On this episode, we’re talking about designing products people love in the world of streaming entertainment. For this conversation, we’re joined by Sarah Lyons, streaming media leader, product executive and former Head of Product at HBO Max, interviewed by Sean Rhodes, Executive Creative Director, frog North America. We discuss the future of streaming media, consumer trends and behaviors, and why we should all pay attention to how children consume media.
Design Mind frogcast
Episode 32: The Future of Streaming Media
Guests: Sarah Lyons, Streaming Media Leader, Product Executive & Former Head of Product at HBO Max & Sean Rhodes, Executive Creative Director, frog North America
[00:09] Elizabeth Wood: 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.
[00:24] Elizabeth Wood: Today on our show, we’re talking about designing products people love in the world of streaming entertainment. In a moment, you’re going to hear Sarah Lyons, streaming media leader, product executive and former Head of Product at HBO Max in conversation with Sean Rhodes, Executive Creative Director of frog North America. Sarah knows what it takes to build a product that supports a fanbase. The scale of HBO Max’s reach is massive–around 95 million subscribers worldwide. Throughout her and Sean’s conversation, Sarah shares her own experience building a career in the rapidly evolving world of streaming entertainment, the new consumer trends and behaviors that are shaping the media landscape, and where to look for inspiration on what’s next for your product roadmap. Hint: it turns out, children truly are the future. Here’s Sean and Sarah now.
[01:15] Sean Rhodes: We’re thrilled to have Sarah Lyons, one of my favorite partners and clients of all time, today in a conversation with us about a number of subjects: the entertainment industry, streaming and maybe even a little bit of wine. Sarah, thanks so much for joining us.
[01:31] Sarah Lyons: Yeah, happy to be here.
[01:33] Sean Rhodes: You have such an incredible background. And I’m kind of curious, you know, in your own words, what were some of the formative experiences that brought you into the entertainment and technology industry?
[01:47] Sarah Lyons: I never really planned my career. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grow up. And I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. So I kind of just fell into the beginning of my career. And actually, I went from undergrad to grad school purely just to kick the can down the road on making a decision because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. And then I fell into a PR job at the beginning of my career, and quickly realized that PR just wasn’t for me. The biggest thing that was hard for me was you could do the best job possible, you could, in essence, write the story for the journalist. And at the end of the day, it was up to the editor whether that story made it or not. And this was back in the days of paper, so there was a finite amount of space. So they couldn’t just publish everything. And so I wasn’t at the control of my own destiny. From there, I just happened to have a friend that had an opening at DirecTV. Back then it was the satellite TV company. Shortly after, the product had launched itself. And I jumped into then it was called the direct sales department, which really in our terms today is customer growth, customer acquisition and overall subscriber growth management. That gave me a really good lesson just in business fundamentals, in managing a customer cohort and driving sales. And then over the course of time, my responsibilities increased. And I took on more and more on the sales and marketing side.
[03:06] Sarah Lyons: So at any rate, that whole kind of first half of my career, I think of as being born on the business side and growing up managing P&L and profitability and subscriber lifecycle, etc. And then I think about the second half of my career as deep in product and tech, and building consumer experiences, and creating products that consumers are going to use. So I’ve got kind of these two halves of the coin of my experience, which I do think has made me a better product leader overall–having had that business experience–because I can make better trade offs when I’m managing an overall global roadmap for the company. I know the levers that are needed to drive the business as well as what drives consumer adoption and passion. So, yeah, and then it’s all been around kind of video and media. And streaming was part of the evolution of that role. In mid career, streaming started becoming a real thing. And it’s just a really amazing industry to have grown up in and shaped, and watch it grow and change and morph and become the thing that it is today.
[04:04] Sean Rhodes: I feel like so many of the product managers that we work with that are so fantastic, they really do have that blend of what’s important for the customer, what’s going to move the needle in terms of the business and then how we really leverage the technology to the utmost of its ability. And I think that balance can be really tricky. Really great to hear how, you’ve sort of formatively moved along that pathway because I think you do that really brilliantly. I’m just really curious, like, when HBO Max launched, or when the products that you were working on and DirecTV launched, obviously huge brands, millions of people are engaging with those for hours a day, what does that feel like for you?
[04:42] Sarah Lyons: Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. I mean, it’s great, because users care, especially with HBO Max, I mean, users would go post on social media whether they liked things or hated things, which was actually the best input ever to make the product experience even better. We pored over every word every consumer would would type. But it’s fun working on something that people are passionate about because then that drives you and makes you excited to create for them. It’s not just a utility. You’re creating something tthat’s enhancing the fabric of their lives. And that’s fun. I relish it. But on the flip, what was super fascinating, coming along in my career, was just dealing with large scale and the millions and millions of subscribers, you look at things very closely from an experience perspective in terms of how any individual user might engage. But then you also have to back up to 50,000 feet, and look at this broad landscape of dynamics of cohorts of customers, and how the patterns of interaction happened, how the patterns of behavior play out, and the underlying analytics to that. And then you touch different pieces of that to almost move parts of this big machine. And it’s this really interesting dichotomy of the two.
[05:58] Sean Rhodes: We sometimes talk about this. I’m sure you and I have talked about this at moments of you’re moving for these like elevations. You’re like, “We’re in space! No, we’re one inch off the ground.” And everywhere in between the entire time. Are there any frameworks or insights or advice you could give to people that are trying to get good at that kind of particular mindset or skill set?
[06:23] Sarah Lyons: Yeah, it’s really a good point, because it is hard. You have to context switch a lot, to dive down to grass level and send up to moon level. I think context switching tricks to your brain are good. And this is almost just kind of more of a personal thing, but setting aside chunks of time to go down or up. Because then your brain is kind of in a focus state where you can wrap your head around the thought processes that you may need to attack a certain problem. So that’s one. Two is just practice, really. It’s talking to people also that are thinking in both realms. Different people think of both realms. Different people have more affinity to think in either a high level realm or a low level realm. And practice talking to those people and hearing their points of view helps you kind of open your eyes to, “Oh, I see how you think up here. And then I can see how you might want to think down here.”So yeah, a lot of that just you know, is experience to over time you hone in the skill.
[07:19] Sean Rhodes: Yeah, I love that there’s this white paper I read a million years ago, I think the title of it was ‘The Social Origin of Good Ideas.’ And it kind of talked about people that sort of sit in between different groups, and kind of communicate with them to get their perspectives. And then they can synthesize that together. And that’s where a lot of the interesting concepts come from.
[07:40] Sarah Lyons: I love that because I always tell my product management team, you know, as product managers and designers, we are the center of the company. And we are the glue that should be attaching departments together, bringing people towards an idea or towards problem solving and connecting the dots for other people. We’re kind of this intermediary that should be translating and communicating across groups. And I love that can that. It kind of echoes that sentiment.
[08:03] Sean Rhodes: I think you touched on something really interesting: looking at data. Because I think data helps us when you’re dealing with something at scale helps us to see something that’s a little bit unseeable, unthinkable if we didn’t have it. And I think that’s some of the magic of software. Do you have an anecdote from your time in the trenches of where data gave you an insight about something important that initially wasn’t obvious, but ended up being pretty impactful?
[08:30] Sarah Lyons: Data is everything. Data will give you a clue or lead you to a behavior that can then either meet a need, or provide a solution that gets a user deeper into their engagement. So this was an earlier on experience, but I think is pretty crystal clear for a wide audience. So it may seem like, “Oh, of course” nowadays, but back in the beginning of trying to drive subscriber engagement, it was actually fairly novel. So we were looking at data, we wanted to make sure users would stick with our streaming experiences and stick with our service. And, you know, how can we make sure that they don’t end up churning out or disengaging, which then ultimately leads to turn off your platform? And looking at the data, what we found is, if a consumer starts a new series, a new TV series, if you can get them past episode three, then they’re 90% more likely to finish the entire series. And once you’ve completed a series, then there’s higher probability that you would move on to a second series. And continuing to do these handoffs, getting from one a user from one set of content to another set of content is important to lower churn. But that key pivot point was episode three. And so having that knowledge, you could see it in the data. You could see people that only completed episode two just dropped off. And if you got them over three to four, you were good. And so it caused us to look at our experience in a new way and start to design prompts in our apps that we’re prompting that user to go one more. Because if we could just get them one more, then we’ve got them to stick. So it’s like little things like that can make a big difference in how you organize a streaming app for a user.
[10:06] Sean Rhodes: That’s exactly my behavior, but I never really thought about it quite in that way. There’s always this tension when you’re building a product between managing sort of the day-to-day or potentially some tech or design or some product debt, and then really kind of thinking about the future. Where are we innovating? Where are we placing our bets? Where are we running our experiments? And I think in particular, you’re one of the product people that I’ve seen that like really be able to really effectively do that well. What are some of the core tenants to managing that tension from your perspective?
[10:39] Sarah Lyons: Every organization has a need to prioritize. You just can’t do it all. And so how do you strike that balance? First of all, first and foremost, when I come into a new role, or have a new product that we’re working on, I love to out of the gate paint a picture of where we’re going to be in five years or 10 years from now. And that was one of the first projects I do with a new team. And you know well because we did this together, it’s to ideate on who do we want to be? And where are we going? And then simultaneously you of course need to have some teams that are working on what’s the near term and what are some of the blocking and tackling in-between items that we need to take care of in order to have a solid foundation or you know, tech debt addressed, etc.? But you devote a good amount of time right upfront to that future vision. And then you paint that future vision for the entire organization. Not just the product organization, but the entire company. Wave that banner and then everyone knows the path that we’re on at that point in time.
[11:35] Sarah Lyons: And so from there on out, as I’m thinking about planning the roadmap, each and everything we do should be leading us to that goal. If at all possible, you try to avoid doing things that diverge from that goal because that goal is the goal. Granted, there are contractual items or regulatory things that you have to do along the way, but really to help people make decisions on: What’s a priority? What’s not a priority? Is it going to lead us to that goal or not? This is the litmus test. And then you plan chunks of work near term and long term and kind of lay out what I call the big rocks. These are big pieces of tech or functionality or big, major items that you’re going to accomplish. And you lay those out across the course of the three to five years. Near term things will have higher fidelity in terms of exactly what it is or what it means, how complex it might be or how much capacity it’s going to take up. Farther out on the roadmap, of course, it’s a little more loose, and things could change, because this is an agile environment, and things do change. But it’s good to map a path for everybody.
[12:31] Sarah Lyons: And then once those big rocks are set, I know the big things, the five huge pieces of functionality that I’m going to do next quarter and the quarter after that. The teams plan that first. And once they plan that work, and then you see what capacity you have left, then you plan what I call the pebbles. So those are the medium sized things that you need to fit in. And that’s usually the things that are regulatory, or contractual and some of the other smaller items that you might need to address tech-debt wise. And then you will see what’s left after that from a capacity perspective. And then you plan the sand. So the sand is the smaller items, fixing little paper cuts with users that are annoying bugs, or, you know, surprise and delight, some sort of feature that a team member has an idea about that they can stick into the release. That’s always worked really well for me from a planning perspective because you’re sure to not fill up your jar with sand, and then have no room for the rocks. So the rocks are important because the rocks keep you on your journey towards that future goal. And that’s huge. But to your point on innovation, I always simultaneously have a team or a train, depending on how much how many resources we can devote to it, that’s ideating on that five to 10 year timeline. And so they’re doing proofs of concept, they’re figuring out new technologies. They’re really kicking the tires on what could be later, such that when the practical every day, timeline, roadmap train catches up, we’re ready to just stick those things in and we can jump-step the competition.
[13:59] Sean Rhodes: That’s so cool. I love that metaphor of rocks, pebbles, sand it’s so useful. Maybe we fast forward a little bit and we think about what are some of the things that are going to be impacting media streaming, the broader entertainment industry in five to 10 years? Are there a couple of things that get you excited or get you concerned?
[14:20] Sarah Lyons: Yeah, well, there’s a lot that gets me excited. AI is really the next generation of what was previously recommendation algorithms. AI, I hope, and I think can ultimately do this dream vision that I’ve always had, where I would love to create an experience for users where you intuitively know the user coming in based on inputs from their daily life, of course, we have data privacy protection in all of this, but you can implicitly understand a little more about them so that when they enter your experience, it feels like it’s for them. They automatically feel like, “Wow, this was created just for me.” But lo and behold, this experience in order to have scale and profitability should be created for millions and millions of customers. But to really better understand that user today. Most streaming experiences are exactly the same no matter who you are. You enter in and they don’t know you from anybody else. So that’s one thing where I hope that AI can actually help you know better take all these data inputs across multiple aspects of a user’s life and then help us create an experience that’s tailored. Seconds, I always have wanted to create an experience that as the user is interacting with it in real time, it’s dynamically adjusting itself, such that it’s keeping up with, again, anticipating the user’s needs. And almost addressing that need before the user even has to explicitly ask for it. Because that’s a lot of the friction that it’s in these experiences.
[15:44] Sarah Lyons: Today, a user has to go hunt and peck through and figure out what they want to watch and then find where it is. And actually, if I back up, find out even what service it’s on right now. You don’t even know where you need to go to watch a piece of particular piece of content. So if you can anticipate the user’s needs ahead of them having to do the work, and then just magically serve it up to them, it’s amazing. That takes the friction and the pain out of all of that usage that the consumer might have. So I think AI can help us do some of these things. And then lastly, the other buzzword is kind of more of a mixed reality vision I think that I have. And this is, again, probably more like in the 10 to 15 year range. Ultimately, at some point, being able to juxtapose screens and or data over your daily life. You can think about these goggles for metaverse, today, or goggles for mixed reality are very heavy and cumbersome and they cover your whole head and you can’t wear them for that long. That’s just today. In my mind, 15 years from now, your reading glasses will have those capabilities because technology is going to get so good and this processing power is going to get so fast and chips will be so small that it will be lightweight, like you’re wearing nothing. And then, like headphones were to music, you can carry your video with you anywhere you go. And so I imagine a world where one day you’re just walking down the street, you see a billboard for a movie, you look at it, your glasses scan it, and it prompts you with an option to add it to your list to watch at home later. Or you need a ride, you come to the corner of the street and before you even raise your arm to hail a cab, it calls your favorite driver service for you and you immediately get a car to pick it up. So again, anticipating these user needs ahead of them having to do the work. And so I think some of these technologies are going to enable that.
[17:24] Sean Rhodes: HBO Max was part of a broader Warner family, and some of your offices were right next to the lot. And I’m thinking about, you’ve got Harry Potter, you’ve got a Universal theme parks, you have kind of all of these different, incredible franchises. You’ve got these incredible games. The new Hogwarts game just came out and it’s smashing all of these records. What was it like to be the product lead of the direct consumer channel amidst all of those incredible resources that were part of that family? Does that inspire your work as well?
[18:01] Sarah Lyons: I mean, when I first came to the job, looking at the potential content catalog, it blew me away. I was like, “Wow, this content catalog is outstanding.” And we absolutely have a rich wealth of franchises and well-known stories and characters at our fingertips. And so it definitely was motivating because I knew that this service could be a passion point for users. But on the flip side, as I was doing research and kind of identifying how we could differentiate ourselves in the marketplace, I came to the conclusion that in order to really win, and in order to really change the face of what consumers know as a video service, the experience itself is going to matter just as much as the content. Because if you think about it, everybody has great content. Everybody has great content, right? There’s just a plethora of amazing content out there. And that’s why consumers are service hopping. They’re going in and out from one app to the other because the content is spread all over the place in many different spots. And so really, in my mind, the place where there’s still room for someone to jump out ahead, is to create an experience where the experience matters just as much as the content that’s there. And that’s really an open space right now.
[19:17] Sean Rhodes: Yeah, I totally agree. I know that you did some work on HBO Max trying to think about how can we bring more of that a little bit of the social component into it in terms of actors, directors, creating their own playlists and recommendations. Like, why was that kind of an important experiment to you?
[19:39] Sarah Lyons: I have always felt that the best way consumers, humans, find out about content or even other experiences or other products is through other humans they trust. You know, people are always trusting those people that they know or those people that have an opinion or point of view that they trust. And that’s the hook usually that will get them to be motivated to invest the time to try something new. And so this is just a strong belief I have. I also always like to operate my product management thought process on human nature because I think if you tap into human nature, ultimately, you can create experiences that are more familiar to users and are more helpful to users. And so I think human nature is just to be social, and to listen to other people and get advice from other people and see what other people are doing as a litmus test for what I should be doing. And so if you tap into that, and an experience, where you can use other human beings to provide those recommendations, I think that could be a winning formula. Also, you can see that behavior happening today in many places on the internet, whether it’s various forums, posts, boards, social media, people are already conversing about video content. They’re already giving each other recommendations elsewhere. They’re already creating funny memes and talking about backstories. So the idea would be, why can’t they do that in the experience in which they can watch the content as well?
[20:56] Sean Rhodes: Maybe we can zoom back out. I’m kind of curious for someone who is going down that leadership path, what do you think is important? What exemplifies your leadership style? And what do you think is useful?
[21:09] Sarah Lyons: Yeah, well, first and foremost, I like to set a very high bar for my team, but in a positive way. I am very big into mentoring and giving context for why we’re doing, what we’re doing, and helping coach and guide and growing my team in not only their area, but also in other areas, whether they want to branch out their skill set or understand more about the business. And so I think those two things going hand in hand, I have found that even though I have set a high bar, because I’m supportive in that journey for our team, they always meet the bar and exceed it always. I’m telling you, always they meet the bar and exceed it. And many times I’ve had folks that worked for me have come to me after the fact and said, “Sarah, I didn’t think I could do it. But wow, I surprised myself, and I’ve never learned so much that I’ve learned working for you.”And I love that. I’m really passionate about leaving a mark on people’s lives and helping guide them towards their own future. That really drives me. So I think there’s a bit of that. And then I’m just super open and honest about myself as a human, about things that are going on and recognizing the real. I try to be very open and candid. I try not to hold back information. I really do share a lot with my team because I feel like that context, understanding, knowing that I have their back but also understanding different pressures that may be going on whether it’s internally or externally, and how those pressures can affect what we’re doing or how we could pivot to adjust to those pressures. I think all of that just helps give them guidance and empowers them to make the right decisions.
[22:49] Sean Rhodes: What for you has been some of the challenges with leading and particularly in high pressure environments, like HBO Max?
[22:59] Sarah Lyons: Change is hard for people. That’s another human nature thing, right? Humans don’t like change. And so really one of the biggest things that I pay attention to is how I can coach people through change. And it’s almost like, I used to run a lot in my life. And I kind of have this metaphor that if you’re a runner, or if you haven’t run, and you first start running, it’s very difficult. And you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t keep doing this running.” But once you get used to it, and you run more and more and more, and start to start a run and settle into that pace, that pace becomes the new normal. And you can deal with it. You can handle it. And you’re like, Yeah, I can run for a long time, because I’m used to this pace. And it’s kind of getting people minds to realize everything is hard at first. Everything new is hard at first, even for me. I tell myself this all the time, whenever I do something new, it’s gonna be hard. At first, it’s gonna feel complicated. It’s gonna feel overwhelming. I’m gonna say to myself, “How am I going to do this?” But if I just keep at it, and I keep attacking one problem after another, or figuring out this piece and this piece and slowly chipping away at it, the next time I go do it, it will be easier. And it will get easier and easier and easier. It’s just always hard in the beginning. It always gets easy. And so I think helping teams through that, especially when you’re on a roll of evolution and or change management, that’s so important because then they can handle anything that’s thrown at them.
[24:22] Sean Rhodes: I think that’s so true. And I think also in those moments of change, people are saying “Okay, I get this change, but what does it mean for me?” The ability to personalize that for them and help people see where they’re gonna go through that change is critically important as a leader.
[24:36] Sarah Lyons: Definitely, and help them understand like, sometimes it’s okay that you don’t know exactly where you’ll go in this, because that happens too. But if you keep focus on the work, keep helping other people in other departments, always be that glue, always be the help to bring people together, if you keep doing those two things, you will end up in a great spot. I’ve seen it nine times out of 10. As long as there’s continued focus on the work, collaboration, humbleness, and you know, ability to help other people along you’ll be fine.
[25:10] Elizabeth Wood: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, Sarah will share more about what it’s like developing products that reach millions of users per day.
[25:19] Sesh Vedachalam: Hi, I’m Sesh Vedachalam, Strategy Director in frog’s London studio. With the climate crisis worsening, business have a crucial role to play—not just in reducing harm but going further to create better outcomes for people, planet and the future of the business. We believe that now’s the time to move beyond sustainability and into regeneration. frog’s new downloadable tool, The Regenerative Compass, draws on a powerful and holistic mindset to bring users closer to more meaningful, dynamic and adaptive products, services and experiences. Check this episode’s show notes to find a link to download The Regenerative Compass today. Find out how to ask the big questions in order to shift mindsets and arrive at radical, hopeful and equitable visions for the future.
[26:03] Elizabeth Wood: Now back to our conversation between Sean Rhodes, Executive Creative Director in frog New York, and Sarah Lyons, streaming media leader, product executive and former Head of Product at HBO Max.
[26:14] Sean Rhodes: Have you ever been in a situation where maybe you’re going down a pathway with a product or an initiative and you realize this isn’t the right thing to do? And then you need to pivot? Has that ever happened before? And what does that feel like to drive that change to adapt that original strategy to something different?
[26:36] Sarah Lyons: It’s a great question because that has happened a couple of times. And every scenario is different because it depends on the degree to which the impact has been felt by your users, and/or the degree to which the impact has been felt internally from either a cost, time, or capacity perspective. I think in situations where it’s a larger impact to your users, quickly identifying that you need to pivot and just being open and honest with your users, “Hey, we tried this, we understand it’s not working for you, we’re going to fix it or revert or do this other thing.” I think quickly identifying and quickly addressing is important. And then also internally with the teams in those situations. It’s healthy to try things and fail. That’s a good thing. That means you’re pushing the boundaries of what might be possible. And so in no way do you want the teams to feel like anyone should feel bad about that decision. Again, I think if you quickly recognize it and act, that’s really the more important thing, and learn, of course, that’s really the more important thing in those situations. If it’s something that’s more impactful internally, again, I feel like the faster you can pivot, the better. However, you’ll have more cycles internally of trying to address various groups that may have been impacted, and putting together some more formal plans internally for how that particular thing could be flagged earlier, not as impactful to other groups earlier, etc. So it’s almost like, I feel like you have a little more post mortem internally to put action plans in place. So that would have less impact moving forward. Whereas externally, it’s more of a mea culpa. But let’s fix it fairly, quickly for users. But again, I think all this is actually very healthy. And you should have some of those in your career because that means that means you’ve tried some things. And really, that’s where you learn.
[28:31] Sean Rhodes: There’s that willingness to experiment, safety to fail, that helps to evolve the product helps to evolve the experience. I think the reason why that’s so important is because I think that the consumer expectations, their desires are kind of evolving a lot. And I’m curious whether you agree with that. Are consumer expectations changing in entertainment, and why do you think that it is? What do you think it’s moving towards?
[28:59] Sarah Lyons: Yes, they are. And their expectations are actually being set by companies not in entertainment. That’s what’s so funny. You know, so if you think about it, the travel industry has set the expectation that I have one location to go to, and I can price shop every different airline brand. So as a user, I’m like, “Well, why can’t I go somewhere and price shop every single video streaming service? I can do that in the travel industry.” You know what I mean? It sounds like other industries are setting the bar for just overall experience. I mean, Amazon absolutely set the bar for I expect something to show up at my doorstep later that day. So then in every other industry, that’s not shopping or commerce, you expect that response to come to you that day. And so you have to, as a product leader, be looking at every industry and what impacts that may be having on user behavior. And frankly, that’s where you can get some of the brilliant ideas for your own industry is by looking at something someone has done in a completely disconnected space that you may be able to apply that paradigm or again that you know, tap into that consumer behavior in your space that’s completely different than anyone else has done before. So yeah, and then second, to your point, those expectations are evolving so quickly, that testing things is important to try and keep up with it. But I also believe that really the goal is to figure out what consumers don’t even know they want yet, and try to address that. And that’s where someone can break ahead of the pack and win.
[30:25] Sean Rhodes: You’ve said human nature is really important. You’d like to work to establish that Northstar. But where did you learn? Where do you learn how to do that? And what are some anecdotes of where you’ve kind of gone for inspiration?
[30:36] Sarah Lyons: I think just observing people really. Because if you’re creating things for people, observing them over your life, and just being very in tune with how they behave, how they act, their feelings, that has just given me this kind of underlying ability to sense what’s going on. But in terms of inspiration, gosh, my best inspiration is my 10 year old son because it’s a whole new generation of consumer. And over the course of my career journey, obviously, I’ve been with him at every life stage. So I’ve seen him interacting with digital screens since he was two all the way to 10. And I can see how his behavior is so different from my generation’s behavior. And, to me, most companies are losing sight that they’re developing for a 35 year old plus consumer. And here’s all these generations of younger consumers that are quickly going to be in a purchasing power position that no one’s thinking about designing for how they behave. And so that’s actually my biggest source of inspiration. Because if you can design now, for them, by the time I’m able to release it to market, they’re gonna be able to use it. So I think that companies should set their sights slightly younger than they are today.
[31:43] Sean Rhodes: Yeah, to completely agree with that. And I don’t think that’s just in entertainment. I think that’s financial services. I think that’s travel. I think that’s automotive. You know, we see that very often. I think what’s tough for businesses is to say, you know, our most valuable customers are those 35 year olds, or those 65 year olds that have massive 401k IDs and financial services, and you want me to think about a 10 year old ? That can be really difficult. If you feel up for sharing, what are some of the things that your son is is using or into that you think has implications for streaming or media or beyond?
[32:23] Sarah Lyons: He is on multiple devices at once. I’m sounding like a very terrible parent, I know. He’s on Xbox playing Roblox while he’s got his Chromebook open, looking at YouTube Kids or memes, while he’s got his Gameboy that he’s kind of flipping to. But the key in all of this is he’s interacting actively with all of them. So it’s not a passive usage. It’s a very active user. But he’s also interacting with us in the room. So he’ll be on all three of these, and actually not even in the room but two rooms away, he can hear everything. It’s ridiculous. My husband and I will be talking and he’ll be like, “What was that about XYZ?” and hear us! But he’ll, you know, call out from two rooms away. Well, he’s got three devices open and wants to engage in our conversation. And that’s, I think, the future of these users. And so I actually do not believe that a fully immersive metaverse is the entire experience people will want in the future because he likes to be able to come up and engage and go in and out of things. Whereas I think a fully immersive metaverse, you’re kind of stuck in that world. It’s not tapping into this behavior that he has of actively engaging in multiple things, in and out moving around moving content around, you know, talking, giving feedback. It’s a very interactive experience that’s in the real world. So that’s why I have this different vision where I think these mixed reality experiences where you’ve got screens overlaid on the real world are really going to be for someone his age.
[34:00] Sarah Lyons: Shared viewing is everything, especially with younger generations, and I think even our generation You know, if you think about when we were growing up, we’d sit on the telephone and watch a show together with someone else that was on the telephone on the other end. I mean, that behavior has been there for a very long time. But no one’s yet quite captured that well in the new world.
[34:20] Sean Rhodes: I see a lot of the the technology companies with streaming and gaming and thinking about those as separate experiments, but you can almost imagine those beginning to come together. And yeah, I agree. It just hasn’t happened elegantly. As an amazing product leader, what do you think would be the first steps and trying to explore what that new paradigm would feel like?
[34:43] Sarah Lyons: I think your thought of the blending of video and a little hint of gaming is a good first step for a younger generation. If you start to focus on the future as a company, doing some of these experiments in a younger generation, I think is key. Because, again, by the time it’s ready for market live, those younger consumers will be older. But you know, testing a little bit of blending of interactive content with traditional content. And I don’t believe that every consumer is going to become a hardcore video gamer. All the research points against that. Many consumers just don’t have any interest in video games. So I’m not saying to swing the pendulum all the way that direction. But what I am saying is to sprinkle in some of the things that provide a richness to video games that any consumer can enjoy. Sprinkle some of that into the video landscape such that there is a little more interactivity and less a passive viewing, you’ll also create a more engaged user that way. For example, one thing with video games you feel accomplishment as you go through the game. You know, as you complete a level you get a badge, you have some sort of song or visual that plays that gives you a little triumphant “Oh, I did it” moment, right? Like, that human feeling of accomplishment is important. That’s one of the things that drives video gamers to keep going because they want to complete every level. Well, why can’t some element of that live in a video experience that when you complete a season of a series, you get a little accomplishment? Whether it’s a badge or whether it’s cred with other users, you can see on the platform and you see what they’ve accomplished in terms of their watching and what you’ve accomplished in terms of your watching. You know what I mean? There’s some of these elements that are just tapping into again, natural human behavior in video games that I think can be sprinkled into video and will help it be more engaging and more interactive.
[36:29] Sean Rhodes: Shifting gears a little bit, I know that you have I don’t know if it’s a secret passion, but you have a passion for something outside of media streaming entertainment. And just kind of curious if you could, if you felt up for sharing a little bit more about that.
[36:44] Sarah Lyons: So wine has been a passion of mine, gosh, for most of my adult life, I guess. My husband and I have been trying to figure out well, how can we somehow get into the wine industry? To marry our careers with the wine industry or tie the two things together, you know? How can we make this bridge? His dad was actually in the wine industry. His dad was a vineyard manager. And so he kind of grew up around vineyards and wineries too. So both of us had this spark. And so yeah, so fast forward. A few years ago, we were actually able to secure a small vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country. And that’s our little retirement plan, our side business where we have been planting more vines, growing grapes, and selling grapes to other winemakers to date. So other winemakers in the valley often will need to purchase grapes to be able to make more wine. And so they’ve been taking their grapes and making their wines with it. But we actually just this past harvest started making a little wine of our own that we will bottle under our own label. And it may be about 12 or 18 months, it’s a very long, long term process because you have to harvest the grapes, and then they have to be verified into alcohol, and then they have to rest in barrel, and then rest in bottle once they’re bottled. And all of that takes at least 12 months if not 18 months depending on the wine. So it’s a very long term process but a definite passion of ours.
[38:01] Sean Rhodes: Would you say there are parallels between a longer term project like wine and sort of a longer term project like big streaming platform?
[38:10] Sarah Lyons: What’s fascinating is that a lot of wineries now are selling wine direct to consumer. So if you think about it, traditionally, in a decade or two ago, a lot of wineries would sell wine to distributors or restaurants and then the distributor or the store or the restaurant would sell the wine to the consumer. So there was kind of a three-step chain there of wine production. As time has gone on, a lot of wineries have realized it’s better to know your user or to understand your consumer and sell directly to them. And so direct to consumer sales for the wine industry has been this kind of burgeoning business model. Just so happens funny enough that my video business model, my whole career has been direct to consumer. And so the parallels and the practices that you have, and the way you approach your business in a direct to consumer fashion is the same across both of them. So at least I can apply a lot of my skills in that respect. It’s just a very different scale.
[39:04] Sean Rhodes: Maybe last question. Sarah is, you know, you you’ve had an incredible career so far, and you’ve got so much more ahead of you. But you know, looking back, what’s that number one or top impact that you feel like you’ve had on the industry or the world?
[39:20] Sarah Lyons: I feel like with some of the experiences that I was a part of, because it takes a whole village, it absolutely takes a village, but some of the experiences I was a part of helping to create and release to the world have really added enjoyment to people’s lives. You know, people look forward to sitting down on Sunday. And even if they were at their kids soccer game, and streaming all of the the games on Sunday, you know, people looked forward to turning on their app on a Sunday evening and catching the latest show and having it be easy to find and right up front and center for them. And so I feel like the biggest impact is spreading delight in the world. It’s funny, my son school always talks to the to the kids about kindness. He’s in elementary school learning about spreading kindness throughout the world. And I think about that a lot in my daily life as I’m going through the store or at the gas station or whenever I’m running into people, I try to be very polite. Not just polite, but happy and complimentary. Because I think if you spread kindness, this world is just going to be a better place. And so I hope that these experiences are spreading joy, which therefore spreads positivity in the world.
[40:30] Sarah Lyons: I guess the other thing, I would say, for anyone out there, that designing products, or, you know, managing product development, is just to use other people’s products. Use as many experiences as you possibly can as a consumer because all of that usage will inform what you do in your space. And to your exact point, that’s how you know what consumers needs are, how a consumer might interact with something. It’s just using everybody else’s products.
[40:57] Sean Rhodes: Sarah, thank you so much for joining us. This has been such an exciting conversation. I always love to have the time and the ability to like dig a little bit deeper into your life and what inspires you how you lead and that’s been terrific. Thank you so much.
[41:14] Sarah Lyons: Absolutely. Always fun chatting with you and very happy to do it.
[41:19] Elizabeth Wood: 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. We really want to thank Sarah Lyons, streaming media leader, product executive and former head of product at HBO Max for joining frog’s own Sean Rhodes, Executive Creative Director, frog North America, for such an insightful conversation about what it takes to design products people love.
[41:49] Elizabeth Wood: 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 on Apple Podcasts and Spotify . 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. That’s frog.co. 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.
Sean Rhodes is a leader with a passionate belief in the power of design, technology and business to shape the world we want to live in. His focus has been building world-class teams and environments for multi-disciplinary collaboration that delivers creativity and productivity for product and service design.
Elizabeth tells design stories for frog. She first joined the New York studio in 2011, working on multidisciplinary teams to design award-winning products and services. Today, Elizabeth works out of the London studio on the global frog marketing team, leading editorial content.
She has written and edited hundreds of articles about design and technology, and has given talks on the role of content in a weird, digital world. Her work has been published in The Content Strategist, UNDO-Ordinary magazine and the book Alone Together: Tales of Sisterhood and Solitude in Latin America (Bogotá International Press).
Previously, Elizabeth was Communications Manager for UN OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague. She is a graduate of the Master’s Programme for Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London.
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