How Steven Spielberg can make you a better UX designer

Steven Spielberg directing a film

How can Steven Spielberg, world renowned film director and bona-fide Hollywood royalty make you a better UX designer? It’s a very good question because at first glance there’s not a crossover between the world of cinema, and the world of UX. One has been around for over 100 years (that would be the film industry), the other barely 30. One has beautiful and glamorous film stars like Jennifer Lawrence, Johnny Depp and Keira Knightly. The over has Steve Krug, Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman. One enthrals and entertains, the other is more interested in making stuff useful, usable and satisfying. On the surface there appears to be little cross over between the two, but dig a little below the crust of these two worlds and you’ll be surprised at what you’ll find.

You see as a film director Mr Spielberg (and I’m paraphrasing Wikipedia here), “gives direction to the cast and crew and creates an overall vision through which a film eventually becomes realised”. Let’s look at this a little more closely because hopefully it might sound a little bit familiar.

A film director, let’s call her Mrs UX Designer has a vision for the film, called ‘The Product’. She (yes, you do get female film directors) also has a cast and crew that are helping her to make that vision a reality, along with a producer, let’s call him Mr Product Owner and executive producer, let’s call her Mrs Product Manager. The cast and crew, otherwise known as the Product Team all have their role to play in realising that vision. The cinematographer, let’s call him Mr Graphic Designer ensures that shots are beautiful looking. The costume designer… OK, this is where my analogy falls down but hopefully you see what I mean. You can draw a lot of parallels between the role of a film director, and a UX designer. So with this in mind, here are 8 lessons that you can learn from a certain Mr Spielberg.

8 lessons from Steven Spielberg

1. Direct, don’t dictate

A good director will trust his or her cast and crew to make good decisions on their behalf. He or she will direct, but they will not dictate every minute detail. Sure there are film directors that are more Stalin than Spielberg (Stanley Kubrick was famously obsessive about every detail in his films) but really you can’t control everything, and a good film director wouldn’t try to. I certainly couldn’t image Steven Spielberg laying into the costume designer because the lead actor’s shirt buttons are grey rather than black, but I’ve seen plenty of designers lay into developers because their precious button is grey rather than black.

A UX designer’s primary role (at least in my eyes) is to create a shared vision for a product and to then steer the design of that product so that the vision hopefully becomes a reality. Just like making a film, in my opinion the best way to do this is to direct, rather than to dictate.

2. Focus on the bigger picture

Like a film director crafting, sharing and steering their overall vision for a film, a UX designer is better to focus on the bigger picture, rather than the tiny design details. That’s not to say that tiny design details don’t matter, of course they do, but it doesn’t matter how good those design details are if they don’t work together to create a coherent design vision. Do you think that Steven Spielberg cared that in Jaws when Chief Brody is in his office typing a coroner’s report he misspells “coroner”, typing “corner” instead? No, and you shouldn’t either.

3. Don’t’ try and do everything

Orson Welles might have co-written, directed, produced and been the lead actor in Citizen Kane, one of the greatest movies of all time but you’re not Orson Welles, so don’t try and do the same. Steven Spielberg certainly wouldn’t – apart from his early films (like Close Encounters of the Third Kind) it’s very rare that Spielberg has both written and directed a film, and he’s certainly never acted in one as well.

Remember that the user experience of a product or service is the responsibility of everyone working on it and as such everyone must take some responsibility for creating the user’s experience. Rather than trying to make, oversee and feed into every design related decision, it’s better to focus on the key areas and decisions. Trust others to make good design decisions, educate them in the mysterious art of UX design and ask them to bring to you any decisions that should really involve a UX designer.

4. Get a great crew

Do you think that Steven Spielberg assembled a ragtag crew of amateurs to help him create the epic Saving Private Ryan? Do you think that he rounded up whoever he could find to put together the critically acclaimed Schindler’s List? Of course not, Steven Spielberg knows that a great director needs a great team around him, and so does a great UX designer.

By surrounding yourself with great people, who you can trust to make great decisions, you can focus on the most important stuff. You don’t have to try and do everything because you can be confident that the team will collectively make the right design decisions.

Film crew

Surround yourself with great people, who you can trust to make great decisions

5. Explain your directions

I’m sure that you can picture the scene on the set of Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. Steven Spielberg beckons Harrison Ford closer in and tells him, “H (Harrison is too much of a mouthful), you’ve just met you’re long lost father. You’re feeling a mixture of love, anger and bewilderment because Sean Connery clearly looks nothing like you. Now show me what you’ve got…”

Just as a good film director explains their directions, so a good UX designer should explain theirs. Make it clear exactly what you’re asking for and just as importantly what the rationale is for a design decision.

6. Direct face-to-face

Can you image Steven Spielberg scribbling a few notes on to a film script and then sending it over for the crew to film on location whilst he sips cocktails at his Hollywood mansion (I assume he has a Hollywood mansion)? Of course not. However time and time again I’ve seen UX designers do exactly this (minus the cocktails). Rather than going through a design face-to-face with the development team they simply add a few notes and annotations to a prototype or set of wireframes and then throw it over the wall. Just as a film director will be directing in person on set, a UX designer should also be directing face-to-face with the rest of the team. Even if the team is spread all over the place and physically getting together isn’t feasible you can still use video conferencing services such as SkypeWebex and Join.me to discuss a design face-to-face (well face-to-screen really).

7. Utilise design principles and design patterns

OK, I’m really stretching it here but think of design principles and design patterns as your mini assistant directors. Your mini-Spielbergs if you will. They help the team to focus on the design vision and help non-designers to make good UX design decisions by applying an appropriate design pattern.

If you’re new to design principles then take a look at the excellent Gov.uk design principles, as they’re a great example of what good design principles look like. I particularly like number 4 – Do the hard work to make it simple. If you’re looking for design patterns then you might want to utilise the design patterns search which will search 22 different UX design pattern websites.

8. Watch more movies

OK, so watching more movies won’t necessarily make you a better UX designer, but it will certainly make you appreciate the art of good film direction, and it can’t hurt. For starters why don’t you begin with the little known but excellent Duel – one of Steven Spielberg’s first movies? Now where’s that popcorn, I’m learning how to be a better UX designer don’t you know.