What film school taught me about user experience

22 January 2015

All through film school, the first thing I would do when starting a new film project was make a website for it. I don’t mean a Tumblr or anything like that. I mean hand coding HTML / CSS, and really thinking about the design.

I found that my favorite part of a project was making the website. Fast-forward to now and — you guessed it — I work in the tech industry making websites.

Lately, I’ve been really into user experience design. It just makes sense to me. But I really started to wonder why I am drawn to that practice. After some thought, I felt that my background in filmmaking really prepared me for user experience design. Here’s how:

Character building = user personas

In film, when you start a story, you want to define your characters. Defining a character is very similar to defining a user persona. If you want a character to resonate with your audience, the character needs to be grounded in reality, much like user personas need to be based on sample segments of a product’s audience. Just like an actor might try to understand a character’s motivations, so must a user experience designer delve into the motivations (and behavior) of a persona.

Storyboarding = wireframing

Sketch, sketch, sketch. I did a lot of sketching when planning shots and scenes. Now I do a lot of sketches to plan websites and generate several ideas. A storyboard is a way to quickly explore how a film will ultimately look like and flow, much in the same way a low-fidelity wireframe explores the layout of a website or product. All my years of sketching shots really prepared me to sketch page layouts effectively.

Shot list = content types

When you plan a scene, you create a shot list of all of the different types of shots you will need to create the scene: different angles, close-ups, establishing shots. When you plan a website, you need to understand all of the different types of content that will go on the page: audio, video, text. All of those different pieces make a whole, and in both cases, they need to be accounted for and carefully planned.

Focus groups = user testing

Which demographic should the film go after? How did the movie play in a room full of a certain demographic? What feedback did they have? A lot of these questions can be applied to user testing. What is the demographic for the product? How did the demographic respond to the product? While in film it is harder to iterate on feedback (reshoots can be costly), we are lucky that in tech, we can iterate faster and cheaper — especially if we perform user testing early and often.

But wait, there’s more!

Those are some of the examples that I feel are directly relatable to each other. There are other skills I picked up in film school that help me with user experience design.

Screenwriting helped me understand Content Strategy.

Directing helped me understand User Flows and how to guide a user through an experience.

Planning a shoot schedule helped me understand Information Architecture and how to plan content in a way that makes sense.

Everyone’s career path is different. Part of what drew me to film was my desire to create experiences and tell stories. I feel I get to do that every day in tech, just in a slightly different way.

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