping to iterate and test product ideas within mere hours.

What role does user research play in the design and development of the Songkick user experience?
Usability Lab
Image kindly supplied by Songkick

Jo and I built an in-house usability lab a couple of years ago by carving out a few meters of floor space in our server room as an observation space which now looks out in to one of our meeting rooms. We built a window in to the dividing wall and coated it with one way mirrored film, with a bunch of AV gear from Maplin installed we were good to go. We’re well practised at handling the recruitment ourselves using Twitter, tapping our user base or going to music related forums or even ads on Gumtree. The research we run is only as good as the people we find and invite to participate and we know our customers better than anyone so we tend not to use recruitment agencies.

We constantly talk to our customers, and get really rich feedback from our existing users and from search traffic hitting us for the first time using online behavioural insights tools like Qualaroo. With a technical architecture that provides instant deployment we’re able to have really good quantitative feedback within a short amount of time, depending on the kind of feature or idea we are testing. This is done using a combination of Google Analytics, Mixpanel and home cooked analytics. We try to keep a good balance between our qualitative and quantitative research.

Do you face any particular challenges when carrying out user research?
There are a couple of challenges that we’ve been working through more recently. We build experiments quickly by keeping our development overheads down in terms of time and complexity, working hard to deploy the minimal viable feature then tracking its impact. We’re less good at defining what the minimal viable experience and presentation for that feature should be and both of these things can have a huge impact on an experiments success or failure, Karim has been putting a lot of thought in to how we can better define our experiments.

Secondly we approach product design using qualitative user research and well instrumented UI’s which provide us with a lot of quantitive data. In the ideal world this should provide a good balance of what users are thinking and how they are behaving. That said we’ve become more aware recently of how easy it is to slip in to a data driven mode of operation rather than a data informed. Its a safe place to be when you’re micro optimising around data rather than stepping beyond that space and using your gut and instinct. Andrew Chen wrote a great post about this here.

Gideon, perhaps we could end on something about the next steps for Songkick?
We’re actively working on Songkick across mobile and web. We’re also building on our early successes with Detour which enables fans to help artists decide where to take their live performances by pledging in advance for concert tickets.

To find out more about Songkick please visit their website or you can follow Songkick on Twitter.

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