Understanding People: Documentary Filmmaking and User Experience Design

In my previous post I mentioned the importance of understanding WHO the people are that you’re designing for and WHAT the problem(s) are that your designs are trying to address.

This got me thinking about my background in Film Production and Documentary Filmmaking and the similarities between that and User Experience Design.

I’m always a proponent of cross-functionality and making connections across multiple disciplines. At the heart of documentary filmmaking is human empathy and observation – the same foundation for solid User Experience Design work.

The main difference is that in User Experience Design, human understanding is part of what leads a designer to the end goal – an elegant solution to a problem or an elegant experience for people. The research is, more or less, a means to that end. In  documentary filmmaking, the human understanding IS the end result.

Filming a documentary is like the next-level of an Ethnographic Study – you must embed yourself in the life of another person or multiple people and exist in their world. Your goal is to capture this world and tell the story that you see around you or that you DON’T see. Perhaps the more hardcore UX Researchers spend such time with people, but their end goal goes beyond the observation. Observation is the end goal – it is there that the “story” is found.

Both approaches require a highly-disciplined lack of bias. Quality documentary films are not made from the biases of the filmmaker but the openness of the filmmaker to learn new things they might not have known or see things from an unfamiliar or uncomfortable perspective. UX Research is this, but to a lesser degree. The level of intimacy that you achieve with documentary filmmaking is much deeper, but only by necessity.

The interviewing process is virtually the same. Filmmakers approach their subjects with questions that are open. The goal is to get the person to open up about things the filmmaker did not intend. Questions are open-ended and often loosely organized (depending on the type of documentary you’re making). Questions are not always asked at sit-down interviews either – you can be walking or merely observing a process.

Ultimately both documentary films and UX Research rely on the same techniques, but documentary filmmaking goes much deeper. The level of responsibility you have for the other person is far greater. The level of involvement and commitment, much greater. Documentary filmmaking is also the perfect training ground for approaching a project’s design with an open mind. When you set out to document people or an event, you don’t KNOW what will happen. You don’t KNOW what you’re going to find. Any experienced documentary filmmaker will tell you that their film did not turn out exactly like what they expected. As filmmaker Werner Herzog puts it, “It is important to allow real life and real images to fill up the film at a later stage” – You can’t plan for it, you just have to trust in the process and let it happen – allow it the space to be discovered.


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