This is part two in a two-part series looking at persuasive metrics and meaningful outcomes. Part one is a great intro and some orientation on the subject, where I draw some parallels between what I already know and practice as a UX Lead, but also what I learned from Simon Sinek’s book, The Infinite Game, the Microsoft versus Apple feud, and also a week-long UX conference that I attended (by Jared Spool of Centre Center UIE).
The conference was an intensive one, but was packed full of value. We finished at the long Easter weekend, which I was thankful for. I decided to watch the Disney+ documentary, Inside Pixar. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching it. Episode 4, titled ‘Who Gets All The Lines?’ gave me the spark to write this blog. This particular episode told the story of Jessica Heidt, a Script Supervisor for Pixar. She received the Russell award (a kind of ‘unsung hero’ award) for developing a tool as a direct response to a problem that she encountered in her role.
Surfacing the problem
Heidt managed all of the scripts for all of the Pixar projects, tracking them through various stages of production and reviewing every single line spoken by every single character. Fundamentally, it was her job to make sure the right people said the right things in the right way. At Pixar, scripts can go through countless changes before the final cut, so Heidt’s work covered many departments, including story, editorial, animation and recording. Having access to all scripts at all stages, Heidt saw the problem when no else could. Not because they didn’t want to, but because everyone else on the team was looking at other aspects of production according to their role and expertise.
The problem was gender balance. Or more accurately, gender imbalance. Conversations and awareness around gender representation are already widely acknowledged throughout the film industry, but with Heidt observing biases and imbalances in the scripts that she supervised, she felt she could work towards a solution at least in her immediate surroundings.
Heidt explained that real-world population is approximately 49% male and 51% female and this isn’t including people who identify themselves as non-binary. Yet studies into gender representation in film showed that women weren’t equally represented on screen. Research between 2007 and 2013 showed that for every six people seen on screen, four would be male and two would be female. This meant that a cast of 42 actors, ideally 50/50, or 21 men and 21 women, would actually be (based on the research conducted) 28 men and 14 women.
But over a long period of time, this became the norm. Heidt, not knowing the actual statistics at the time, recognised this imbalance in her day-to-day work. This moment of realisation allowed Heidt to see the problem in a different way. She could clearly and relatively easily make an accurate analysis of gender split across every single script.
Finding success through raw data
Thinking of all the different Pixar films created to date, there is a huge variety of characters. But in some way or another, they all have a clear gender associated with them. So Heidt began to manually count the amount of lines and dialogue that male characters delivered and compared this directly to female characters. Starting with Cars 3, Heidt found the script to be heavily imbalanced, with 90% of the lines coming from male characters. Heidt shared this data with directors, writers, editors, anyone who had the power to make a change. By collecting it using spreadsheets, she could clearly show the raw data devoid of any emotion.
Her findings were received in a reassuringly positive way because of how it was communicated. It was simply never shown in that way before. Pixar already understood that it was a problem, but weren’t aware quite how big the issue was. The outcome was successful, and the Cars 3 script was modified to include more female characters and rebalance the gender split throughout the film.
In addition, Josh Minor, who worked in the tools department for Pixar, was inspired by Heidt’s work. So the two collaborated to create a way to track gender representation in Pixar scripts using software. They pitched the idea to the Pixar executives to get their buy-in, and they successfully created an all-new custom metric. This moved Pixar closer to a more fair representation of female characters, and balanced the female/male dialogue. Their work cemented the metric as essential reporting at every milestone in Pixar’s production process.
However, Heidt made the important point that whilst this metric is not prescriptive, the longer-term goal is to achieve a 50/50 representation aggregately over many films, and across a longer period of time. Pixar's desire has always been to tell stories honestly and authentically, and Heidt’s work really helped to get the studio closer to that ideal.
When watching Heidt’s journey and her accomplishments, it is fair to say that she had an infinite mindset to solving a meaningful problem in a persuasive manner. Observing a clear issue in her day-to-day work, she took the time to research it, she chose the right measurements to track the problem, and exposed the data that couldn’t be tracked using out of the box analytics. She shared the data with the key people who had the power to make a change. The result, an outcome that made a difference both short-term (balancing gender representation in Cars 3) and long-term (adoption of a data-driven gender representation approach across the entire studio), plus, contributing to a shared vision (to tell stories honestly and authentically). The perfect persuasive metric.
Sinek’s stories, Spool’s teachings and Heidt’s work highlights and validates the importance of asking ourselves why we do what we do. By really getting to know the origins of the ‘why’, we can truly understand the direction and mindset that is needed to get us to the finish line.
To conclude, we should take these experiences and look at problems in a different way. We must think with an infinite mindset but also accept that there will be finite parts within this too. It’s the small wins that will get us to the ultimate success metric. I’d like to leave you with a few thoughts, and I hope that you can take these and apply them to your own work, business or projects.
Think beyond what you have in front of you. Think outside of the standard analytics that are so easy to rely on.
Ask yourself some key questions up front: Are these the right problems to be solving? Will it bring value? And to quote Spool, “If we do a great job designing, building, and delivering a well-designed [Feature, Product, or Service], how will we improve someone's life?”
Collaborate with the people around you to see if there’s an alternative way to measure or track the problem. Is there anything in your day-to-day work that can help you see the problem in a different light?
Leave your egos behind and forget about hidden agendas. When you have data, use it for good, and present it to the people who are in a position to make a change.
Something resonated with me more than anything else in all of this, and it was from Simon Sinek. To have a ‘just cause’. By doing so, and believing in it, others will follow. You don’t have to be the next Musk, Sandberg, Godin or Wojcicki.
Be an unsung hero and be proud of it.
We are Kyan, a technology agency powered by people.
Previously from Will:
Persuasive metrics and meaningful outcomes, part one
Five minutes with our UX Producer, Will Poole, on Design Sprints & User Testing
Meet the Kyan Design Sprint team: Harry Ford & Will Poole
Learning through listening: some of my favourite design podcasts