Contextual Inquiry


Before beginning our foray into the world of live audio in earnest, we took some time out to become somewhat acquainted with the equipment and vocabulary of sound engineers. We read a chapter from Live Sound Reinforcement, and the two of us with some audio experience served as translators for the other two team members.

Then we started networking. Finding a pool of potential participants for this part of our project’s process proved particularly problematic: our interview targets were people who work with sound in live theatre environments, be they sound designers or sound engineers. We got great response on the theatre-sound Google Group, and were contacted by two of the people working on the national tour of Phantom of the Opera that was in Detroit at the time, as well as a University of Michigan graduate who is now working as a sound engineer on Broadway. We also contacted, and were able to interview, sound engineering faculty at U of M, Michigan Tech, and University of North Carolina. It was also suggested to us that we talk to console designers, we opted to talk only to users, so as to not have our thinking “tainted” by current and historical ways of thinking.

After conducting each of several interviews in pairs, and even observing the mixer before and during a performance of Phantom, we met as a full group to generate affinity notes, individual thoughts, comments, or observations made by the interview subject. We found it very helpful to do this by collaboratively editing a text file while all in the same room (co-presence + CSCW).

Once we had our affinity notes — 638 in all — we created an affinity diagram. This 9-consecutive-hour process forced us to organize these notes into organically-derived categories that will help us frame our design requirements.

The high-level ideas that emerge from the affinity diagram have to do primarily with the specific environment of live musical theatre and specific interface requirements that current mixers feel they have.


After going through the contextual inquiry and affinity diagramming sessions, we made several interesting findings:

  • Three are several important usage contexts in musical theater in which mixing consoles are used:
    • Tech/Rehearsal Period
    • Performance Period
    • Cue-ing
    • …And important reliability and redundancy aspects of mixing consoles that underscore the above contexts
  • Interface design considerations
    • There are important reasons to limit console size
    • Controls that need to be accessed frequently should be close to the operator
    • Visual system status feedback is a key component of the interface of the mixing console.
    • Human Factors limit the console operator’s effectivenss
    • Console operators want an intuitive interface whose undelying concept are easily grasped
 Posted by at 5:43 pm