Your audience listens to you…do you listen to them?

Spaghetti forks, grocery carts, and the classical music experience that is falling behind

Zach Manzi
6 min readFeb 24, 2018
Photo by Yvette de Wit

twirling spaghetti is hard

It’s always sliding off my fork. This must be solved, so here’s my idea––I am going to build a fork that will drastically improve the experience of twirling spaghetti. It has a front attachment that clamps down after you twirl by pressing a lever with your thumb. Amazing. I’m going to bring this to every Italian restaurant in America and make $1 million.

hands are always the answer

My friend, at the same time but without me knowing, decides to tackle the same issue. However, she doesn’t know for sure that many people have the same spaghetti-twirling problem she does. So she goes to her favorite Italian restaurant and talks to the chefs. My friend discovers that about half of the customers who order spaghetti request spoons to aid in twirling. The restaurant owner agrees to ask some regular spoon-users to talk to my friend, just to help her get more insight into their twirling experience. The restaurant connects her to five people, and three agree to talk with her. She reaches out to five more Italian restaurants in the area and ends up with a total of twelve spoon-users who agree to talk. My friend meets with every person individually, discussing and observing the twirling of spaghetti, taking careful notes, and recording each session on video.

She goes home and grabs two colleagues, who help her comb through the conversations and define the problem: among the twelve spoon-users, ten find the combination of two utensils to be effective but inefficient in the spaghetti-twirling experience. My friend thus develops the question: “How might we make the spaghetti-twirling experience effective and efficient?” She and her team come up with all sorts of ideas based on what needs they find in the interviews. After a while, they converge with their most promising ideas and build a few prototypes. My friend goes back to the spoon-users, lets them try the prototypes, and gets feedback. She then reworks the prototypes and goes back to the spoon-users. After a few times going through this cycle, my friend has created a product that she feels confident will be of use to the people she interviewed. Here it is:

this isn’t actually my friend’s because this is just an anecdote I’m making up, but this fork is pretty cool

Which product is going to be more successful, mine or hers? At this point we don’t know, but my friend is positioned much better than I am because she started by talking to real people with a shared need. She found an audience for her idea and stepped into their shoes, using empathy to build a product that was truly intended for them.

Since I didn’t talk to anybody, I made several assumptions about an audience for my product: (1) there are people other than me who share my spaghetti-twirling problem, (2) they need a product that solves this issue, (3) a clamp is the best device to keep things together, and (4) the solution here is to attach a clamp to a fork! Beyond this fork sounding 100% barbaric, I am misled from the beginning by assuming that many other people need what I need, rather than empathizing with people to discover what they really value.

empathy in practice

shopping cart 2.0

IDEO, a global design and innovation firm, uses an approach called human-centered design to create products, services, and experiences. They are famous for coming up with divergent ideas, and in 1999 embarked on a 5-day design marathon called a Deep Dive during which their team redesigned the grocery store shopping cart. Check out the hilariously late-90s ABC Nightline story that covers it—only takes 8 minutes of your life and is worth every piece of jumbo-sized clothing. IDEO designed the grocery cart above out of real human needs, not their own theories, by rooting their process in customer empathy.

returns for design-driven companies (red) over S&P 500 (black)

By using empathetic approaches like those developed at IDEO, innovative companies have discovered exponential success in designing for customer (audience) needs. Publicly traded companies like Apple and Nike that use this approach have shown stock market advantages of more than 200% over the S&P 500 every year since 2013. This is shown above by the Design Value Index (DVI), which tracks 16 companies using practices similar to those of IDEO throughout their entire organization.

Whether the end goal be profit or changing lives through music, customer-/audience-centric organizations are building products and experiences that people love.

falling behind

It’s no secret that attendance at live classical music concerts is on the decline (see page 12 of this National Endowment for the Arts report). These numbers are frightening for people who love classical music because we cannot imagine a world where it’s not shared at live performances. But this decline will continue if we get wrapped up in our own theories about what’s going on. Only our audiences, current and potential, have the insights we need to create something they value.

As performers, what’s our product? Music of the highest quality. Yes, that’s certainly part of it, but not all. Also, live performing organizations are no longer the only ones providing this product. Streaming services like Spotify and YouTube provide incredible music played by the greatest artists who ever lived at superior audio quality, not to mention services like the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall and Met Opera on Demand. As these services are much cheaper and more convenient that going to concerts regularly, many audiences may see them as equivalent or even preferable to hearing music in a concert hall.

If we’re going to transcend the streaming revolution, we should not underestimate the value of our unique asset — the live experience. Live performances are special because the exchange of energy and thrill and inspiration between performers and audience can form one of the most dynamic human connections. Spotify, as much as we love it, can’t do that. If we design innovative experiences that are intended for the specific groups of human beings we want to show up and make that connection with us, the possibilities for creating value are boundless. We just need to talk to them.

innovation does not mean destruction

this is not the innovation panda, just an angry panda

Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean scrapping everything you have and creating something entirely new, outlandish and expensive. It also doesn’t mean sacrificing artistic integrity (in fact, it can serve integrity). It can mean talking to current audiences and discovering opportunities for making micro-improvements in your current audience experience—for example, the way your staff interacts upon audiences entering your space or the number of emails you send to your young segments or the tone of your program notes or opportunities for active audience members to interact with one another—that will surprise and delight them…and keep them coming back. Sure, it can also mean bigger changes — completely new but more effective performance formats or revamping your brand or better empowering musicians through organizational restructuring. Your audience holds the insights that lead to the solutions you seek.

talk it out

just talk about it

By simply talking to the people for whom these experiences are being created, we may begin to understand how to turn those attendance numbers around. However, unless we use the understanding we gain through audience empathy to drive creation and innovation, it’s wasted energy. If you or your organization is already audience-centric, please share everything you’re doing with the world. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel…just to build one that keep us moving forward.


Zach Manzi uses human-centered design to create performance experiences. Current projects include partnering with LGBTQ organizations in South FL to create a musical experience that celebrates the diversity of the transgender community. He also made a prototype of the clamp-fork for his fourth grade science fair…and did not win. Check out Zach’s website here.