The user researcher and the screenwriter

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Screenwriting is getting a story onto paper which is then made into a film. User research is understanding how users behave when trying to complete a task or service, typically online. 

Putting it like that there may not seem to be too much similarity between the two, but explore further and I believe that they share the same goal – of documenting the human condition and producing a ‘truth’ within parameters.

Are there differences? Of course, but the similarities are that I find interesting.

User research

Time to interview – Ethan via Flickr

A history of two crafts

Screenwriting has been a craft for over a century, user research, in its current form, has only been embraced by governments on a widescale over the past few years. Being so new and flexible it does give me some room to manoeuvre, but in general the similarities are:

  • a quest for a truth, in defined parameters
  • a following of principles over rules
  • the aim of recording how people actually speak over how we think they should
  • show over tell

But what of market research? Well it’s similar but different to user research. Market research is about finding out users but is a more analytical approach, focusing on breadth often at the expense of depth. Government user research isn’t concerned so much about segmentation, weightings and the like (though they are not ignored). It’s about reaching the goal.

Screenwritng is similar — there are no rules, or if there are, there are too many exceptions. All that matters is writing a story that works.

A quest for truth

In very general terms, films aren’t necessarily about a truth – Superman has not saved the planet, the Inglourious Basterds didn’t kill the Third Reich’s ringleaders, Withnail never existed let alone acted.

But within their own universe, that created for the film, they must stay true to the rules created if they are to succeed. Superman can do almost anything, but even he must stay true to his rules — he will still ‘do good’ whatever is thrown at him.

The Inglourious Basterds burned Hitler and his cronies because to director Quentin Tarantino, that’s what worked in his story that included a glorified ‘kill the enemy film’, albeit from the German’s perspective.

Withnail may not have existed, but the relationships, tensions and ambitions Withnail & I explored are true enough in our world because it is set in the same rules as our universe.

And so on… So what am I getting at? You define the goals, you set parameters, and you stick to them if you want to succeed.

Individual approach

‘”There are no rules to follow, Donald, and
anybody who says there are, is just –”
“Not rules, principles.”‘ — The Kaufman twins, Adaptation.

Many crafts have principles rather than f rules. But user research is still fairly new in government and to a large extent it is still down to the individual or small team carrying out the user research to get to the goal. As such it is still down to the individual who does it.

This is reflected in that very few user researchers I’ve worked with have specialised in this for their careers. Instead they’ve come from a variety of backgrounds, and for myself it’s been content, journalism and anthropology.

It’s down to the individual.

Show, not tell

It’s rare for a film to succeed where all the characters do is tell you how good they are. In fact the audience largely forgives what we’re told about them if we see them doing wonderful things (ask Indiana Jones just hold old Marion Ravenwood was when he seduced her).

User research is about showing what is found — at show and tells, in videos of interviews, of producing quotes and examples. Don’t just tell us what is found, show it, and be consistent.

Getting to the heart of people

Ultimately screenwriting and user research and have one key goal – to show us that this is what life is really like. It is to produce something that is recognisable.

User research is like that. Taking something and passing it on to the next stage of the process. Looking for recognition that yes, this is what reality is and what we need to produce. You write down what people say, not what you think they say, and arrange it to make sense.

You also look for plot holes and inconsistencies and how to get rid of them, whether that’s more user research or revising the screenwriting.

A team sport

Finally it’s about others. User researchers don’t work alone, you’re encouraged to show, not tell, key parts of your process. You do not work around, your work forms the foundation of all that follows.

No script, no film; no user research, no project.

Ultimately it’s about getting a truth. The truth here but within the goal of getting a truth. Not the truth, but whatever will meet the goal of truth. And one that at the end, whether it is the final show-and-tell or handover, or a film, will leave the audience satisfied that they saw something true to what was set out.