• Shaping a Generation’s First Experience with Star Wars

    When it comes to managing experiences, is there a more thrilling experience to manage than introducing someone to Star Wars for the first time? MX keynote speaker Rob Maigret took the creative helm at Sphero developing BB-8, the best selling toy of 2015 and many people’s first introduction to Star Wars. I sat down with him to find out what it’s like to take on such a dream-job project and how he approaches managing designers. To hear him speak at our upcoming MX Conference, register here.


    What nuggets from your experience as a design manager do you have that you think the audience at MX is really going to value?

    There seems to be a mystique around people who are in creative roles and their processes. A lot of times we get so caught up in the process and overthinking what aren’t necessarily big problems that we create long conversations about things that someone who was actually creative would have just known intuitively. I don’t consider myself to be super creative, but I think I have a fair amount of common sense. I think my entire career has been leveraging some basic human intuitiveness that I always kind of assumed everybody had, but didn’t really believe things could be that simple.

    I think about it like going into a dark mine: the person trusted to lead the group might be the person with the strongest flashlight. They can see farther in front of them than everyone else. I’d like to think that I’ve spent the last twenty years or so just basically increasing the lumens of the light that I carry with me.

    When I was early in my career I remember thinking, “This doesn’t seem nearly as complicated as people are making it out to be.” When I finally had my own company and was the one who got to make decisions, I never made them based on committee, but rather based on the information I had and the confidence that I knew how to make a decision. If you take those two things: a fair bit of common sense and confidence in your own decision-making, it’s a recipe for good things.

    I think about it like going into a dark mine: the person trusted to lead the group might be the person with the strongest flashlight. They can see farther in front of them than everyone else. I’d like to think that I’ve spent the last twenty years or so just basically increasing the lumens of the light that I carry with me.

    What qualities do you think an individual has to have to be successful in management roles managing creative groups? You said common sense, and it makes me think about trusting your gut.

    Well, first, we live in a world that’s really screwed up. We’ve created a system where the most qualified people don’t necessarily get to decide what gets made. The amount of lobbying that has to happen constantly in large corporations to get simple decisions made, you have to fight the entire time for basically common sense. It’s a very uphill struggle. The fact that anything good gets made ever blows my mind. Honestly. Sometimes it seems impossible. I’ve spent time in start-ups and I’ve spent time in corporate, and the thing about corporate is that these systems exist where you have hundreds of individuals that need to take credit for the work of tens. So that, by default, is broken. You have ten opinions to every one person that has to make something. That’s really hard to manage.

    People who are successful in this role are able to do a couple different things to varying degrees of wellness: one, I think that they’re able to provide stakeholders with the feeling of being idea-men and -women. They’re able to present options that they probably already know the answer to and get people to pick the right answer. I hate to use the word “manipulate”…but the word is manipulate. We help people to do the right thing and feel good about it. Ultimately the decision-makers that the experience director or manager has to lobby has to feel like they own not only those decisions, but own the product itself.

    The amount of lobbying that has to happen constantly in large corporations to get simple decisions made, you have to fight the entire time for basically common sense. It’s a very uphill struggle. The fact that anything good gets made ever blows my mind.

    At the same time, it’s a very similar type of mechanism that has to happen with your design team and your engineers. You’re driving, and you’ve got a lot of people in the car. You like that they’re in the car with you, but not everybody can drive. You have the map and you basically have to go to this group of people above you and say, “Hey, look, here’s the map; what do you think we should do?” in a way that they’ll pick the right route. Because everyone in the car is keeping it moving, we’re maintaining it. We’re creating this road that doesn’t exist, and it’s a really special person who can manage all of these different components and have taste and have some kind of skill that they can show people so that the people below them will actually respect them.

    I think that’s it right there; creating an environment of respect will get you a long way. How intentionally do you cultivate that?

    I think that as leaders, it’s important for us to establish realistic expectations that everyone can over-achieve on, and then remind them that we appreciate them every opportunity we get.

    I like to create environments where people feel safe and appreciated in a lot of different ways. One of the techniques that I found really worked is when I’ve been in charge, I didn’t want people to feel like they had to stay until I left. So I’d leave at a reasonable time, even if I had work to do, because I didn’t want the team to feel the pressure of, “Oh, well we can’t leave cause he’s not leaving.” And secondly, when I would leave, I’d find anyone who was still there and say thank you. It was a really simple thing but it seemed to really mean a lot to people that you told them constantly that you appreciated the work that they were doing. I wasn’t trying to screw with anyone or manipulate them to work harder, I was trying to let them know two things: one, I don’t expect you to be here all night. I’m not going to, and I don’t want you to. And the other is that I do really appreciate them. We operate within these man-made organizations where expectations state certain things based on the culture that’s created, and I think that as leaders, it’s important for us to establish realistic expectations that everyone can over-achieve on, and then remind them that we appreciate them every opportunity we get.

    How did you approach the task of creating BB-8?

    Star Wars had been around since we were all kids; we had that experience, and now we get to create that experience. What would you want it to be? And the theme that kept popping up in those discussions was, “I would want it to feel real.”

    A lot of my talk is is about the type of responsibility that comes when someone asks you to basically introduce a whole new generation to something like Star Wars, and having to tell people that things aren’t good enough because the threshold has already been set, and it’s the biggest thing ever. It was all about saying “Hey, let’s actually approach the problem as marketers and experience people, not as technologists or engineers or even toymakers. Let’s just start with the experience, because the thing we have to remember is that this is the first time that someone is going to experience Star Wars, and they will never forget this moment.” If it were you, what would you want? Because we all already had that moment, Star Wars had been around since we were all kids, we had that experience, and now we get to create that experience. What would you want it to be? And the theme that kept popping up in those discussions was, “I would want it to feel real.”

    Did you get BB-8 as a fully developed character? Or were you involved in any of the character development in the film?

    We had very little to work with, we had some pictures, we had some sounds, we had the general kind of character attributes, but it wasn’t a lot. And we had a really short runway. Typically you’d have years to develop this type of product, and we had months. It was a pretty extreme situation.

    The big challenge for us was that we knew that the love decision–a person deciding ‘do I love this or hate it?’–would be immediate. We had to figure out a way to get on the love side the moment they opened the box. Part of our effort there was creating an alternative sub-plot that only we knew, which was basically what the history of the BB-8 that you happened to buy was before you bought it. We wrote stories about the factory where it was made, and we created a fiction that didn’t exist. We filled in the blanks as best we could, so that when you turned it on, you don’t know the history, but it feels real because what’s actually happening is, in our story, BB-8 is waking up from sleep and is confused about where he is. His last memory is of the factory and saying goodbye to someone that he’d become close to. So, when we programmed the way he would move, it was a combination of confusion and awe with a little bit of sadness that slowly gets replaced with warmer excitement about the possibilities of his next phase of his journey as a being. It happens in seconds when you first put him on the charger, but we programmed and animated that many, many different ways to the point where we thought the emotion it conveyed was the emotion that we wanted and you’d fall in love the same way you would if you brought home a puppy. That’s the closest thing I can compare it to.

    And that moment creates a connection whether they’ve seen the movie or not.

    It had to stand alone. We released the toy in the beginning of September, and the movie didn’t come out until December 18th, so we had this period of time where the only thing that people really knew about Star Wars aside from the trailer was the BB-8 toy.

    Thanks Rob, we’re so excited to hear your speak at MX. In the meantime, can you leave us with one thing not everybody knows about you?

    You know, I always wanted to be a plastic surgeon. I often fantasize about actually going to medical school and becoming one, but I realize that I couldn’t practice till I’m 60, and that’s probably not the best idea. Or maybe it’s the best idea ever! I don’t know.


    Rob Maigret will deliver the keynote: New Car Smell (aka Bull in a China Shop) at this year’s Managing Experience Conference, March 29-30 in San Francisco. Register for MX16 here.

    Main image credit: Thomas Wadsworth

    There is 1 thought on this idea

    1. Tom

      I’m so flippin’ sick of Star Wars and it’s accolades.
      Yeah, back in the 70’s it was amazing and I saw the films in the cinema.
      Then came the horrible characters, merch and hype of the next 3 films as well as the redux Abrams version where all the modern stereotypes were accounted from retro characters like solo and chewy with there cute one-liners and flashback hipster recycled quirks to the token sensitive black guy, tough independent heroine, hustle hard be humble sidekicks and misunderstood and far beyond repairable troubled emo main adversary to heroine.
      The UX of Star Wars is safe, corporate BS. The merch was selling before the film was released, the storyline was a perfect bend of action/mystery, backstory and then tragic action cliff hanger ending. Check check check. F that noise.
      Now everyone is in lust with Star Wars like it is the visual bible for all mankind. There was 2.5 good movies made, and 4 bad ones. The last being saved by a wow look at that director to mask the cheese.
      STOP aligning Star Wars with a good UX, Life skills and philosphy, STOP liking it so much because everyone else does and the merch and advertising have brainwashed you, STOP disregarding how crap most of the series is, STOP using it as a way to explain concepts. STOP STOP STOP. Start thinking for yourselves and don’t be so scared to allow yourself to see SW for what it is regardless of how it is presented to you. There are a few good characters, a few good references to Buddhism, a few memorable quotes and it was ahead of its time when made. That’s it. STOP !

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