The latest evolution of TRAKTOR centers around NI’s unique Haptic Drive™; a motorized, torqued jogwheel that provides contextual, haptic feedback to the user. Vibratory feedback is transmitted through the top plate, allowing DJs to accurately feel cue and loop points, while adjustable torque feedback through the sides of the jogwheel allows for smooth, accurate control of the music.

Such bold leaps can’t be achieved in isolation. They require a deep knowledge of their users. Understanding the users’ needs is a challenge that James Crease and Benedikt Baur work toward on a daily basis. As part of NI’s Customer Insights Team, they’re responsible for researching, investigating, evaluating and defining the needs of TRAKTOR’s loyal user base, and working with the design and engineering teams to create the best possible product for all DJs, by asking such questions, as Crease puts in, “Where does the joy of the DJ come from? Where’s the real fun, the most engaging elements, the most important parts for people, so that they can just DJ and have a good time.”

Beginning in 2002, the then one-person Market Research Team was initially responsible for putting together surveys as a means of collecting and analyzing feedback from users. Today, the four people that make up the Customer Insights Team (as it’s now known) utilize numerous methods and approaches to understand NI’s customers. Working with traditional market research, UX and usability testing, as well as analytics and behavioral studies, they act as internal consultants for the TRAKTOR development teams, helping them to facilitate their research and condense their own results from complex webs of data into meaningful conclusions to steer the direction of future innovations. Their ability to combine classical qualitative methods of analyzing interviews, vast swaths of survey data, incubator sessions based around the concept of design thinking and face-to-face interactions with customers is, as Baur puts it, “their secret sauce,” and the key to their success.

Having been with NI since 2000, Friedemann Becker, product owner for TRAKTOR software, has been able to observe the difference that the Customer Insights Team and their research has made, noting that “the team give more neutrality and statistical relevance to what we need to do and what actually helps as many people as possible.” Crease, as Director of Customer Insights, is acutely aware of the role they play at every stage of the process and how their position within the company reflects its unique approach to product development: “Research teams in other companies will often sit in the marketing department and are far more concerned about optimizing the way they sell what they’ve already made. We work the other way round – optimizing the product to make sure it sells itself.”

The first TRAKTOR survey dates back to 2002, and since then the team have conducted at least 30 TRAKTOR-specific surveys with more than 450,000 users invited to give feedback. During the development of these latest products, the team really ramped things up, with over 15 TRAKTOR user research projects in the last two years alone – reaching out to more than 300 DJs at external sessions in Cologne, Leipzig and Atlanta, and inviting them to the NI offices in Berlin, LA and London. These feedback sessions don’t simply focus on NI products, but on those of its competitors, and also include discussions around DJ techniques, lifestyle and culture.

A real ambassador for user-centered design, Ingo Gansera, as part of the Customer Insights Team and lead product owner for all TRAKTOR products, has been better placed than most to see how user research has directly benefited the development of the S4. The design and function of the 32 LEDs that circle each jogwheel and the new, hi-resolution screens that sit underneath are the answers to questions that Ingo and his team asked their users. “What do people value? What information actually helps them when DJing?” The results were simply: provide exactly the visual feedback that DJs want, while cutting out distractions and potentially confusing information.

Indeed, as Baur mentions, “The information shown on the displays is 100% what we got back from the users – literally the five most important things that they wanted.” A further benefit of this research was that this essential information could fit into a smaller display than had been used on the previous iteration of the S4. This meant that larger jogwheels without increasing the hardware’s size – something research also showed people were very happy about.

To facilitate what the team call “face-to-face co-development research,” they began by informing participants of user feedback opportunities through NI’s social media channels. Baur is keen to stress how important the response of every individual is. “The variety of people here is really huge, from wedding DJs to touring pros, and we need to cater to all of them.”

Face-to-face research often involves inviting people into the offices to provide feedback on anything from new versions of products to polystyrene mockups and sketches. Sometimes they don’t show anything new at all, choosing to simply observe how users work with existing products. Through user-focused research sessions, the team noticed that people desire a physical connection to the music they’re making or playing. It was insights like these that confirmed to the teams the Haptic Drive™ technology they’d been developing would be welcomed by users.”Touchscreens have their role, but when you want to interact with a track or a piece of music, running your finger over something hard and lifeless isn’t great,” Crease notes. “When playing with your music and affecting the sound, things like tangibility and muscle memory are really important.”

In a world filled with flat, dead screens, the team understand the importance of bringing back the feeling (quite literally), to music. “The idea to develop the Haptic Drive™ was confirmed by early user research that said people want a haptic interface to interact with the music. They needed to touch the music and to feel it,” explains Baur. Haptics isn’t just a mechanical feedback you feel in your fingertips, but it’s also the turntable mode; the motor using algorithms; its adjustability in the Jog mode. The TRAKTOR teams began experimenting with a motorized jogwheel, but Gansera understood the importance of verifying with users whether it’s something they would actually want. The feedback from target users proved to be overwhelmingly positive – people loved it. But the team also learned that it might not be for everyone, and that different situations call for different approaches. The technology allowed for the inclusion of the Jog mode, a function that most closest resembles the classic feel from previous generation Traktor products and club standard gear – with a digital friction adjust never before seen on an all-in-one controller at this price point.

Speaking of club standards, the teams understood through their customer research that many people buy controllers such as the new S2 and S4 as a means to hone their mixing skills and get club ready on a smaller budget. The closer these controllers are to what you’ll encounter in a club environment, the easier it is for people to make the transition from the bedroom to the booth. This meant ditching the previously symmetrical design of TRAKTOR KONTROL hardware for an asymmetrical approach that closely mirrors the layouts of turntables and mixers found in clubs all over the world.

What’s clear from speaking to the teams is the simple truths that define their work and the future of TRAKTOR. As Crease states, “We built the cutting edge of DJing, and now we want to go back to basics and deliver the core things that people want, and make them as good as possible.”

“Then let’s see what possibilities there are,” says Baur, with a smile.

Find out more about the TRAKTOR KONTROL S4 here.