Stephen P. Anderson, formerly Principal User Experience Architect for Sabre and currently Vice President of Design at Viewzi, will be speaking at MX San Francisco on how to get visionary ideas made into realities with George Lucas’ work on Star Wars as an example. Todd Wilkens had a conversation over e-mail about changing organizational culture, managing design teams, and doing things that have never been done before.
Todd Wilkens [TW]: Well, Stephen, even though your talk is all about visionary ideas, let’s get the ball rolling with a practical question: What got you so interested in how visionary ideas get pushed through an organization? Why and how has this been relevant to you? What made this an itch you needed to scratch?
Stephen Anderson [SA]: As a consultant, you see a lot of really great ideas that, for whatever reason, never get implemented. Or when they do, there is little resemblance between what actually gets produced and the original concepts. In 2006, I moved from the world of consulting to become a UX director at a large, enterprise company. Needless to say, it was a real eye-opener. I think I went in with a rather naive faith in the power of prototypes and ‘leading with an inspiring product vision’. While I still value this approach, I quickly learned that there is much more to pushing visionary ideas through an organization.
For starters, if you want to bring a great product/service experience to market, you have to first change the company culture. This is basic—and critical. So many other forces are at play inside large organizations—competition, politics, procedure, history. It’s about much more than creating business value. In fact, the biggest shock for me was discovering how internal business units compete with each other in ways that hurt the larger organization.
Whether it’s UI design or a better business model, I think it’s fair to say that most people drawn to Design or UX are fairly idealistic, and see things as they should be. So, finding like-minded individuals in similar, frustrating positions, was an easy task. We all love to commiserate. And we’re all facing basically the same problems. I began taking notes on things that are working—where individuals or groups have been able to successfully push through change. The funny thing is, these aren’t just business problems. These are human problems. And they exist wherever you have a large number of people and enough history to create a ‘system’. Hollywood, Wall Street, Education. In different contexts, we re-create the same types of human problems.
So, my interest in how visionary ideas get pushed through an organization started the same way everything begins, with frustration of course!
Aside from everything I just described, I’d add that a part of me has, for some time now, been interested in how good ideas succeed—regardless of context. There’s a point at which we all learn that success has very little to do with a good idea, hard work, or brilliant execution. Whether it’s a band that ‘makes it’ or a stodgy company putting out a truly innovate product—I’m curious about the patterns and lessons common to these different situations: “Why did ‘they’ succeed where others didn’t?” And now that I’m saying this, perhaps my motivation has something to do with fear. By understanding these universal patterns of success, maybe I’m trying to minimize the risk associated with launching a venture of my own, in whatever form that may take…
TW: With all of the many human endeavors that exhibit similar problems and possibly similar solutions, why film? And of all films, why Star Wars?
SA: I don’t know that it was ‘film’ as much as it was Star Wars (the original movie). And it was a bit of an accident, really.
During a presentation on ‘pleasurable interfaces’, someone asked me about how to get other, less visionary stakeholders, to understand and embrace some of the ideas I was describing. My short answer was prototyping. As quickly as possible, in whatever form you choose, translate your concept into something visual that people can ‘see’ or experience. Being a bit of a Star Wars nut, I recalled how George Lucas had promoted his script to the board at Fox studios. To share a bit of what was in his head, something far too visionary for the script to accurately convey, Lucas commissioned artist Ralph McQuarrie to create five concept paintings, each illustrating key scenes from his still formative story. Needless to say, these were a powerful and inspiring communication tool—and a great story to illustrate prototyping. And as it turned out, this off-the-cuff anecdote was, of course, what a friend of mine blogged about one week later. I think it was then, seeing this remark in writing, that I started thinking about other lessons that might be learned from the making of Star Wars.
From there I wrote down a couple more lessons, but basically shelved the idea until UX Week, when Ryan Freitas gave a 20-minute presentation discussing cooking and design. Let me just say, I love these kinds of connections! For more than a decade, I’ve been intrigued by individuals who can connect seemingly different fields. E.E. Cummings’ early experiments with synesthesia. Alton Brown bringing his background in TV/Film to create a new kind of cooking show. Kevin Cheng marrying his love of comics with user-centered design. Thematic and humanities-based curriculum that integrate English, History, Philosophy, the Arts and Science. These all fascinate me. Between Ryan’s presentation and Dan Saffer connecting Alfred Hitchcock with the iPhone animations, I decided it was time to dust off the Star Wars / design idea. In fact, I think it was during one of the sessions that I came up with nine of the 15 lessons.
So, I was already familiar with the history behind Star Wars. And I had all these ‘change agent’ ideas percolating at work. Combine the two, and it was relatively easy to identify a number of valuable lessons. I would add that had I not been experiencing some of the things I was experiencing professionally, it’s doubtful I would have clued in to some of the common challenges that also plagued George Lucas. It’s hard to imagine a world without the Star Wars films. Yet when you look at this as a simple case study for an entrepreneurial endeavor, it’s easy to see where so many ideas fail, and what had to happen to make his idea become reality.
So, to go back to your question, it wasn’t so much film as much a film I knew well. And for that matter, it could have just as easily been some other topic I’m familiar with (I’m still toying with an idea that connects business leadership styles with the different group dynamics of rock bands!).
TW: How have these lessons learned from George Lucas helped you as a UX director or manager? Where have they made a difference? Have they really helped you reduce risk?
SA: At the very least, I now have labels for the things I was already practicing, and I’ve identified a few new lessons I should have known all along! But more important, these lessons have helped me to understand things a bit better—what I’ve done right, where I’ve made mistakes, and how I might proceed a differently next time around.
I’ll give one example: George Lucas probably would never have received the backing he needed to make Star Wars had he not proven himself—at least commercially—with American Graffiti. He demonstrated his capability with a ‘commercial’ project, first. In the presentation I state we should “gain credibility with a smaller project.” This is a fast and obvious lesson, but as UX people—especially UX people with visionary ideas—we are guilty of trying to shoot for the moon. I know I was guilty of this. We may have a brilliant idea. And we may intend well. But that’s not enough. Other stakeholders have to believe in us and our abilities before they’ll buy into an idea—even a great idea. And the best way to earn that trust is by proving ourselves on smaller, more conventional projects (even it does seem like a waste of time!).
The most exciting part of this whole presentation is seeing how other managers and directors (and entrepreneurs) respond. Usually, there are one or two lessons that really resonate with people—and they’re not the same lessons for everyone. I’ve had people come up to me afterwards and comment on how ‘such-and-such’ a lesson helped them recognize what’s wrong with their startup idea or the UX manager who recognized a blind spot in their interactions with executives. That kind of inspiration has been extremely exciting for me.
As far are ‘reduced risk’ goes, ask me after my next venture!
TW: Lucas’ story is really about his challenges working within the film industry. While film is a business it is an inherently creative/artistic one. By and large, most UX teams are working within one or a very small number of organizations, many of which aren’t so creative. What makes the story of Star Wars relevant in those contexts?
SA: It depends on what kind of UX group you’re trying to lead. One that’s content to make incremental changes or one that’s a bit more visionary? Lucas could have dropped his crazy idea for a ‘space fantasy’. There were good business reasons not to make this film: Special effects movies were a money pit and sci-fi films never made much at the box office (‘2001’ being a notable exception). Making another ‘Graffiti’ or some similarly commercial film would have probably been a relief to Fox Studios, who had already engaged with him for his next film. And this path would have been a lot less stressful for Lucas. But he had a story in his head that he wanted to see through to completion. And this is where the lessons I discuss are universal—for those folks disrupting the film industry as well as for those of us trying to be change agents within our company. You’re trying to do something that has never been done before. How do you share your vision? What kind of team is needed? What kind of outside support will you need? How can you earn the trust of your investors? What human qualities can you tap into? How do you leverage what’s come before you? What is required of a leader? Who can you turn to for support? These are all challenges facing any project that is at all visionary. And these kinds of questions are what led me down this path, trying to understand why some projects make it, where others don’t. Coming up with new, ‘creative’ ideas is one thing. Turning those ideas into experiences that actually make it to the marketplace—that’s the challenge.
As far as the similarities and differences go, if you step back from the content of these two disciplines, film and UX Design, I would argue they are a lot more alike than they are different. Sure, the craft is going to be very different. And there are the obvious differences between art and design. But, if the artistic endeavor is one involving hundreds of people, then how your idea becomes reality—those patterns are universal. I would caution UX Managers on one thing: While both of these fields involve things like actors, a setting or context, narrative sequences, rhythm, and other similar elements, a movie is a controlled thing that people respond to, whereas an application or Web site is much more of an environment where interactions take place. This is an important distinction.
I would question the idea that film is necessarily all that more creative than user experience design. If UX is pushing pixels around on a page or making a button bigger because of a focus group—sure, I agree. But user experience is about so much more than taking orders—or it should be if we are to be at all strategic. We are uniquely trained to represent the needs and desires of our customers, in a way that other groups cannot. Marketing demographics and functional specs cannot tell me if our customers are going to be delighted by the design decisions we are making. This is where I like to quote Peter Drucker, who said there is “no business without a customer.” In this sense, we have one of the most valuable jobs inside our organization: We represent the customer.
If you’re in a UX group that is thinking like this, and acting on the insights you’re gathering, you’ll end up in situations that will challenge other groups to rethink ‘business as usual’. In these cases, you’ll need some very creative thinking to understand and respond to the business and technology concerns that will come back at you. I’ll go a bit farther out and say it’s much more than simply understanding how a company makes money. We have to understand the very complex business ecosystem that underpins all of our customer-focused efforts. This includes understanding the various (often conflicting) interests of the business, customers, shareholders, suppliers, partners, competitors, co-opetition, legal restrictions, policies, procedure, infrastructure and the dozens of other forces that affect design. The ability to synthesize all this information is certainly a creative endeavor.
TW: To be clear, my point was less about creativity and more about the differences between the film industry and the UX industry, if there is such a thing. And I think you illustrate those well, especially your point about interactivity. But it’s also clear that the similarities between the two make the film industry a good place to learn lessons. Thanks for talking with me. I can’t wait to hear your talk at MX! Speaking of which, what should people expect from the session?
SA: For starters, people can expect to have a good time! The original Star Wars presentation was a bit of a personal adventure. With it, I wanted to do two things: (1) Discover just how many similarities there were between the making of my favorite film and trying to lead a strategic UX team (2) Present those findings in a way that was fun and engaging. As the presentation took shape, it became this very exciting thing—‘you have an idea, here’s some ideas around how to make it reality’. And it’s something that has inspired a number of people. I hope that everyone at MX walks away renewed and inspired about their role as UX Managers, and along the way, picks up an idea or two that really resonates with what’s going on in their work environment.