Like a lot of people, I was absolutely stunned at the unexpected death of Prince. As a musician myself, the measure of respect I have for this man is completely off the chart. Talent like his is extraordinarily rare: it’s one thing to be able to play an instrument and sing. It’s quite another to be able to play nearly every instrument in existence, sing in a multitude of styles and ranges, compose and arrange complex, challenging music and absolutely nail both vision and execution when it comes to actual performance.

And how about doing each one of those things at a level of absolute excellence? There was absolutely nothing missing from Prince’s skill set, and it will be a very, very long time before we see an artist of his caliber again.

I was in London the day his death was announced, and I spent the remainder of the week listening to his massive body of work as I walked from the convention where I was speaking to my hotel, and to various parts of the city. Aside form the palpable sense of loss I felt, something else wouldn’t leave me alone:

Prince was an absolute master of user experience.

It’s not UX in the sense we usually imagine, but I could not stop thinking about the fact that he had all the qualities and attributes that I am constantly preaching about. And he had those things in spades, my friends. Prince delivered on so many levels that this tiny post doesn’t even scratch the surface. Of any of it.

I was hesitant to post this previously, because I worried it might be seen as capitalizing on someone’s death. But the longer I thought about it, I began to feel that this was a really a well-deserved tribute. The man was much more than a musician; he was a lifelong student of human emotion and experience, and he taught us all a great deal about both.

So without further adieu, here are 3 UX lessons from Prince that I hope you take to heart.

  1. Style gets attention—but substance keeps it. Prince’s look, his emphasis on the visual aspects of his appearance and performance, certainly got our attention. And he definitely understood the impact of a well-placed, eyebrow-raising lyric. But it was the music—the substance in his writing and composing and arranging and playing—that sealed the deal. Whatever genre he tackled, he did it at the level of a master musician of the highest order. His last tour, where he performed with only a piano and a microphone, left indisputable evidence of the substance underneath the visual.
  2. Strive for originality—but honor convention. Every song Prince has ever written is touched with bold innovation, but his work is founded on structures and motifs that are familiar, comfortable, moving and timeless. For example, as a guitar player, he was gifted with fierce technical ability. So he could play the complicated runs, but his focus was always on what those notes were saying, how they resonated. He knew that one note played just so had the ability to make your heart rise out of your chest (check out the solo in “Purple Rain”).
  3. Consistency counts—even when it’s consistently different. You don’t get to have a career this long unless your output is consistently intriguing, rewarding and reliable. Prince never rested, never settled for churning out carbon copies of his radio hits. While he understood that people had expectations of his music, he never stopped looking for ways to tweak the formula and go further. He strove to introduce different sounds, ideas and arrangements within those constraints. A touch of the familiar with a big serving of WOW.

All three of Prince’s UX lessons apply directly to product development, to the sites, apps and systems we all work on. While we’re always trying to ensure we meet people’s expectations, we’re also relentlessly seeking to delight and surprise them. Much like Prince, we’re looking to give them something they didn’t even know they needed — but are grateful to have once they get it.

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