​What I Learned About UX Design From My Documentary Filmmaking Career Stories From the Trenches

Vintage video camera likely used by a documentary maker

In August 2014, Fast Company magazine published an article titled “5 Things UX and UI Designers Could Learn from Wes Anderson.” What many UX researchers and UI designers don’t realize is that their process is actually very much aligned with what many documentary filmmakers go through day-in and day-out in creating a feature documentary. For documentary filmmakers, they just never knew the term User Experience Design to describe the work and process they do. Here are some points of intersection to the creative process for both documentary filmmaking and UX Design.

1. Research to define the project

When a filmmaker choses a topic for a film, there are so many factors to target before a camera is picked up and turned on. For example, in the acclaimed documentary Love Etc. the director wanted to make a documentary about love, but the question is what aspect about love and where to go to find that story. I know for a fact that the director and producers went through a lengthy online search and had to interview many people before they could narrow down the focus of the project. Not to mention just check out if there are any other films out there already about love in order to figure out how to make their film project a unique experience that viewers would want to see.

Then there is deciding the scope of the project in regards to a timeline, budget, and most importantly who is the audience. A documentary project aired on a network like Spike TV or Vice will probably be completely different than a documentary project that aired on Lifetime TV or OWN (on which Love Etc. is now being aired).

Let’s not forget that a good portion of a documentary filmmaker’s job is to do contextual observations hours on end.

UX intersection: online surveys, interviewing, contextual inquiry, and competitive/comparative analysis

2. Filmmakers use post-it notes and whiteboards, too

Before prototypes are built, UX and UI designers go through a phase of ideation. This process could entail creation of affinity diagrams, personas creation, user flows, design studio, and paper prototypes. In filmmaking, before any rough cut begins, many filmmakers utilize making paper cuts first. Filmmakers shoot hundreds of hours of footage and have to synthesize patterns and themes, identify key characters for a story, and come up with a novel ways to tell a good story. Just having everything in your head or your computer is not enough. This just doesn’t refer to the editing process, but also helps the filmmaker decide any additional filming to tell the right story.

You got to lay it out to try to get the big picture and narrow it down. Otherwise it would take forever to find what you are looking for and finish a project. Just like style sheets and mood boards, documentary filmmakers have to define the look and feel of the film to communicate to cinematographers, editors, and motion graphics creators. These aspects including typography, colors, and sample photos.

UX intersection: ideation, affinity diagrams, MOSCOW process, personas, design studio, style guides, and paper prototyping

3. Empathy rules in the most successful projects

The filmmaker has the two-fold task to get into the minds and hearts of not just documentary subjects, but also film audiences. Infomercials just state information, but good documentaries try to get into the mind of the subjects to take audiences on a journey.

The Oscar winning documentary, Man on Wire had re-enactment scenes so the audience could feel the excitement of Philip Petite breaking into the World Trade Center to walk on a tight rope. That is a lot more interesting than just watching a talking head. However, in order for the filmmaker to create these scenes, he had to put himself in the mindset and place of the main character.

A lot of issue-based documentaries also have to keep in mind the audience’s capacity and tolerance to getting a heavy wave of information. Some documentary film festival screeners have an ongoing joke about some documentaries submissions — “This film should be sponsored by Gillette because people may want to slit their wrist from such a depressing film.” Successful documentaries like Roger and Me or Gasland present serious topics in an engaging way that audience can also enjoy and feel compelled to take action in their communities. Just like a website or mobile app, how things are presented makes a huge difference in audience engagement. If an UX Designer doesn’t have empathy for the user, the design is doomed to fail.

UX intersection: user journeys, usability heuristics, and information architecture

4. Test and re-iterate till you get it right

In any documentary project, the most time consuming period is not filming, but rather the post-production phase. There is a misconception that films are made in a linear fashion where a filmmaker comes up with an idea, shoots something, edit in the footage in place one time, and then poof, the film is done. Some films are made that way, but rarely are they successful. Hitchcock said, “A film is made three times: when you write it, when you shoot it, when you edit it.” Some argue that there’s a forth stage when film is distributed. What one conceives in one’s mind does not always translate well on screen. Even if a filmmaker makes a film exactly the way it was pictured in his or her mind, the audiences may not react in the most desired way.

Just as design should not be done in a bubble, filmmaking is not done in a bubble. It is important to get feedback throughout the process. Often a film project has screening sessions throughout various phases of the film that will change major elements of a film. These elements can range from moving scenes around, introducing a new character, removing or adding a scene, changing the fonts/color on graphics or the music score in the film. Every detail may seem seamless in the final product, but a lot of trial and error testing occurred behind the scenes. In fact, on one project I produced, we decided to scrap the entire intro to a film and had to start editing from scratch after a brutal test screening. The results made a huge impact in the overall final cut of the film. If you are making something for people, feedback is key to make the best product. In fact, one of the things I love about UX design is the reiterative process to discover things to make things become better beyond anyone’s current imagination.

UX intersection: User Testing, Card Sorting

5. Key Takeaways for your Audiences

It’s heartbreaking for a filmmaker who made a social documentary that resulted audience’s having a negative or the exact opposite outcome from what was originally envisioned. The people who made Obama’s America: 2016 were considered an absolute joke in the filmmaking community and audiences alike (unless you work for the National Review). Good documentaries are good for several reasons and that is reflective of the process it was made. As a designer working on a project, the last thing you want is the user not to do the desired action goal.

Furthermore, documentaries just don’t inform and entertain. Many social issue documentaries also shift audiences view on topics and sometimes initiate change in the greater world. An article on EW.com list 12 films that changed the world including having a wrongfully indicted individual set free (The Thin Blue Line), initiate new movements on climate change (An Inconvenient Truth), and alter diets (Super Size Me). These films initiated a conversation shift while everyday people took actions to alter the status quo. Even most recently, it has been reported that the documentary film Blackfish has effectively caused a huge drop in SeaWorld’s attendance. Just think how mobile UX has changed the way many of us do so many things differently from finding a restaurant, paying a bill, and shopping.

UX intersection: Make a great experience that engages people towards a desired goal and the betterment of people’s lives.

Now that technology has opened the doors to ways audiences consume media and stories, some documentary filmmakers have shifted into the realm of transmedia which include educational video games (e.g. Past/Present)and interactive iPad graphic novel apps (e.g. Operation Ajax). These realms are also where many UX Designers currently work. So aside from the design community, you can find a lot of inspiration and advice from the talented community of documentary filmmakers.

This article first appeared on Medium and has been republished here with Michelle’s permission.

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Michelle Ngo has worked in the world of documentary filmmaking for over a decade on various acclaimed documentaries such as BAJA’S SECRET MIRACLE(2015), SHE’S BEAUTIFUL WHEN SHE IS ANGRY (2014), LENNY COOKE(2014), MOMS MABLEY (2013), THE BETRAYAL (2009 OSCAR NOMINATED FILM), and END OF AMERICA (2008). She expanded her professional life as a freelance UX Designer based in NYC and is a graduate of General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive. You can see some of her UX Design work at michellengo.net.