Prototyping is fundamental in a host of different industries. Since I spend a lot of my time prototyping as a user experience (UX) designer, I look to other fields for insights into new techniques that might save time or more effectively communicate an interaction. Storyboards are a great example of a technique that the UX community borrowed from film, television, and comic books. What’s interesting is that despite the value UX has added to digital products across all industries, I have never heard of another field adopting any UX techniques.
In this article, I’ll describe the UX and digital marketing prototyping methodology and then what I understand of a particular TV show genre counterpart. I’ll explore fundamental differences in these processes and outline what television can learn from UX. From there, I’ll introduce a unique storytelling ecosystem that already naturally integrates some UX techniques and how that leads, in my humble opinion, to the best TV in the world.
UX and prototyping
As a UX designer, everything I do culminates in the creation of one or more prototypes. All workshops, user research, and web analytics investigations are done with this in mind. Prototypes then form the basis for user testing. Although many user research techniques can be employed beforehand, prototypes are needed to start evaluating proposed designs.
Prototypes can be as simple as paper sketches—early stage product designs used to start testing basic interactions. Feedback can then be integrated into the design of flat wireframes, which can themselves be tested with first-click analysis, such as asking users to complete a task and seeing where they click first on the interface. A host of other user testing techniques can be utilized with an interactive prototype.
All this data helps form a clear idea of what expectations users have for the product, what the most efficient and most pleasant user experience would be, and whether the product is likely to achieve the desired business outcomes.
Prototyping isn’t just the purview of UX, either. When the designer takes the latest UX prototype and other documentation and starts on the visual design, they are actually creating another prototype. Although the design is ultimately “full fidelity,” it is not the the final product itself. This is true even of the front-end (UI) developer’s work. If the product is a content management system (CMS), the visual layer of the code is a fully-featured HTML prototype of what the backend developer is going to create. Although all these prototypes are essential to the success of the end product, only when the CMS itself is finally finished is the product ready for content to be populated.
In all storytelling mediums, prototyping also plays a large role. There is usually a direct correlation between the size, cost, and complexity of the final product and how much prototyping takes place. For traditional books, little or no prototyping is done and draft versions of the final product are created instead. In contrast, stories that have pictures, such as webcomics and graphic novels, will usually go through draft versions of the text before prototyping the visuals.
Stories that use audio and video begin to get extremely complex. In effect, a single TV episode will often need a comic book to get started. Just like a comic, the story is first drafted. Then, a storyboard is created to explore how to bring the text to life. The storyboard itself goes through a round of revisions before going into production. This stage can take different forms depending on whether the TV show is live-action or animated but will ultimately result in video footage. From there, additional sounds are added, and the footage is edited to create the final product. It is usually at this point that the TV show is made available to the public.
Audience feedback and user testing
There are many similarities between prototyping for interactivity and prototyping for storytelling. However, there is one substantial difference: Feedback. In user experience, we prototype for two main reasons:
- To clearly communicate functionality to the various internal and external stakeholders
- To test the proposed functionality and elicit actionable user feedback
While storytellers certainly use their prototypes for communication purposes, they don’t seem to perform a lot of testing. They show early release movie screenings and sometimes ask for a bit of feedback. However, the film has been mostly completed by this time; there aren’t any resources left to make substantial changes.
I’m sure you’ve heard stories of movie studios filming multiple endings and then including the one that early viewers liked most. That is fairly basic user feedback. In fact, it is equivalent to only optimizing the final confirmation page in an e-commerce checkout process. Certainly, users that made it that far would have an incremental improvement. However, all the users that abandoned the funnel earlier in their journey would not experience the difference.
In contrast, user testing in UX takes place when the product is still being developed. Ideally, no further work—such as content strategy, visual design, or analytics—has been done. If testing results suggest a complete overhaul, everything can be reworked quickly. Completely new interactions can be explored at little cost.
Audience feedback might not be relevant for stories that do not require prototyping, like novels and comic books. However, any video-based stories will require a large amount of prototyping. In my opinion, it is this difference in feedback methodology between digital products and storytelling media that explains why the percentage of good TV stories in particular isn’t higher.
Why the best television is coming from Japan
Although most TV shows in the west are from original scripts, there is a genre of television in Japan that is almost completely based on books. The books are called manga—effectively, Japanese comic books. If there is sufficient interest in a manga, a TV show adaptation will be created.
Based on its popularity, a manga has the following levels of success, from easiest to most difficult to achieve:
- Manga (or light novel): This is where the story originates.
- Anime TV adaptation (animated cartoon)
- Anime movie adaptation
- Live-action TV show adaptation
- Live-action movie adaptation
I usually begin to interact with these stories when the TV anime, also known as a Japanese animated cartoon, is available. Admittedly, I’ve never read a manga. But that is largely the point. By the time the anime reaches me, it has already had success with thousands of readers. Although not every show will appeal to me, I am consistently impressed by the strength of the storytelling in animes.
In addition to the prototyping process that goes into making a manga, the story gets feedback from customers and critics in every medium it’s published in. This is the process that I am emulating with UX prototypes. The process is user-centered, because the business ultimately wants the user to be able to interact with the product, regardless of whether that product is a TV show or an interactive color picker.
As a result of their naturally occurring, user feedback process, I’m convinced that animes have the best stories in the world right now. The current Golden Age of Television isn’t being lead by the US: It is lead undoubtedly by Japan. You just wouldn’t know it because animation appeals to a much smaller audience segment.
Besides the story being better, anime has a host of benefits over traditional television:
- Innovation: Since anime studios know the manga fan base will tune in, they are much more willing to adapt outrageous, “independent” stories. The opposite is true of UX: Sometimes there are established conventions that we might have missed. Testing with users will usually reveal these conventions and standards straightaway.
- Variety: There is little cost difference between producing a comedy and a futuristic, science-fiction romance. As a result, anime comes in a wide variety of genres including music, cooking, comic book creating, war strategy, and virtual game worlds to name a few, obscure genres. The same is true of UX prototypes, whether you’re designing a responsive website or heads-up display. Regardless of the complexity of the interaction, prototyping is always going to be quicker than coding the final solution.
- Quantity: Anime seasons often start with 12 episodes and shows are never cancelled. Since many shows stop at 12 episodes, there are thousands of complete animes out there, effectively a knowledge base of what has and has not worked. In both prototyping and storytelling, rapidly iterating over large sets of ideas or designs leads to a larger exploration of possible directions and a better understanding of how they might perform. Ultimately, most directions will be thrown out, but the final result may combine innovations from multiple predecessors.
- Engagement: One of my biggest problems with US television is that the first episode never seems to introduce the plot. Can a show really be trusted with a second viewing if it couldn’t bother to tell me what it was about? Regardless of the target audience, most animes will pick up from the first episode; they present enough engaging information about the story, characters, and setting up-front that viewers come back for more. In UX, some products will require account registration, which means enough of the experience and benefits of the product must be communicated to the user to motivate them to register.
What storytellers can learn from the international success of anime
Storytellers of any kind need to get more audience feedback and get it earlier. Although getting early reviews would have been outrageous five years ago, nowadays it is easy to obtain. With the advent of crowdfunding models, storytellers can get feedback about concepts far earlier in the process. Sites like Kickstarter and Unbounce create an ecosystem where content creators are encouraged to share their ideas and see if people are interested. Although a project on Pubslush might not always meet its monetary goal, the number of unique contributors will tell the studio whether the idea is likely to be profitable at all. The value gained from giving fans teaser information is substantial, and we can expect to see more and more companies using these kinds of resources in the future.
Ideally, a typical TV show would follow a robust prototyping and audience feedback methodology similar to the manga milestones presented earlier. First, the basic story is created and posted to the studio’s crowd-feedback site for acceptance and support. If fans are interested, the story can start its formal distribution process.
Prototyping is fundamental in a lot of different industries. Sadly, user feedback is not. I’m convinced that the naturally-occurring user feedback stage between manga and their anime adaptations results in higher quality TV. The same is true of UX and design. Although it may be easy to prototype and iterate, it can be difficult to secure budgets for testing as few as five users. However, as demonstrated by the strength of anime storylines, the potential benefit of testing is significant.
Keep in mind that user testing isn’t the only way to elicit user feedback in design. The ecosystem in Japan closely resembles the methodology used for beta product releases: An early, unfinished version of the product is made available to the public or to a closed group of users in an effort to get feedback and identify problems. Other lighter-weight approaches include site surveys and feedback forms.
Perhaps after integrating user feedback into the storytelling workflow, the West can begin to compete with the animated cartoons coming out of Japan. Similarly, when smaller sites and apps start reaching out to users for comment, they will begin to achieve the levels of success seen by the bigger players.
Endnote: Getting started with Anime
Although it is getting easier and easier to access with smart TV apps like Crunchyroll (free trial) and websites like Daisuki, anime is still a niche market. Even if it were widely available, not everyone is interested in animation. Nevertheless, hopefully this article has piqued your interest in additional TV opportunities and in international options.
My suggestion is to just watch the first episode of an anime series. For starters, I usually recommend Death Note, available on Netflix. It’s about a college student—who is temporarily given the grim reaper’s power over death—and the private detective tracking him down.
It asks the philosophical question: “What would you do if you could become the grim reaper for a year?” The answer is not what you would expect. Death Note is certainly one of the best animes ever made and is the most accessible for viewers new to the medium.
Other genre options:
My all-time favourite (Scifi virtual worlds): Sword Art Online
For football fans: Knight in the Area
For high-art fans: Cowboy Bebop
A story about comic book creators: Bakuman
A story about cooking: Yakitate!! Japan