10 Lessons The Blues Brothers Can Teach Us About UX

10 Lessons The Blues Brothers Can Teach Us About UX

The Blues Brothers
Summary:

Matt divines lessons for UX Designers from one of his favourite movies, The Blues Brothers.

What do two black-suit-and-sunglass-wearing, cigarette-smoking, morally compromised musicians have to do with user experience design? As it turns out, quite a lot …

Here at UX Mastery, we’re big fans of the 1980 musical comedy film, The Blues Brothers.

As a teenager, I must have watched the cult classic hundreds of times, completely oblivious to the on-set drugs and excess that contributed to enormous budget overruns incurred by Joliet Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd). As an adult, I also had the pleasure of attending a screening of the movie at the old Valhalla Cinema here in Melbourne, where audience members dressed up and participated in can-can dancing and other interactive interludes throughout the film.

Clearly, The Blues Brothers is one of my favourite movies. However, don’t let that fact taint what I’m about to present—that there are genuine lessons to be learned from the movie about user experience design. No, really …

Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues: The Blues Brothers
Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues: The Blues Brothers

1. Don’t take shortcuts.

No, no! I will not take your filthy, stolen money!

It can be tempting to make assumptions about your users. In fact, it’s common in my experience to see marketing personas shaped on just that—assumptions about how people use, find, or buy the product, rather than first-hand research. I know I’ve been guilty in the past of filling in details about my personas without doing the hard yards and asking questions that would reveal the truth. However, just as Sister Mary Stigmata refused Jake and Elwood’s ethically questionable proposed solution to raising funds, you too should reject data that rests on shaky foundations.

2. Epiphanies can arrive at unusual moments.

JAKE: The band… The band…
REV. BROWN: Do you see the light?!?

Jake and Elwood’s father figure, Curtis, suggested the boys would benefit from attending a sermon at the local church by Reverend Cleophus (played by the inimitable, late, James Brown). While Jake was reluctant to entertain this idea, ultimately it was this setting that provided him with the revelation that putting the band back together was how the Blues Brothers could raise the funds needed.

Jake and Elwood in church.
Jake and Elwood find inspiration from an unlikely messenger.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that you should rely upon divine inspiration for all of your ideas. However, it’s important to remember that the best ideas often visit us when we least expect it. Our brains are complex machines, always processing and percolating. To enable the creative process, it’s important to be patient, eat well, get regular exercise, take time out to read a book—all of that good stuff that you probably know but cast aside too often. My best ideas arrive while I’m in the shower or driving, but that only happens when I’m well-rested.

3. Find creative solutions to problems.

You want out of this parking lot? OK.

The Blues Brothers’ approach to problem solving was unconventional, but effective. When faced with being charged for driving under a suspended license, Elwood knew his only option was to lose the two police officer chasing him. Naturally, he chose to drive recklessly through a shopping centre, causing millions of dollars of damage and endangering the lives of shoppers.

Like I said, unconventional.

The Bluesmobile in a shopping mall
Elwood is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal.

Sometimes, unconventional methods are what’s needed. Cameron Rogers’ tips on how to solicit guerrilla user feedback without time and budget are a good example of this. As a UX Designer, it’s your duty to prevent software from being launched without any user input. Find a way.

4. Design with purpose.

Throughout the movie, Jake and Elwood were driven by one goal: to raise $5,000 to pay the tax bill owed by the orphanage they grew up in.

They’re not gonna catch us. We’re on a mission from God.

This goal shaped everything that they did—regardless of the risk to them (or others!). Sure, the hurdles they encountered were unrealistic and existed for pure comedic effect, but the essence of pursuing a greater goal is what shapes the film and its story arc, and rings true for user experience designers.

When we design with purpose, a project that matters to stakeholders and users starts to matter to us as well. As Whitney Hess writes in her epic post on the topic, the best way to find purpose in a project is to spend more time defining the problem. When you’re certain about what the problem is that you’re solving, you can be certain that it’s a problem that matters.

5. When you get knocked down, get back up again.

It’s almost 9:00. We’ve gotta go to work.

When Jake left his girlfriend (played by Carrie Fisher) standing at the altar, feeling embarrassed and betrayed, he didn’t count on the degree to which she was prepared to exact her revenge. Equipped with M-16s and flame throwers, this bitter bride-to-be is not going to let Jake get away without a fight.

Carrie Fisher holding an M-16 machine gun
Jake’s ex-girlfriend is just one of many hurdles the Blues Brothers face.

However, the brothers show incredible resolve. When Jake’s girlfriend uses a rocket launcher to level the apartment building in which the boys were staying, they could have realised that their situation was hopeless, and thrown in the towel. Instead, they picked themselves up, put on their hats and sunglasses, and continued with their mission.

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As a UX Designer, not everything is going to go your way. There will be user testing participants who don’t show up; stakeholders who block the work you’re doing, and technology hurdles that threaten to derail everything. But if you’re committed to your purpose and apply the process and techniques that you believe in, you’ll find the strength to continue.

7. Be prepared for collateral damage.

And we would especially like to welcome all the representatives of Illinois’s law enforcement community that have chosen to join us here in the Palace Hotel Ballroom at this time…

Sometimes, you just can’t please everyone. While Jake and Elwood’s approach was unnecessarily cavalier, there were characters they encountered along the way for whom there would be no pleasing, regardless of the circumstances.

Jake and Elwood look down the barrel of an army of assault rifles.
You may encounter some resistance along the way during a UX project…

The work we do as UX Designers often results in change: a change in approach to marketing, process change—even organisational change. Not everyone likes change, so there’s a good chance you’ll rub someone up the wrong way as a result of the work you do. While I’m not suggesting it’s worth going to jail or that you should go demolishing shopping centres, some people just won’t be pleased, no matter what.

That said …

6. Flattery will get you everywhere.

Oh, Please don’t kill us! Please, please, don’t kill us! You know I love you, baby. I wouldn’t leave you. It wasn’t my fault!

It’s usually just by pure luck that Jake is able to escape his former fiancee’s fiery assaults. However, in his final stand-off with this slighted assassin, it’s charm—not coincidence—that paves his way to freedom.

What’s the lesson here (other than Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned)? Well, it’s in your best interest to play nice. Doing good work isn’t enough. If you’re booking a meeting with important stakeholders who you haven’t met before, take cupcakes! If you’re encountering resistance, rather than digging your heels in, offer to take that individual out for coffee and try to understand what the motivations are that are influencing their position. Even if you agree to disagree, you’ll hopefully have earned some respect and understanding—and you never know when an ally is likely to come in handy.

8. Become great at communicating what you do.

You on the motorcycle… You two girls… tell your friends.

As a result of their performance at the Palace Hotel Ballroom, the Blues Brothers caught the attention of a record company executive, who gave them a cash advance on a recording contract. How did they manage to fill thousands of seats without any budget for marketing? They perfected their message (and they hustled).

Jake and Elwood wave to the Illinois police officers waiting for them.
Great communicators ensure that the message they send is well received.

Doing design is one thing, but communicating design is another entirely. There are multitude ways to present concepts, findings, decisions and recommendations, and doing so requires a whole different skill set. If you can become a better communicator, you’ll find less resistance to the ideas you’re communicating.

9. It is possible to do a lot with a little.

It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.

With a clapped out second-hand automobile, a megaphone, and almost no money, our unlikely heroes managed to legitimately raise the funds they needed to pay the orphanage tax bill, pay their debts to Ray’s Music Exchange, and remunerate their band members.

OK, so they incurred the wrath of just about everyone in the entire movie, but the lesson here is obvious: do more with less. If you’d ideally like to test your product with sixteen participants, but only have time to schedule three, go with it (and find a way to involve more users later). No budget for an interactive prototyping tool? Use paper prototypes instead, or go buy a tool using your own money (which you’ll be able to reuse on multiple projects in the future).

10. Design with soul.

The soundtrack to The Blues Brothers movie is one of my defining childhood memories. Sure, this is a comedy, but with superstars such as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and others, this is no cheesy musical. This is a movie that has soul.

Aretha Franklin at her best in The Blues Brothers
Jake and Elwood dance while Aretha Franklin lays down the law.

And what does it mean to design with soul? Here at UX Mastery, we believe to design with soul is to have empathy throughout the creative process: to understand the pain and frustration that your users feel, and channel it into your project; to find purpose in the project, and pursue it with vigour; and to craft experiences and interactions that have personality and are as human as possible.

Of course, we also believe that you should kick back and enjoy the fruits of your labour—possibly with an Elmore James record playing in the background, while enjoying a glass of whiskey.

Number forty-seven said to number three:
You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see.
I sure would be delighted with your company,
Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me.

John Lee Hooker in The Blues Brothers
John Lee Hooker: a boom, boom, boom, boom!
Matthew Magain
Written by
Matthew Magain
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