Character Traits: Seth Samuels on Filmmaking and Human-centered Design

At Doblin, we show up as whole humans, embracing and celebrating each of our unique experiences, eccentricities and vulnerabilities. The authenticity of our people is one of our greatest assets, one which helps us connect more deeply with our community and our clients. The Character Traits series highlights the diverse backgrounds and points of view of our team.

Interviewing is not a new tool for those who practice human-centered design. And yet in my experience here at Doblin, interviewing has had something of a second coming, as my past life in documentary film continues to reemerge as a muse with surprising similarities relative to how we go about our work.

By nature, documentaries function as social commentaries. I was drawn to work on one such commentary, a comprehensive history of the Vietnam War. A departure from the traditional Hollywood film, our profile of the war’s events as they unfolded invited a largely unheralded group to form a chorus of rebuke or affirmation (and sometimes both); that is, after all of the probing, digging through transcriptions, cuts, cuts, and still more cuts leading up to the locked picture.

In human-centered design, by contrast, we’re seeking to learn rather than comment. As a largely qualitative—and in turn generative—form of research, the theories that might guide more quantitative research or shape the thesis of a film script are replaced by a set of prepared questions, as well as an openness to what we might discover beyond those questions. Commentary takes the form of the projection of unique insights based on what we heard, and even then the aim is for that projection to be as self-evident as possible.

While the approach to user research and filmmaking might differ, they share an attention to detail in finding the story that someone else can latch onto. It’s in that process that I’m starting to see more of our work and opportunities to improve it by adopting a complementary mindset to that of design thinking—one that remains open to the compelling story embedded within that research. For consistency's sake, let’s call this 'narrative thinking.'

Narrative thinking is engrained in what it means to be a filmmaker. Like other forms of entertainment, films are charged with earning a slice of a viewer’s attention by playing off of our human need to hear and tell stories. And since this is an engrained human need, narrative thinking means searching for the thematic tropes we all know to look for, such as the protagonist we can relate to or the journey they’re on and the tie between its relative magnitude and our willingness to pay attention to it.

That same craving for connection epitomizes our work; being human-centered inherently speaks to creating connections. Filmmakers think very intentionally about their stories' design and delivery because their livelihoods depend on it. There’s no reason why we as human-centered designers shouldn’t either.

For documentary filmmakers (and anyone else who conducts interviews for a living), a significant portion of that story is contained in the mind of someone else. In film, as in human-centered design, telling a story begins with determining how to surface it. I remember typing, correcting, and reading through transcripts with producers, determining what comments to pull relative to the gaps in the script. Something a subject said five minutes in might have tied with a brief add-in near the end of the conversation, and it was our job to make that connection while preserving the integrity of the overall statement. This all of course followed in the wake of lots of logistical paperwork, phone calls, and eventually an hour or two for a couple people who’ve likely never met before to pretend to be catching up over coffee under hot lights.

At Doblin, our primary research might be the clearest corollary, namely in the time we spend observing and sitting down with people in the field to understand their daily lives. There are a number of other instances where we must also be active listeners: in our team rooms, digesting what we saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and felt; in our recorded playback of all of those details; even in our interactions with our clients, where we balance what we’ve learned with an ear for the client’s interpretation of it all.

Amidst all of the ambiguity, stories—surfacing and telling them—are a proven means of attracting and holding attention. The latter is particularly important for us as consultants, as the very nature of our work is such that it has an end point, and so the work’s ability to persist is critical to what we do.

As you look beyond the basics of embracing open-ended questions or signed release forms (which are important too) to extend the longevity—and therefore the humanity—of your work, consider the following interviewing tips, which have informed my films and client projects alike:

1. Who do you need to talk to?

When considering the story you’re trying to tell, whether that takes the form of a thesis or a series of questions, a “cast of characters” should emerge that will fill out that chorus. Having a reason for each voice you factor in—either because of their life experience or the way they responded to your screener—is key.

2. Know what you need to hear…

To the extent to which interviews resemble conversations (and the best ones do), they’re often described as a dance. The interviewee will look to you to lead, so it’s important to have in mind what you’d like to discuss, especially when that dance takes unexpected (read: uncomfortable) turns.

3. …Yet be open to what you might hear

With limited time and a prepared list of talking points, it can be difficult to make room for what you couldn’t have anticipated. For most of us, doing so starts with being comfortable with silence, not just over prolonged periods (which is crucial), but also in simply tempering the gestural and audible responses that we’re all naturally primed to do based on years of talking to people. Sometimes this is useful (in fact it can be a key lever in leading “the dance”); at other times, it can block off what might have been a rich rabbit hole.

4. The little things matter

The way you sit, the level of your eye line relative to your interviewee’s, even the clothes you wear can all have an effect on what your interviewee says or doesn’t say. Even if you’ve never met the person before and may never see them again, there is a healthy dose of pretending you’re old friends meeting up for coffee that can serve you (and the discussion) well.

Conversations represent a fundamental human activity. Whether it’s in film or some other analogous inspiration. Hopefully these tips can inspire lasting solutions and some good discussions along the way!