Van Halen's guitar and innovation with user-centered design

The iconic guitar sound that defined the 1980s was not a product of cutting edge technology, but user-centered design and experimentation

Earlier this year, Eddie Van Halen spoke about innovation at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The institution houses replicas of his famous DIY guitars among its collection, pivotal components to his unique playing style. Combining electronics and body parts from at least four other guitars, and rigging it all together with a rudimentary wiring scheme, a new sound was born that has influenced generations of guitarists afterward.  

It isn’t pretty, but it sure sounds sweet.

Designing for what’s most essential is fundamental to lean user-centered practice. With its drill holes, tape, unconventional electronics and a quarter lodged under the bridge to keep it level with the body, it is evident the only outcome required of this stripped-down design was simple and focused: killer sound.

Similar to the digital landscape today, popular music in the 1980s was defined by technological innovation. Synthesizers and samplers became more affordable and easier to use, offering musicians sonic dimensions beyond the traditional four-piece rock group. The availability of digital platforms today offers a multitude of applications in our daily lives, but with seemingly limitless possibility comes a lot of noise. Like a one-hit wonder, slick technology alone risks fading into obscurity.  Unique and informed design (bespoke, to coin a current buzzword) is key to cutting through the norm in innovative ways, and carries the potential for industry impact and long standing influence.

Experience designers are constantly tasked with developing distinguished design solutions among a well-tread and aggressive industry. Van Halen’s is an inspiring story of one who innovated and surpassed the giant footsteps made by legendary rockers before him.

Seeds of innovation
Most musicians past and present consider the 1959 Les Paul to be the "Holy Grail" — a perfect instrument — and rightly so. So why tinker 20 years after the summit has seemingly been reached? With his band and reputation on the rise, Van Halen surely had his pick of top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art equipment. But what some see as a plateau, the innovative mind sees as a door to further possibilities. The idea of "the adjacent possible" was cited in Steven Johnson’s essay for The Wall Street Journal, "The Genius of the Tinkerer." It is a term coined to describe the world of possibility that exists beyond what is understood of the present.

Johnson suggests that breakthrough innovation is often romanticized — that in reality, "ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we've inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape."

UCD like a rock star
Van Halen’s approach and eventual success with his homemade guitar can be charted as a perfect example of a User Centered Design approach. With some variation, the process is regularly illustrated as cycle containing three crucial stages: requirements gathering, design, then testing and measurement.

Research and requirements gathering
During the research phase, the designer collects a body of knowledge about the product goals; its context (intended audience); and any known constraints (anything from budgets to technical limitations to geography). By establishing these requirements we begin narrowing down the field of possibilities, creating a target for the tinkering. What follows is that vague and vastly understated step labeled simply "design."

In this stage, the expert maker wields her knowledge and experience of available possibilities, weighs against the research and requirements, and begins to piece together a new creation. The aim is to produce what is referred to in lean methodology as a "minimum viable product;" a simple model of your intended product, functional enough to be tested. The knowledge gained from your model will set the stage for future iterations.

Testing and measurement
A prototype is an invaluable tool for capturing feedback about your design. In your hands, it can be validated against the requirements and research. In the hands of your intended audience, it can reveal information previously unknowable (until you built your nifty model) and shape the next version of your design. Until it is production perfect, the UCD cycle continues.

Making your monsters (in a good way)

Van Halen found that an off-the-rack solution did not meet his needs, so he turned to the workbench. Focused on his own specific use requirements, and drawing on his knowledge of available possibilities, he built an instrument that no one had heard before.

Guitar manufacturers have since packaged the key features of Eddie’s prototype instrument into much neater "off the rack" models, but the legacy of the original remains as influential as ever. Countless guitar enthusiasts have been inspired to build their own "Frankenstein" creations, often when a top-of-the-line instrument does not meet their needs (sound, style) or constraints (budget). As you can see in this amazing video, Jack White demonstrates building a minimal viable product. Who says you need to buy a guitar?

Designers in any medium should always endeavor to challenge the standard remedy. Project by project, the approach remains the same: Plot your course, spend some time at the workbench, and evaluate — research, tinker, prototype, plug it in, and turn it up loud!

Gino Di Bianco is experience design lead with Isobar.

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