How watching American Idol can make you a better RIA designer

My daughters are huge fans of two reality sing-offs shows, “Grease, you’re the one that I want” and “American Idol”. I’ve always thought that reality shows are interesting because the editors of the shows are, in essence, the stars. There’s a distinct contrast between these two particular shows. I guess you could say they both have great back stories, drama, competition and talent, but Grease’s editing is just sub-par to Idol’s. The picture editors for America Idol are extraordinary; I believe it is the primary reason it does so well.

I know what you’re asking:

“What the heck does that have anything with application development?”

Im getting there…

Nine years ago, I worked in feature post production at Warner Bros. Robb, my boss, walked me through the studio my first week on the job, mentoring me on how Hollywood worked. He taught me two important lessons about engaging the audience that I have carried with me ever since.

First, he spoke about his 10 years working with picture editors (both TV and feature film). Through that time, he had the opportunity to work with bad ones, good ones, and the occasional greats. He described how in just a few minutes, he could tell the difference between the good and great editors. The good editors had impressive “gut” instincts, their cuts felt right to them, and a majority of the time their instincts were dead on. The major difference between them and the truly great editors though was that the great ones could tell you why they made the cuts where they did. Not only did they have great instincts, they had an explanation for every single edit.

“I made this cut to him, here while she was talking, because I thought his expression was more engaging, I wanted the audience to identify with his emotion.”

When you talk to our Chief Interface Designer, Lance, you get exactly the same level of thoughtfulness. In fact, any designer from effectiveUI will tell you why they, for example, chose left-to-right navigation for an application, or why this button should go here rather than there. Lance has a reason for every pixel and color that is used. There are many good application designers out there, but look for those that can tell you the why behind the important items in their design. And if you are a designer, trust your gut, but also make sure you can back those decisions up with logic and purpose.

The second lesson Robb taught me was when he spoke about the responsibilities of the special effects departments:

“If you’re watching a movie, and you say to yourself, ‘WOW, that was an awesome special effect’; then we have not done our job. Our job is to never be noticed, to not take the audience out of the magic immersion of the film.”

Have you ever looked at an application and said, “WOW, that navigation is awesome!” I’ve caught myself doing that as well. Lance always talks about how the interface should get out of the way and let content be king. That is not to say that the interface is not important; on the contrary, it is CRITICAL. But subtlety, familiarity, and immersion are much more important than the sexiest of navigation schemes. When evaluating the design of an application, the first 5 minutes are the most important, after that you have been contaminated. If you find yourself magically understanding the interface almost immediately, then you are in front of something very special…

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1 comment
  1. Marcus said:


    Nice post. I think you’ve made an a good point about the difference between great designers and the rest. The way I like to look at is, if you can’t succinctly describe something to someone else, then you really don’t understand it yourself. Good designers understand what they are doing and why. ‘Gut feeling’ and ‘design instinct’ are just cooler ways of saying, ‘I can’t put my finger on why I did that way’, or worse, ‘I took a guess at it’. I’m sure a lot more people could be ‘great’ if they just spent some more time to critically analyse their own decisions.



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