On this episode of the Design Mind frogcast, we ask Dave Lankford, VP of Product at Disney+, what it means to design products that tell stories.
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Design Mind frogcast
Episode 17: The Magic of Storytelling
Guest: Dave Lankford, VP of Product, Disney Streaming
[00:09] EW: Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood [EW].
[00:27] EW: Today on our show, we’re talking about designing products that tell stories. To do this, we’re joined by Dave Lankford, VP of Product for Global Consumer Engagement at Disney Streaming, which includes Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+ and Star+. Storytelling is mission-critical to Disney’s distinctive brand experiences, and customers have come to expect a little Disney magic in every interaction. For Dave and his team, delivering on these expectations takes both human empathy and machine intelligence, all informed by a clear sense of mission. Here’s Dave now.
[01:00] DL: I was a contractor for U.S. Defense and Intelligence. And when I worked there, what I learned very quickly was that my mission was to support the people in the field. And that might be a sailor, an airman, a Marine, a soldier—people that are putting their lives in harm’s way. And so that sense of mission of who we were serving became really palpable. And when you have that sense of mission, it really gives you a sense of humility. It strips your ego when you walk into that role and when you walk into those buildings. And it also teaches you a lot about how you communicate mission.
[01:40] DL: What I mean by that is really understanding that chain of command and having empathy for everyone in that chain of command. What do the people above you…what is expected of them? Why are they communicating to you? How do you communicate that mission to the people who work for you? How do you share that mission with your peers?
[01:58] DL: I’m Dave Lankford. I’m the VP of Product for Global Consumer Engagement at Disney Streaming.
[02:05] DL: The impact that I hope to have in my current role is to serve the mission of Disney, which is really about storytelling. At the heart of everything we do, at the heart of every product we create or experience we create, is a story. And it starts with our storytellers. I really want to contribute to creating that platform for storytellers and connecting those stories with people around the world.
[02:28] DL: That sense of mission, that clarity of mission, is something that I reflect on a lot. How do I create that sense of mission for my team? How do I help my team, my peers and even myself understand who are we serving and why? And what is the best path to serve that person or those people?
[02:50] EW: As a storyteller himself, Dave sees a lot of significance in the role of streaming services as a platform to tell more compelling stories. And how narrative structure can be used as a model for the customer journey.
[03:02] DL: I spent a good part of my life adjacent to the work that I do today as an actor, writer, director and a producer.
[03:10] DL: When you’re a storyteller, you develop an appreciation for how people experience stories. What is the thing that brings someone into a story? What propels them through that story? Usually, the protagonist has to go through a lot of different twists and turns to get to the end of that story, to get to that catharsis.
[03:30] DL: We want to get people to stories. We want to connect to them. And we want to not only get them to one story, but we want to introduce them to a lot of stories. That is that customer journey.
[03:42] DL: Streaming services, like Disney+, like Hulu, ESPN+, Star+—they provide an infinite surface area for telling stories, much more so than any other form of distribution that we have today.
[03:56] DL: If you look at these platforms. If you look at the stories that are being told and distributed on these platforms. And I would encourage folks to actually look at not just the stories, but who’s producing them, who’s writing them, who’s directing and starring in them. And what you’ll see is that there is a tremendous growth in diversity of the storytellers involved. And through that, we’re getting a diversity of stories that are representative of a broader audience.
[04:27] EW: During our conversation, Dave shared how he uses tools from his time as a performer with an improv troupe to be a more open and collaborative leader. He’s found the technique of ‘Yes, and’, a method for listening and building on a fellow performer’s scene, to be particularly useful in inspiring new ideas and innovative product directions.
[04:47] DL: I spent some time with an improv troupe, Washington Improv Theater in Washington, DC, studied at UCB in New York. I learned a lot from ‘Yes, and.’
[04:57] DL: The way I like to explain it to people, I always say: Imagine a stage. There’s two players that come on that stage. And the first player starts the scene and maybe says something like, ‘Hey, Bob, it’s been a year since I’ve seen you. Thanks for making the appointment.’ And they’ve just now started the scene. They’ve given some information. The other player can infer, and if I’m that other player, I have two choices. I can go into that scene and say, ‘I don’t know who you are. And I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And I’ve now killed that scene, I’ve destroyed it.
[05:26] DL: Or, I can say something like, ‘Hey, Doc, just so you know, I like to go by Robert now.’ And I’ve now introduced some new information. I’ve taken what that other player has given me, I’ve processed it, and I’ve provided my own addition to that. Now, I might be taking that scene in a slightly different direction than the other player. But that’s okay because now we’re starting a game. We’re starting to find the scene. We’re creating together. And that’s going to be a lot more interesting than if any one of us came in with our own predisposed ideas and weren’t listening to the other player. And I think that creative collaboration in any field should lean on that idea of ‘Yes, and.’
[06:10] DL: If someone comes to the table with an idea, and we’re part of that ideation process, you could be skeptical. And I think it’s very human to be skeptical to look at the holes in a presentation or an idea. But I think the more creative decision is to assume that there’s value in there—to say, ‘Yes, and.’
[06:32] DL: Maybe other product managers that have different experiences, that are saying, ‘Yes, if you were going to do that, you probably also want to do this. Here’s something else that we’ve looked at that I think you might want to borrow in what you’re doing.’ And so you become additive in that process.
[06:47] DL: The direction may change, just like a scene. An improvised scene is going to take a lot of twists and turns. At the end of the day, what you arrive at is something much more interesting and probably much more compelling for your users.
[07:00] EW: Of course, when operating on a scale like Disney+, which has more than 100 million subscribers, human insight can truly only personalize user experiences to a certain extent. Here is where Dave says AI becomes mission-critical in powering what they call an ‘algotorial’ approach.
[07:20] DL: ‘Algotorial,’ for us is, kind of, a joke-y term that we use. It really is talking about the importance of having both editorial and algorithms when we’re helping people discover content.
[07:31] DL: Machine learning is fundamental to how we power discovery at Disney and all of our streaming products. I think anyone in our industry has a general agreement that machine learning and personalization is key to helping a large-scale audience discover content.
[07:50] DL: We also believe that the human aspect of that is really important. Storytelling itself is innately human. It’s part of our DNA. It’s how we experience the world. Drama, for instance, is not the same for every person or culture. What I find funny and what you find funny may be very different things. Machine learning really supercharges the element that humans have created in helping us understand those stories, and starts to make it really relevant to each and every individual. And so that’s where we get to a really personalized experience.
[08:25] EW: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, Dave will share how being inclusive as a global company requires deep insight into language, culture and consumer behavior across country and even regional borders.
[08:39] BREAK: Hi, I’m Ian Lee, Design Director in frog’s London studio and leader of frog’s convergent design discipline. Convergent design looks across digital, product and service domains to unite organizations and enable next-level customer experiences. Check the show notes to get my full report on Convergent Transformation. Find out why innovation can’t be forced through old silos—and why real transformation takes convergent design.
[09:07] EW: Now back to Dave Lankford, VP of Product for Global Consumer Engagement at Disney Streaming.
[09:13] DL: Disney is a global company. To work with peers in other parts of the world is always a really rewarding process. I’m really excited about an upcoming launch that we have for Disney+. We’re expanding into eastern Asia, specifically Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. And I would say part of the reason why I’m really excited about this was just the process of preparing for these launches, understanding the nuances of Chinese, Japanese and Korean, what it means to support those languages—not just for those regions of the world, but globally, for consumers that speak those languages.
[09:58] EW: Dave was actually inspired by an episode of the podcast Radiolab called ‘The Wubi Effect’ to take a closer look at how people write, and not just the languages they use but how they type, and how that might inform user experiences.
[10:13] DL: I’d heard this story about the Wubi method, which comes from China. There is a gentleman who spent about five years trying to understand how you could map a character-based writing system of Chinese to a QWERTY keyboard. And his objective there was that the QWERTY keyboard was starting to make a lot of people think that they should Romanize the Chinese language as a writing system. But he thought that in order to protect the culture, and in order to sustain that culture, you had to sustain and protect the writing system because so much was baked into the characters. So much of that culture’s understanding of the world was represented in the way they wrote about the world. So, he designed something that is now in use today. There’s different variations, and people have taken their own methods, but it’s become a way to really protect that culture.
[11:07] DL: I think that’s fascinating. And so we’ve looked at things like Japanese, where there’s three character-based writing systems and a Romanized system. And when people, for instance, do a search in Japanese, they can use combinations of those, which is perfectly acceptable in Japanese, such that there’s eight different ways to query for Snow White.
[11:27] DL: You see similar types of things in Korean, where as someone types their query, as the keystrokes are happening, there may be simplified characters that are being put together. But then you have to understand in real-time that those keystrokes may be leading to a more complex character. And so you have to reflect that in your UI in real-time, both in forward as people are typing and understanding that you’re leading to a complex character, as well as with their backspacing.
[11:53] DL: You have to start to think about: How do people actually experience the products? Where is their eye flowing? And getting away from your own personal biases of what looks great, or what’s aesthetically pleasing to yourself, and thinking really about that audience and what’s aesthetically pleasing and helpful for them when they navigate a product.
[12:11] DL: Languages are not necessarily constrained by borders, or by countries, or even by cultures. It’s important to look at all of our products and, whether or not they’re operating in the United States where the Walt Disney Company is headquartered, or whether they’re operating around the world, is to understand that those consumers who have those expectations, who speak those languages—they live in the United States. They live in Europe. They live in Africa. They live in the Middle East. They live in Asia. And so thinking about products like Hulu, like Star+, like ESPN+, like Disney, and understanding that those consumers exist in all the places those products operate, and making sure that we’re inclusive of them, that we’re representing them in our art, but also that we’re localizing our products to their needs.
[13:09] EW: By this point in our conversation, I had to admit that all these different possible user experiences seem like a lot to keep straight from a design systems perspective—even with a whole team of dedicated language managers. Luckily, Dave and his team have found that exploring the differences between languages, regions and cultures can also reveal their commonalities.
[13:32] DL: When you’re trying to accommodate for so many countries and regions, so many cultures, so many languages, some of those are small or large. And so you evaluate the return on investment. How much resources do we actually have to put forward on this? How can we scale to support all of it? So when we look at Arabic and Hebrew, they’re both bidirectional languages. If we looked at each of them individually, it might be really difficult to see that as two separate projects. But if we look and say: What are the commonalities? How do we build a UI system that can accommodate these two languages or anything that would require right-to-left navigation? Then we’ve been able to achieve a lot more. As you dive into, say, character-based languages, there are nuances there.
[14:20] DL: You win a lot of hearts when you can understand those nuances and bring them into the experience for the user.
[14:29] EW: Having empathy, whether it’s for a user of a product, or for a family member, friend or a colleague is really important to Dave. And it’s part of why he’s so passionate about mental health.
[14:42] DL: It’s important that we look at people who are going through this pandemic and saying, ‘What have we taken for granted because we’re all going through it?’ And we’re maybe focused on our own mental health, but what’s happening to the people around us and the people that are closest to us?
[14:59] DL: I lost my father when I was sixteen. I was in high school. He suffered from depression and we ultimately lost him to suicide. And that’s such a taboo subject. I think, even today, where mental health is a bigger part of our dialogue, even things like suicide cause people to really kind of close up and not know what to say. The fact that we don’t know what to say to someone who is a survivor of something like suicide says a lot about where we are in our acceptance of that as a way in which we lose people today. So, I’m really passionate about mental health and making sure that people invest in their own mental health. Even when they’re doing well, there are things you can do that are preventative, in the same way there are things you can do to be preventative about heart disease.
[15:51] DL: So, I think making sure that people take the time at work, that they take the time with their family. If they see someone who’s struggling, that we have empathy for that. That it may mean that someone who is really under pressure, and may be critical for something we’re doing. No matter the importance of what they’re doing, we may have to give that person the time off. That may be the best thing for their mental health. That empathy for people I think is incredibly important.
[16:18] DL: Whether it’s something I do formally or just in observation, or even for self and for family, that’s something that’s become a bigger part of my life, and something I’ve become much more passionate about. And certainly, again, knowing the history of my own family has made me realize that there’s a lot of work for us to do.
[16:37] EW: According to Dave, a creative person in any field could benefit from dedicating time and resources to creative pursuits outside of work as well. That’s why along with his work at Disney, Dave is an award-winning playwright.
[16:52] DL: I wrote a play that has been performed in a number of different cities, and also during the pandemic was performed in other countries. It’s this play called Night of the Living that’s about a husband and wife that are going through struggles. I think the reason why it got picked up during quarantine and the pandemic was that the backdrop to this play is a pandemic, although not COVID. It’s a zombie pandemic. But it is a drama. I say ‘zombies’ and people start getting a little bit giddy and they think it’s some kind of comedy or musical, but it’s really just the backdrop for this couple as they go through the present time when the pandemic is starting to peak and the future where they’re living in the aftermath.
[17:37] DL: I think you need to find those creative releases or those other things you can do outside of work. That practice of an artist, which is to get out of your space, to get out of the studio where you might be studying, or the class or the workshop, and going out into the world and actually experiencing things. I think that’s just as important to having ideas. It’s just as important for having empathy. It’s just as important to your own personal health to get away from work for a little bit.
[18:10] DL: I think it’s a matter of just making the time. People talk about finding the time. You’ll never find the time. You just have to make the time.
[18:18] EW: Over the decades, customers have come to expect Disney magic whether visiting a Disney park or streaming Disney content online. We asked Dave if he had a favorite Disney park, and how these sorts of in-person interactions might inspire the design of digital experiences.
[18:35] DL: Picking my favorite Disney park is like picking my favorite child. I cannot do it. I will not do it. I enjoy all the parks. I’ve had great times at all the parks. And I’m not saying that just because I work at Disney.
[18:51] DL: I can tell you about my favorite cast member at a Disney park and my favorite memory at a Disney park. So, my family and I, and this was a number of years ago, we’ve been a couple times since, but we went to Walt Disney World in Florida. We had decided as the last ride of the day to go on Space Mountain. My oldest daughter was really young at the time, just old enough and tall enough to go. We finally got to the front of the line, and we’re about to get on the ride. My daughter got really scared and said that she didn’t want to ride.
[19:24] DL: And as we’re walking out, one of the cast members stops me and he recognizes what’s happening. And he asked me as her parent if he can talk to her. I say yes. And then he asks her, ‘Can I talk to you?’ She gave him permission. And he started to ask her about the rides she had ridden that day, and started to talk about how one of them was actually the fastest coaster in that park. And another one had the biggest drop in the park, and compared them to the ride that she was now walking away from, from Space Mountain. He was helping her see how brave she had been during that day, and how much fun she had had because of the choices she had made.
[20:07] DL: Now if I’m being honest, she did not ride the ride that day. We still got off the ride. But the next day, she came to me and said, ‘Dad, I want to ride Space Mountain.’ The next day, we went to Space Mountain, and we rode it and it is still, to this day, her favorite ride. I think because it’s her favorite ride, it’s my favorite ride. But really, when I look back, that cast member—and I wish I knew his name, I wish I had looked him up, I wish I had been able to thank him—because he gave me one of the most memorable and magical moments of all of my visits. And I think about it every time I go back.
[20:43] DL: As an employee of Disney, I often think about: How do we take that magic that our cast members are able to create in physical spaces, and how do we transpose that into our digital spaces? How can we create those moments that are really hard to manufacture, that really are about taking moments that could actually be really negative for a person? And how do we shift them and make them magical? And make them memorable? So that someone walks away really delighted with that experience?
[21:16] DL: When we experience a story, we’re experiencing it simultaneously through our own eyes, as well as the eyes of a character. And so I think that’s something that we can continue to look at and continue to tap into, which is ‘How do we involve our audience in the story? How do we make them feel more a part of that? How do we make sure that our stories are so good and that they’re so part of that experience that they see themselves in that story?’ I think that’s what really makes it a human experience.
[21:49] EW: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a leading global creative consultancy that is part of Capgemini Invent. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. Plus, links to reports, case studies and other info mentioned in this episode. We sincerely want to thank Dave Lankford, VP of Product for Global Consumer Engagement at Disney Streaming for joining us to talk about the power of storytelling and what it takes to lead inclusive, collaborative teams.
[22:19] EW: We also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us, and be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.co/contact. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.
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