How do you effectively facilitate creativity? How do you allow ideas to manifest with frictionless ease, when those ideas differ wildly from user to user? There are few things more personal than making music, yet the tools in which to do so must appeal universally, to all styles of music, budgets and skill levels.

These are just a few of the challenges facing the Native Instruments design team, manifesting in a recent announcement of nine new products. Among them, the new MASCHINE MIKRO, the most affordable entry-point into the legendary sound and world of MASCHINE. With a new simplified layout, OLED screen, Smart Strip and a renewed focus on workflow, the new MIKRO’s design came from a comprehensive overhaul in user research.

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Part of the team tasked with designing the latest iteration was Chris LaPietra – NI’s MASCHINE Product Owner of both MASCHINE and MASCHINE MIKRO. His job is to take a new product through all phases of product creation – from ideation and design, through engineering and mass production. For him, the challenge wasn’t just about offering a stripped-back version of the MASCHINE, but understanding what exactly MIKRO users loved about the workflow, layout and features through user groups, surveys and interviews and developing it for the next generation.

“On the previous models you could do a lot, but people didn’t actually use the deeper features because there were too many triple-finger actions,” LaPietra explained, adding that the MIKRO was now in line with MASCHINE in terms of direct access to the most-used features. “Where you’d go deep on the sound design and live performance with the MASCHINE, the MIKRO is more about making it fun to use for playing your beats.”

Understanding how users were making those beats and what made MASCHINE MIKRO fun was the key part of a long and thorough user testing process. “We did a whole bunch of testing. First I went quantitative – I wanted numbers. What do people like? What are they doing on this controller? What don’t they like? Before we start the first session I look at the features and functionalities that we know people are using.

“When I come into the first session that’s when we want qualitative research. For this project we invited 30 Maschine users into our office and we start to analyze them, find out their level, what kind of music they’re making and put them into our own persona groups we’ve created.”

Profiling users allowed LaPietra to cover all bases – beginners to advanced, hobbyist to professional, DAW users, standalone users, musicians, DJs and producers. “Once we had that, we gave them a budget. We wanted them to build their perfect controller of this size. But obviously you can’t have everything the Maschine has, it’s a different price point with different components and a different footprint.”

Instead, LaPietra set the users a task – to build their perfect controller with a budget slightly lower than they’d like, forcing the users to think hard about features they wanted and how much they were willing to spend. “This exercise alone is really powerful to get the user’s and potential users’ view on what’s really important to them.”

One of the biggest surprises for Chris and NI came from these tests. Where the MASCHINE might be a truly mouse-free experience, the fact that MIKRO users were content in using the laptop for certain functions freed the team up to focus on true playability and frictionless workflow for the features that mattered most to them.

“There are certain things you need the big screen real estate and the mouse for and you’re kind of OK in that workflow. So we found out ‘Where does that split happen? What do you need to stay focused on the hardware and what would you prefer to do on the laptop given the size constraints? We really focused on bringing the playability, expression and fun factor to the Mikro. When users are in the creative flow we wanna keep them in the flow.”

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That flow was also greatly enhanced by the removal of menu-diving and shift buttons, specifically for frequently used functions. “The most important user research I had for Maschine was to take some of the features that were highly used but weren’t ‘instant access’ – that was the Pad Mode. So of course, we brought this over to Mikro.”

By adding Pad Mode, Keyboard, Chords and Step buttons above the pads, users can quickly jump between each note input type, never losing their flow.  “Having all of those instantly accessible and having the touch strip on your left, this is the staple Maschine paradigm going forward.”

Of course not all user sessions are infallible – not all feedback is perfect. Sometimes you have to follow your intuition to truly innovate.  “The feedback wasn’t so great on the S-Series keyboard touch strips and in certain other scenarios, so the users weren’t feeling them. But just before that we had Maschine Jam come out with eight touch strips – I felt it was killer and innovative, so we went forward with it for Maschine. The user data would have concluded not to do that.”

The Smart Strip can be used to control MASCHINE’s Performance FX, modulation or even enter notes by ‘strumming’ from left to right. It allows your left hand to create expressive modulation while your dominant hand enters your beats and plays your melodies, another way in which MASCHINE MIKRO’s playability is greatly enhanced. “This is such an important aspect of what we do. It turned out to be one of the most-loved features on the Maschine and I’m so glad we made that push for innovation.”

Going onboard

Once the design of the new MIKRO had been finalised, the challenge remained: how to shorten the learning curve for new users to get comfortable with the MASCHINE ecosystem. While the world of MASCHINE is incredibly powerful, for users coming from DAWs and other software, the infrastructure can take some time to grasp. The solution came from Florian Hechinger – a UX designer and MASCHINE newcomer.

“It was the perfect project for me,” Hechinger explained. “I’d never touched any NI products or MASCHINE before I joined, so I was the target audience. There are so many products with nice tutorials and quick-start guides and ours was a little bit from the ’90s! We came up with a concept of having animated gifs and a website that takes you through the whole process of making a short loop. It was important that it was fast – the whole experience takes 30 minutes.”

The result is a new onboarding website that guides users through their first hours with MASCHINE, using a concept the team refer to as the ‘eight-bar loop of joy’. “This first loop is super important, and the way we guide the user through it includes everything they need to know. It was really important to keep it open – we don’t say things like ‘Now load this hip hop kit’, we just say ‘Load a kit’. What kit is up to you. We want to empower the user to use their own sound.”

The MASCHINE MIKRO team
The MASCHINE MIKRO team

Important too was the tone – in the age of RTFM, it’s not just beginners who might need a refresh. Keeping the platform casual and informal while focusing on practical progress meant even veteran producers benefited from the new site.

“We had people here for user tests with 20 years of experience and they said ‘Normally I don’t read manuals because I can figure it out on my own’. We just left them with the quick-start guide and they found things that inspired them after ten minutes. They got into the zone really quickly.”

MASCHINE MIKRO’s ethos is all about that zone – a portable, practical and powerful way to enter not only the world of MASCHINE, but the sound universe of KOMPLETE, the NKS platform and the new sample service Sounds.com. With users of all skill levels at the heart of its design, it puts playability and workflow first, taking powerful and professional features and condensing them into an innovative and intuitive interface. The new streamlined design offers musicians, DJs and producers everything they need for professional production, and if they outgrow the smaller form factor, the MIKRO makes their transition to the flagship MASCHINE seamless. Using the MIKRO as an entry point coupled with the new onboarding educational content, LaPietra predicts, “I really think this going to shorten the learning curve to days.”

Welcome to the new era of MASCHINE MIKRO.