My first UX project. It was invisible and happened in '99.

I was lucky to be the first in my school to get a CD burner. It was the Plextor model with a caddy box where you would insert a blank CD and then push it inside the burner like it’s a 5.25 -inch floppy. I can’t remember the model name, however.

At the same time, mp3 format started showing in the wild, and you guess the rest of this story. Many of my friends asked me to burn some mp3s. You know, 650 MB - 150-ish songs, good deal. I never had that entrepreneur mindset (25 years later, it’s pretty much the same), so this story is not about burning eMuled songs and selling them; this story is about my first UX project.

Ok, so what was the problem to be solved? Everything sounds straightforward: get the songs, burn them as data, give a CD to a friend, the friend inserts the disc and listens to music. Sounds good.

But there were many obstacles. The first and most significant thing is that the Personal Computer was still the niche and unique thing in houses. There were many technical limitations to playing mp3s. Operating systems didn’t have decoders preinstalled, so that was the biggest one; CD reading speeds (1x/2x) were also the issue. Even a simple thing like having software to play mp3s (read Winamp) was tricky. Internet connection was an uber-rare thing, and getting an app like Winamp was an extra task.

So burning a disc was just a half job done because most of the time, friends would call me to go to their house and set up their machines to play those CDs.

I started including an extra folder with all the required software to make my friends’ lives easier (mine as well). Fraunhofer mp3 codec and Winamp were essentials. Also, I would include a text file with a couple of sentences on how to install them. This sounds good on paper, but this made things even more complex in real life. Sometimes, people already had codecs installed, so sideloading a different one would lead to crashes, muted sound, or, even worse, completely stopping their Windows 95 from booting. In the end, instead of setting up their machines to play some music, I would be the one to go to their homes and fix them.

Let's move on to the topic of UX design.

I stumbled upon autorun maker software from demo discs included with my favorite PC magazines. The autoruns were small programs that would automatically launch once you inserted a CD into your drive. You might remember them - when you inserted a game CD, for example, it would prompt you to install DirectX and then install the game. You could also access some extra promotional material and demo games from the same publisher.

I have spent much time designing the perfect one, with huge shiny buttons. The first button would say, install codec with an extra text, not do it if the codec is already present. The same was true for the Winamp installation.  PNGs and transparencies didn’t exist in this era, so having a round corner button would involve adding masks to achieve the rounded effect.  Once I had a perfectly designed autorun, I quickly realized that this is still the same thing as including a folder, and it doesn’t fix the problem; it just looks nicer.

The answer was to automate this process entirely. Since I had experience making MS-DOS Batch files, I made a .bat script that first inspects the machine to see if the codec is installed. If not, it would start the installation from the disc. After this operation, the same would go for Winamp; if it’s not present, it would be installed automatically. The last thing was automatically launching Winamp and importing an m3u playlist with all the songs from the disc. I removed all the buttons from the autorun and kept only the one that said - Play music.

This was the biggest test for me. I was looking at my design, and I knew it. I could kill it entirely and just run the script upon CD insertion. And that's what I’ve done; I removed it and avoided that extra step of clicking the nice-looking button. Instead, my friends would insert the disc, and without thinking about what’s happening in the background, they would be presented with Winamp and their freshly burned music playing.

I sacrificed my visual design in favor of simplicity and ease of use, and yep, I was pretty sad because of that (especially for young me overhyped to show my design skills). Still, at the same time, I got something much better: a bunch of comments that discs just work.

Back in the day, I didn’t have an idea that 20-ish years later, I would write about my adventure to simplify music listening for my school friends. But here I am, still doing pretty much the same thing today: offloading heavy and not-so-interesting stuff for users and presenting only what the user needs in a good-looking way.