November 26, 2017

How to Reinvent the Electric Guitar via Design Research

Design Research inspired by Washington Post Coverage on Death of the Guitar Industry by Geoff Edgers, June 22 2017

Summary: The live music industry is a $40 Billion dollar market and recorded music is a $25 Billion dollar market, yet guitar sales are plummeting and guitar manufacturers are going out of business. If guitar companies are not selling guitars, it is not from lack of interest or vision, it is because these markets are changing faster than the manufacturers can adjust.  Design Research can generate an evidence based design strategy that is fast, flexible, and affordable to transform companies and drive new revenue streams. Design research drives corporate success with profits typically 220% ahead of competitors,  with 125% to 225% return on investment with 20% to 40% sales growth [1,2,3,4,5].  It can do all this and more for the guitar industry.

Improvisational Sitar, with drums, piano and violin added in production. Recorded on an iPhone and produced w/ Logic, in my living room in 2014, Pittsburgh PA

Most people know me as a designer and as a researcher.  Sure, I've used design to revive economies and shape the future role robotics in the world, but I am also a musician.  I have played the guitar and other stringed instruments for 25 years.  For the first 10 years of that journey, I was very serious. I have had multiple teachers (my favorite), taught multiple students, and studied a variety of styles from Yngwie-inspired 80s shred to finger plucked jazz and folk (a lot of Paul Simon).  I aggressively studied scales, modes, exotic chord constructions, and branched into Indian music theory in my early 20s, when I spent several months studying sitar in Varanassi.  Overall,  I can mostly anything on the guitar, but I don't talk about it or spend money on it, because it has nothing to do with the music I enjoy. I perceive the guitar as the instrument of my father's generation. As an instrument and as an industry, it is a constant point of frustration - primarily because I love it so much, that I expect more.

Several months ago I read a fantastic article on the death of the electric guitar.  I didn't realize that my boredom with the guitar reflects a broader trend. Guitar sales are dropping by 500,000 units a year.  Guitar companies are going bankrupt.  Baby boomers are shrinking in population and millennials don't care about the instrument (yep, my brother even makes fun of me for it).  Various theories abound on the cause of this - such as the lack of "guitar heroes" today. Guitar companies keep rolling out novel innovations or new product lines but haven't been able to succeed against the trend. I have my own personal bias, but as a design strategist, I wanted to probe deeper. I wanted to uncover problems and options.

So just for fun, I did some preliminary design research. I'm not going to provide all the insights or solutions here. Understanding the problem is not equal to understanding the solution. To understand the solution demands an additional layer of design research and exploratory prototyping. Yet from my cursory probing, below are some clear findings on the problem - it is not a hard one - and the most obvious opportunities.  Gibson and Fender are common examples in this blog because they are big and well known, but I looked at several companies and many shared similar problems. Ibanez, Yamaha, Schecter, Parker, and Peavey are not too different.

Kicking Off
I first reached out to some execs of various guitar companies to see if they were interested in getting some free insight from an established professional and the responses where hilarious.  My favorite response is below - this guy was a VP at Gibson. Obviously it does not take much to study corporate execution, the evidence is generated everyday by the outward choices in product design and deployment and marketing. Fnancial analysts do this all the time. Lesson one guys - please realize the industry is not a magical secret thing. If anything, deeply held beliefs like the one espoused mean you are becoming a prime target for disruption.

Situating People and Products
Every person approaches a problem with a deeply rooted perspective informed by previous experiences. If you work in digital marketing for 10 years and are asked by Fender to increase sales, most of your suggestions will be digital marketing solutions. If you are an architect, will will likewise have much to say about the design of the sales floor.   To understand these companies is to understand their teams. Notably I found no designers, no expertise in human centered design, and no expertise in user research. Sure, there were product strategists, but that is only sometimes aligned with expertise in methods and iterative execution.

I read deeply about what the various companies are doing, then used Linkedin to assess who they have hired, and where those teams are located. I made a spreadsheet of persons, expertise, and  I pulled up as much information as possible relations between persons, teams, and products on market. I assembled rough categories of product strategy for by location and expertise.  If and when there were gaps, I simply assigned unknown team members by location and then tracked the type of products to those locations. Within a few days, I could quickly see what kind of bias was informing new product lines.

For example, Gibson is trying to become an audio lifestyle brand similar to Beats. This idea is entirely rooted in situated expertise injected by outside individuals brought into the Gibson family.  Assumably these individuals held success in another aspect of the audio industry and this success was the basis to hire them. Yet success in another market is not necessarily the right metric to revive a brand. It merely informs the brand or pulls it into another direction. The new direction is possibly relevant but perhaps it is also arbitrary. The consequences of Gibson's action are reflected in the bizarre execution of their pro-audio offerings.

Gibson speakers do not fit the vision.
Pro-audio Example:  Maybe I'm on the market for some speakers. If I am going to spend a grand on speakers, then I must believe that these speakers are the solution between my current state as a musician and my ideal state as a musician.  Part of that ideal state is bound within the conditions of my music production - such as installation in a home studio, a reserved desk space, or a mobile backpack set up. I need speakers that not only sound good, but they solve my core problem (hearing music), and align to other goals (fit my home, lifestyle, etc). Also, what will I do with them? Cut a top 40 album or painstakingly craft youtube videos of my cat?

Gibson Solution: Expensive audio monitors with flamed maple facades (like Gibson guitars) that reference the heritage of the brand. Back-side supplies various EQ controls and ports for power and audio cables. Great design stationary use in a dedicated space. Although the maple finish is novel, it is also rather abrasive.  The speaker is entirely self referential. It is a beacon of great sound and a strong brand.

West Elm is Aspirational
A Design Approach: Notably, as a consumer, I don't start the journey with the speaker as the point of reference - I make the purchase with the user's life and life goals as the point of reference.  The speakers need to somehow bridge the user's current life and his vision of a future life.  They need to solve a problem beyond great sound because lots of products sound good. So as a design researcher, I'd first build personas of those whom will buy these speakers. I'd build a persona to capture what is that person like. What are her values? Where does he shop? What else does he buy? What technologies are part of that person's life? How do speakers fit in the ecosystem of the person?

If the goal is to sell speakers to Millennials who have excess money - what do those people want? Do they even want pro-audio monitors? What do they spend that money on today? We know that urbanization is on an upswing, as are sales with Amazon, Apple products, Whole Foods, craft beer and good coffee.  What are the design aesthetics for such persons...probably something more like West Elm than Furniture Fair. Do these people have dedicated studios in their homes? Probably not. Will they use the speakers for more than recording - like listening to albums or streaming music from their iPhones? Definitely.
A Classic UX Persona

So as a 30-something who can afford to drink good coffee and might even care about audio quality, why purchase a bright cherry-burst, high-gloss speaker with weird mismatched attributes (the white and black is jarring)? Where would it go in the house? With a massive burden of student loans, how do I justify the cost to a spouse? I surely can't build a sound proof room in the basement. These are going in the living room or bedroom and will be multi-use.

If I want my my living room to look like West Elm (because that is a future tense of my values in daily living), then where does this speaker from Gibson fit?  Nowhere.  Furthermore, each speaker (as a pro audio monitor) requires a power cord, and a big long cable to fuse with a central console -usually a mixer. Why would I want to clutter my house with a bunch of gear and cords? I'm a serious musician and I don't want any of that. I'd rather go without it - and do.  I usually play an acoustic guitar. Done.

Takeaway: The speaker line says more about the teams that pushed the product than accessing a new customer base. These speakers are a great way to represent Gibson - the team clearly understands Gibson - but Gibson is not the current or desired customer.  The current customers (baby boomers) might buy these speakers, but the market is flush with similar options, so competition is stiff and the product offers nothing new except an ugly finish. It will be hard to disrupt current sales patterns. If Gibson wants generations M and Z to get onboard, then its time they reconfigure their teams to absorb knowledge, not diffuse it.

Rapid User Feedback Review via Social Media
To rapidly understand how current guitar players perceive current guitar offerings, I dug into the comment sections of Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter.  This was simple. Go to the Gibson facebook page, spreadsheet the types of information generated by Gibson (such as showcasing a $17,000 custom instrument) and list user comments ("I would never spend that much money on a guitar").  With some basic webscraping via Python (Beautiful Soup), there is enough data to rapidly build a massive spreadsheet comparing company message to user response en masse. There are also comments on the Gibson website and various chat groups online. The data pool is massive.

Some Key Findings:

Cost/Benefit. Millennials want more minimal instruments with higher quality construction (Explains why Martin and PRS are doing doing okay).

They need to design for experience over time. Sustainable design is about far more than recycled materials, as guitar companies need to think about how these instruments age.   Stop resurrecting classics (reissue lines) and manufacture instruments right now that will become classics. If the pick guard is going to fall off, can it do so in a way that is appealing?  For example, what if a beautiful engraving was was revealed only as the pick guard wore away?  What if the paint wears off to reveal another mindful layer of contrasting paint, show that the age of the instrument is an earned value? Design for returns on value over time.

Service integration. If I buy a Lexus, I get free oil changes from the dealer. If I buy an Apple, I get 1 year of Apple Care to take care of all my problems with no questions asked. So why is it so hard to get my $3,000 dollar guitar fixed, adjusted, cleaned, or tuned?  If I buy a guitar, I should also have an agreement that they support my ownership of this instrument and make it easy. My guitar should be evidence of a relationship not a meaningless object.

Interaction Matters.  Look at the comments below. There are thousands of comments on each guitar companies facebook page. Yet most of these companies don't interact with people. When Asaf complains that his pickguard peeled off, why isn't Gibson stating "sorry man, lets send you another pickguard!" or at least "Asaf, we hear you, and hope you will be interested in our new 2018 line."

Sample Comments from Gibson Facebook Page. Lively dialogues w no engagement from company.

Company Website Analysis

Lack of Care for Digital Experiences
I looked at the websites of companies like Martin, Gibson, PRS, Fender etc.  Most of these website are terribly designed.  The Washington Post article about the death of the guitar was better designed than the guitar company sites. Yet this is the cheapest thing a company can do to elicit massive returns. Lack of digital presentation tells me that they barely care about getting new customers who perhaps do not want to sit in Guitar Center.  This is a huge missed opportunity because the best way to secure a sale is to ensure the transaction seamless. A guitar should be easy to find, easy to assess, and easy to buy. Three steps.  Several of these sites are also not configured for mobile.  Please, fellas, start using BootStrap so I can look at your stuff while riding the metro.

Lack of Concise Categories
Gibson had 84 guitars for its 2017 line.  Plus hardware and paint options. So they are manufacturing at least 150 different kinds of guitars in 2017, alongside pro audio speakers, cases, and more....Seriously?  I've been playing for 25 years and can name maybe 5 Gibson models. So really, there should be a maximum of maybe 18-20 instruments on market for 2017.  Maybe less... 10 is a good number. 10 Guitars (5 models, each with a high cost and a low cost version) with some customization options, meaning that production is a total of about 35 guitar models. Otherwise there is no way they can produce superior quality instruments on par with demand and not overshoot. The more they need to worry about warehousing and inventory the more they are just throwing money away. Also how is my guitar going to accrue value overtime if the market is saturated with every model possible? They could learn a thing or too from Zara.

Lack of Product Integration
Digital emulator amps are amazing. They don't sound as profoundly angelic as an all tube amp, but it by all other criteria it the best amp on the market. They can directly connect to a Mac for recording by USB.  They connect via bluetooth to listen to my music from a phone.  With 100 stock programs and full ability to tweak it all via a simple phone app - they have all the options needed. They even get software upgrades. Win.

So if Fender can make an amp like this (Mustang GT series) why hasn't Fender made their guitars accordingly? The amp has changed but the guitar has not. The amp and the guitar lines reflect different teams not a coherent vision for products. Fender clearly does not have a "Chief Design Officer" to unify the execution of verticals into a meaningful coherent vision.  So in the meanwhile, I still need a stupid guitar cord and my guitar is identical to something my grandfather bought in 1965. I use midi heavily, as do my music heroes, yet all the midi guitars on the market look like a child's toy. Lastly, thanks to new software solutions, there is less demand for my guitar to be made of expensive tone woods and weigh a thousand pounds.  My amp is lighter so why is my guitar  so heavy?  There is no symmetry.

First, there should be no more guitar cords. Also, guitars have knobs - this is great because, no touch screen is as good as a knob for manipulation - but right now all these knobs do is modify pickups. What if these knobs could do more? They could work as midi controllers, or could build custom relationships between pickups, piezos, and midi.  Better yet, what if the pickups could actually change the pickup as a source - shift it from sounding like a '57 LP to an 80s Dimarzio or a big fat SRV Texas-style single coil on the fly? That would be something... emulation guitars would be more powerful and interesting as the emulator amps.  They would offer a value symmetrical to the value of Ableton or Logic.

Notably, the solution to the guitar is not to simply "make it more high tech." Technology is not the answer (proven by Gibson's waste of $40 million dollars on automated tuning). Rather, the answer is found within mindful technology advancements to ensure the instruments are consistent with a robust vision for music production in the 21st century.  Either make the instrument raw and pure in wood and steel or make it fluid and elastic.

Lack of Product Service Systems
So I buy a guitar from a website... then what?  How do I get it set up, repaired, or modified?  Why do I need to rely on ad hoc service providers who have questionable degrees of recognition?  In the meanwhile, if I buy an item on Amazon, and there is a problem, I just print a label and take it to UPS. Done.

Bigger picture: If I buy a single Les Paul for 2,000 dollars, can't I just download and upgrade my Les Paul with new models over the years? Why not? After all, I buy a razor and pay a premium for razor blades to renew the value of my razor. I buy a laptop and extend its use via digital downloads of new operating systems. In the meanwhile my guitar is just a constant pain in the ass. It just sits there.  Simple wood and steel is sexy as hell... I love my Martin... but if I'm going beyond that, then I want something that can also evolve over the time of my musical journey.

Lack of Imagination
Dear Yamaha, I do not live in 1962, nor do my music heroes.
Tech companies are working hard on generating meaningful AR experiences. In the meanwhile, every guitar company is showing equipment that reflects bizarre remixes of the past.  Does any young musician alive today want to emulate rock guitar history? No. So please reconsider how your marketing connects with your product design. Better yet, stop marketing and be something pure and honest - show me a vision for the world to come and your role in it. Make me a believer.  Where is your AR version of Guitar Hero for real musicians?  I would love to rock out with Hendrix or Alice in Chains in my living room. What if I could swap beats for Jay-Z and we could perform  it live via AR?

Informal Sector Analysis
So how are people modifying their guitars today?  How are people solving the problems the big companies don't even see? What are they trying to accomplish.? This was by far the best part of the design research.  People are generating tons of different experiments and building products on Kickstarter with little money.  Youtube is full of DIY mods.
Now guitars are lighter, more durable (carbon graphite), and more flexible with deep midi integration.  Many additional accessories are to integrate phones and HD cameras.  The innovations matter less than the underlying use cases.

People clearly are using guitars as an interface into a computer and in relation to other media than sound.  I love the fact that my fender amp allows me to import amp/effect settings created by others - I only wish such an effect could be easily shared P2P with a friend (or bandmate perhaps) rather than an entire community. The current design reflects boardroom strategy not field research.

It is also clear from informal sector analysis that no one is going to buy the Cadellic of instruments or amps everyday.  Our music heroes are people who write music - I love Kanye's production - not guitar solos (snooze).  My instrument and any other stuff should help me write more compelling and forward thinking music. Software can help more than hardware because its cheaper, faster, and more adaptable.

Deep User Interviews for Validation
To validate the broad spectrum research, I also sought out guitarists and did deep interviews about what they play, how they play, and where they play. I found some people on the border between GenX and Millenial generations who are passionate about their guitars.  They all used to have big MesaBoogie Amps.  Now they also have small emulators. Some have bands. Everyone has Ableton.  One guy just had an emulator foot controller - no speakers at all - and is an active musician who plays bars on the weekends. 

I found lots of musicians but no other hard focussed guitar players except a 12 year old in Pennsylvania with a love for the 90s metal band Pantera.  This kid fits the current guitar consumer profile, except he doesn't have any money and is a poor market target.  The guy with the foot pedal who plays bars recently dropped about 5k on equipment, including a new PRS guitar.  Obviously he is the better option. He also had a lot to say...  maybe its time the guitar companies start to listen.