When writing music, ambient music composer Brian Eno makes music that’s pleasurable to listen to by switching between “maker” mode and “listener” mode. He says:
I just start something simple [in the studio]—like a couple of tones that overlay each other—and then I come back in here and do emails or write or whatever I have to do. So as I’m listening, I’ll think, It would be nice if I had more harmonics in there. So I take a few minutes to go and fix that up, and I leave it playing. Sometimes that’s all that happens, and I do my emails and then go home. But other times, it starts to sound like a piece of music. So then I start working on it.
I always try to keep this balance with ambient pieces between making them and listening to them. If you’re only in maker mode all the time, you put too much in. […] As a maker, you tend to do too much, because you’re there with all the tools and you keep putting things in. As a listener, you’re happy with quite a lot less.
In other words, Eno makes great music by experiencing it the way his listeners do: by listening to it.
This is also a great lesson for product development teams: to make a great product, regularly use your product.
By switching between “maker” and “listener” modes, you put yourself in your user’s shoes and seeing your work through their eyes, which helps prevent you from “put[ting] too much in.”
This isn’t a replacement for user testing, of course. We are not our users. But in my experience, it’s all too common for product development teams to rarely, if ever, use what they’re building. No shade – I’ve been there. We get caught on the treadmill of building new features, always moving on to the next without stopping to catch our breath and use what we’ve built. This is how products devolve into an incomprehensible pile of features.
Eno’s process is an important reminder to keep your focus on the user by regularly switching between “maker” mode and “listener” mode.