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Disney STREAMING

Brand Tiles

Project: Disney+ Pre-launch • 2018-2019 • Role: Design Strategy

Background

In late 2018, on the heels of launching Disney’s first direct-to-consumer streaming service, ESPN+, we began working on Disney+ a streaming service to feature the content libraries of Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel and National Geographic. Our timeline was a little less than a year before the public would get a glimpse during our world-wide Investor Day broadcast.

A small team of designers and product managers began brainstorming and sketching early iterations. We based these initial ideas on our experience shipping streaming products for BamTech and MLB; however, given the importance of this initiative to the future of Disney, a litany of design questions soon emerged. Collectively, we had designed dozens of sports and entertainment streaming applications; but we rarely had user research informing our work.

The Challenge

I was asked by my manager to bring together and lead a cross-functional group to identify, prioritize and deliver insights for the core features of the app. Our day-to-day work would be to research and iterate features such as the purchase funnel and on-boarding; to capture user needs and expectations around content discovery, information architecture and mental models; and to provide a point-of-view to settle product and design debates.

My challenge also included a larger strategic objective:  to make the case for hiring a dedicated UX research team. Our goal was to prove the value of human-centered design by delivering quick wins and standing up basic processes and engagement models. Prior UX research efforts faced skepticism, so this was far from a sure thing.

The Team

Our team started off with a few product designers who had prior UX research experience. This included designers Kim Dumo, PJ Onori and Davy Fung. We were led by our Senior Director of UX, Brian McConnell.

We also had help (and added credibility) from our colleagues at the Disney game lab in Burbank.

Humble Beginnings:

Start with a Plan

Many of the earliest questions we tackled were driven by conflicts of decision making. In order to arrest the chaos and establish timelines, we drafted a research plan to study the critical areas of the product, address executive concerns and resolve questions blocking design decisions. From August to December we progressed through the core purchase and consumption experience. My role was to coordinate with stakeholders, lead research studies and ideate design solutions with the team based on insights.

I mapped out a three month plan to understand key research questions prior to hiring our first UX researcher.

Participant organizing Disney content in an open card sort.

Design Dependencies

Our earliest studies answered fundamental questions and validated assumptions that were blocking design momentum. For example, a series of card sorts confirmed that brands were the most popular method for categorizing content but that genres like ‘comedy’, ‘drama’ and ‘documentary’ would be important sub-navigation on landing pages. 

Our iterative approach enabled us to start replacing placeholder copy with more realistic navigation and locking down designs.  In turn, as screens became more refined, customer feedback became more authentic as participants could respond to prototypes that felt like the real product.

Brand Tiles

There was a great deal of executive interest in our homepage research.  In fact, top leaders of the company were heavily involved in early design iterations. The CEO of Disney, Bob Iger, in his memoir, Ride of a Lifetime, wrote:

…For the next several months, (after the announcement of Disney+) Kevin (Meyer) and I met in New York and Los Angeles with the team at Bamtech to test various iterations of the app; analyzing the size and color and placement of the tiles honing the experience of moving through the app to make it more instinctive and easier to use…”

In question was the the use of the large brand tiles for content discovery and for merchandising the primary brands:  Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel and Nat Geo.  The prominent representation of the individual studios was, at the time, a departure from other streaming services. Some stakeholders thought the tiles took up a too much real-estate that would be better served by content tiles. Others thought the brand tiles looked like a throw-back to cable channels. On the other hand, as a team, we wanted to take some risks in our design approach to this new service – small flourishes to distinguish it from Netflix or HBO. The brand tiles were novel for a streaming application but many considered them an innovative differentiation. Our engineering colleagues were particularly proud of the animated overlays that pushed the technical capability of many set-top-boxes. Not only were the animations evocative of each brand, they  added the bit of “magic” that Disney customers expect. Having designed for platforms like Roku and earlier AppleTV devices, I was duly impressed by the innovation; but I did have reservations about the usefulness of the tiles.

As the user hovers or brings focus to each tile, a representative animation plays providing a powerful reinforcement of the brand and a bit of user delight.

The Approach

I conducted 15 (90-minute) in-person interviews to explore the first launch experience for Disney+, including how people discover and find content, if they encountered obstacles with the navigation and to gauge reaction to the brand tiles.

Moderated interviews would allow us to dig into how and why people responded to the designs. Specifically, it would help us to understand the mental models and needs of people interacting with the home screen and brand tiles for the first time.

Due to the confidential nature of this product and the concern about leaks, we first established rigorous operational processes. I worked with our legal team to update our NDA and consent forms, put agreements in place with our partners and designed our lab set up and respondent experience to assure IP was protected.

Prior to the interviews, I worked closely with our prototyping team to design layouts and the content strategy for the study.  We wanted a mix of top-level and deeper-level tile placements to test the information scent for both high-profile and lesser-known Disney content. We also wanted to understand why and in what conditions a user might use the brand tiles versus scrolling the page or using the search function. 

In these interviews, I asked participants to provide first impressions of the experience to understand what resonated and why. In particular, we wanted to know if the brand tiles were useful and usable given their prominence. Participants were given various scenarios and tasks to determine how they would navigate to content. Lastly, attitudinal questions regarding the density of the home screen, the order of content rows and the overall ease of use were asked.

Synthesizing and Sharing Insights

Interviews were streamed to our distributed team using a multi-camera setup enabling everyone to watch and collect observations. Between sessions, I ran de-briefs and we tagged themes in a shared document.

Following the interviews, each designer prepared a synthesis of their top findings and we collaboratively determined the top insights and recommendations to be included in the final reports. I also edited video clips into soundbites so that our stakeholders could hear from users firsthand.

One unexpected challenge of this effort for me was preparing documentation for different audiences in such a way as to avoid creating controversy. While designers were eager to hear an unvarnished rundown of each issue, I quickly learned that research findings must be carefully worded to avoid contributing to opposing lobbying efforts, unwittingly.  Reports could be shared broadly and without the full context and nuance,  pitting one team against another, so I took great care in constructing my findings.

Collaborative coding of observations across three offices.

Example finding slide

The feedback on the brand tiles was mixed. People liked how they instantly communicated the breadth of content; but, when given the chance, they rarely used them to access specific movies or shows.  Design adjustments that improved affordances were also uncovered.  Ultimately, the tiles were included in the product and ended up getting rave reviews as a differentiator and clear representation of the content offering.

Impact

This study was the first in a sequence that followed the research plan we laid out as a design team. Not only did the findings confirm the brand tiles as a delighter that would differentiate Disney+ from other services, it also influenced specific design decisions such as the approach to the hero carousel, updates to the search function and revisions to the mobile navigation.

I presented the findings up through the design and product teams culminating with our CEO. Ultimately, the team’s hard work and our data-driven storytelling paved the way for investment in a dedicated UX research team. This study and others that followed increased our product design teams’ collective confidence as we moved incrementally towards the public “Investor Day” reveal of Disney+ and ultimately the successful launch in November 2019. 

While we would have preferred to have conducted more foundation research earlier in the design process, I was happy we were moving in the direction of a more human-centered, mature design practice. 

Reflection

After presenting (and refining) our final report up through the levels of design leadership a degree of trust in our work was established. 

Our team also helped implement many of the design recommendations; however, like most research studies, for every question answered, new gaps in understanding emerged, sparking additional requests for research. In the short-term, this was a win for our team. Research would be seen as integral component for product and design discovery, rather than a last step to validate.  Our success also revealed to me the complexity of operationalizing a research practice while simultaneously conducting research. Going forward over the next few months we would need to increase our velocity, put tools in place to scale, and educate our colleagues about our capabilities — what questions we were best suited to answer and where experimentation was a better course of action.

In 2019, I moved into a leadership role, hiring the first three dedicated UX researchers while still serving in an IC capacity as designer and researcher. In retrospect, as the team scaled, I should have taken the momentum of our earliest successes to think more strategically,  delegate more of the research activities and focus more on elevating the needs of the program to leadership in order to meet the onslaught of work that emerged as we launched Disney+.