In 1959 jazz musician Ornette Coleman released the album “The Shape of Jazz to Come”, one of the first records to capture the innovations envisioned by the Free Jazz movement. The new approach – also called “New Thing” and spearheaded by musicians such as John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Eric Dolphy – represented the biggest disruptive force (and probably the last one) in the history of jazz.

The period between the end of the ’50 and the death of Coltrane in ’67 is probably one of the most exciting, prolific and profoundly visionary in the history of music. Most of Jazz fans out there wish they could have lived that transformation.

I believe today we are experiencing a similar revolution in the Technology space. Digital is at the verge of a transformation that will be as profound as Free Jazz was to traditional Jazz music. This new transformation is led by a new wave of connected technologies – Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, voice and gesture interfaces, and Mixed Realities, to name a few – that will re-define the way we design services, reach and engage with customers.

The difference is that this time we have the opportunity to be part of it.

Jazz and Tech have followed surprisingly similar evolutionary patterns

I’m sure I am not the first one to notice the similarities between the history of Jazz (a very systematic and yet creative art) and the history of Technology (likewise, very structured and logical but also creative).

Music historians agree that Jazz went through 4 transformative phases.

Bebop > Cool Jazz > Hard Bop > Free Jazz

In each phase a new approach emerged that discarded some of the conventional composition rules previously adopted.

Technology too has been through 4 transformations. If you look at it from a hardware perspective, Tech evolved from the mainframe to the current emerging paradigm, where everything is becoming smart and connected. Some call it Internet of Things (IoT).

Mainframe > Personal Computing > Mobile > IoT / Connected Intelligence

From a human-machine interaction perspective, these 4 phases also roughly correspond to 4 different user interface paradigms:

Command line > GUI > Touch > Zero UI / Spatial Computing

I’m not sure how historians will end up calling this new emerging technology paradigm. A quick search on Google Trends seems to suggest that “Internet of Things” is by far the most adopted term at the moment. So for simplicity’s sake I will use the term IoT to identify this new emerging set of connected technologies both in its hardware and interface components.



Should we look at Free Jazz to understand how to design services for the Internet of Things?

And now here is the crazy idea.

IoT and Free Jazz are both the final evolutionary stage of their respective spaces.

So should we look at Free Jazz to understand how we can design services for the IoT?

There are some fundamental similarities between IoT and Free Jazz that is worth considering:

  • The composer is not in control of the final output
  • The structure of the experience is intrinsically unpredictable
  • Without a predetermined structure, the experience is constantly open to redesign

1. The composer is not in control of the experience

We come from an era where services were designed by an organization in a generic way for mass consumption.

One of the key design problems in IoT is – How do you design for a fragmented system that you do not control?
In most consumer systems today (smart home, smart self, etc.), no one can own all the touch points and customer data and therefore impose a pre-defined customer journey. So how do you design for a multi-faced system that you cannot control?

Interestingly, in Free Jazz the final output is not pre-defined and controlled by the composer. On the contrary, the performers are the only ones in control of the music that is being played, since generally they do not follow any (standard) fixed notations.

In both IoT and Free Jazz there isn’t a single actor able to control the overall experience.

2. The structure of the experience is intrinsically unpredictable

If you cannot control the system, it is almost impossible to control the experience.

One of the key problems in designing for the IoT is that it is difficult to impose a predefined channel and user interface. Consumers use a stratified set of technologies and interfaces and they can switch dynamically from one to the other: telephone, messaging applications, email, web, company app, competitors’ apps, search engines, phone camera, social media, etc.
How do you design for an unpredictable experience?

One of the key ideas behind Free Jazz is to design music in a collaborative way, in the moment of play, without (many) predetermined structures.

From the book “Sync Or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age” by David Borgo, musician Ann Farber said:

“Our aim is to play together with the greatest possible freedom – which, far from meaning without constraint, actually means to play together with sufficient skill and communication to be able to select proper constraints in the course of the piece, rather than being dependent on precisely chosen ones”

Another interesting quote from the paper “Free Jazz in the Land of Algebraic Improvisation”:

The music results from a dynamic, complex game that changes its rules throughout the performance. The success of the game is determined by the identity that emerges from both coherence and conflict – the emergent “dynamical orderings” of the music that are both surprising and comprehensible. [..] Free jazz is by no means random or lacking rules, even if the evolution of an improvising act is a priori unpredictable due to its transforming constraints and rules.

3. Without a predetermined structure, the experience is constantly open to redesign

How do you design for a free liquid system?

In tech this usually refers to the idea of services that are:

  • Personalised to each individual
  • Contextually aware
  • Able to react in real time to changes in the environment or our patterns of behaviour
  • Able to constantly learn
  • Able to communicate with each other and coordinate the overall experience

Designers will need to focus not only on the part of the experience that they can control, but also on the overall customer expected outputs.

These features seem to challenge the existing ways we map and evaluate UX/customer journeys.