The Sony Walkman is now 30 years old. My friend Jason tipped me off to this story from the BBC about a boy who was asked to trade in his iPod in exchange for a Walkman for a week and record his observations. "My dad had told me it was the iPod of its day." says 13-year-old Scott Campbell. "He had told me it was big, but I hadn't realized he meant THAT big. It was the size of a small book." Indeed it is hard to imagine that portable music once meant a collection of cassettes and a "portable" device that wouldn't fit in the largest of pockets. Since the age of the Walkman, most of that which was once mechanical has now become digital, and comes in almost any size you want.
A child of the digital age, poor Scott had a hard time understanding how the product works. As he's unfamiliar with the concept of a cassette tape, he had no way of knowing that the plastic block had two sides of data, nor that he'd need to remove the cassette from the player and flip it over to listen to side two. And understandably, he thought the switch between normal and metal (for tapes) would change the sound balance depending on musical genre. He instantly misses digital features like the ability shuffle a random playlist of songs, and is disappointed to learn that his attempts to recreate the functionality manually--by pressing down on fast-forward for random lengths of time--would wear down the tape and result in a warbled, if not mangled cassette. Score one for digital over mechanical parts.
He does enjoy the more tactile feel of the mechanical buttons, noting that when pushed, the large play button "engages with a satisfying clunk, unlike the finger tip tap for the iPod."
The experiment left him relieved that most of the technological advancement in music happened before his time, difficult to imagine that a Walkman was ever state of the art. Although, "you can almost imagine the excitement about the Walkman coming out," he says, " as it was the newest piece of technology at the time." Reflecting on the downside of digital choice, he remarks, "perhaps that kind of anticipation and excitement has been somewhat lost in the flood of new products which now hit our shelves on a regular basis."
This story obviously highlights how far we've come since the "grandfather of the MP3 player" hit the shelves in 1979. But it also speaks to several other issues that interaction designers often think about when designing digital product. Ho do we give a tangible feeling a product that's (mostly) digital? What is our satisfying clunk? What do users need to know about the media to understand how our products work? What level knowledge is expected, and what affordances can we design to make it easier to learn how things work? When there are a zillion other products on the market, what makes ours special? What are the right features for the products we design, not because every product has them, but because our users need them?
It's great fun to look back on the advances of digital technology through the eyes of someone who never knew LPs. But wow, does it make me feel old.
Jennifer Bove is a founder and principal at Kicker Studio in San Francisco and on the faculty of the School of Visual Art's Interaction Design MFA department in New York. She travels, a lot.