User Centered Design Has Been Around Longer Than You May Think! Case in Point; Irving Thalberg and Previewing the Movies of the 1920s and 30s.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that user centered design is not just a recent practice associated with building web sites or designing mobile devices such as cell phones or iPods. In fact, user centered design has been around for a long time, in many industries, although it may not have always had the title we give it today.
Irving Thalberg and User Centered Design
One example of user centered design is Irving Thalberg and the popular and successful movies he produced and previewed with target audiences in the 1920s and 1930s.
Irving Thalberg was referred to as the “boy wonder” of Hollywood, and his story is the stuff movies are made about.
Thalberg was born on 30th of May, 1899 in New York City and had health issues all his life, especially a bad heart due to a bout with rheumatic fever he contracted during his teen years. His bad heart and poor health due to overworking would eventually lead to his death at the early age of only 37.
Thalberg was especially intelligent and drove himself hard, skipping going to University after graduating from High School and instead going to work for the largest movie production company of that time, Universal. Thalberg quickly established himself in the upper echelon of Universal, but after a short stint there left to go to a smaller upstart company, Louis B Mayer Productions, partly because of a failed romance with the daughter of Universal’s head, Carl Laemmle.
Thalberg began producing successful movies for Louis B Mayer and soon benefited from the acquisition of Louis B. Mayer Productions by the highly successful theater owner, Marcus Loew. Loew had recently merged Metro Productions with Goldwyn Pictures and needed expert producers to help bring in out-of-control and poorly run movie productions. Thalberg and Mayer would quickly take the new MGM to the pinnacle of Hollywood studios, and make MGM the largest and most successful studio for decades.
User Centered Design: Movie Previews
In many ways Thalberg can be credited for creating the modern movie studio system and many successful production practices still used today. Included in this was Thalberg’s commitment to previewing movies with real audiences prior to releasing the movie to the general public. Previewing a movie with a target audience is an example of user centered design, a practice by the way which is still used today for movies and TV shows.
Thalberg’s use of user centered design worked well, most of his movies were popular with audiences, and the vast majority brought in bountiful profits for MGM. Thalberg used these previews to determine if additional editing or changes were necessary to improve the movie, prior to it’s final release. Thalberg’ genius can even be said to have extended beyond the obvious audience experience, he was apparently able to read the audience’s non-verbal reactions to scenes of a film and instinctively knew what to add or change to make the audience’s reaction for those scenes even better.
One example of Thalberg using this non-verbal user feedback to improve the experience was the changes he made after previewing the movie “The Big Parade” as mentioned at the Internet Movie Database:
Thalberg took the rough cut and previewed it before live audiences in Colorado. Although the audiences responded favorably, Thalberg decided to expand the scope of the picture as Vidor had created a war picture without many scenes of war. He had Vidor restage the famous marching Army column sequence with 3,000 extras, 200 trucks and 100 airplanes, adding about $45,000 to the negative cost of the film. After Vidor moved on to another project, Thalberg had other battle scenes shot by director George Hill. The result was a classic, a major hit that proved to be M.G.M.’s most profitable silent picture. “The Big Parade” was an example of Thalberg’s perfectionism as a managing producer.
Sadly, with Thalberg’s success came jealousy and greed. Louis B Mayer became unhappy with the Boy Wonder, especially after Thalberg received a bigger stock compensation reward than Mayer did. With failing health, Thalberg took time off from work and went to Europe with his wife. Mayer used Thalberg’s absence as an opportunity to bring in other Producers, and eliminated Thalberg’s role as the sole Producer of MGM. Thalberg continued producing movies in his more diminished role at MGM, but eventually overworked himself again and caught pneumonia, which resulted in his untimely death.
User Centered Design in Movie Production Today
Thalberg’s legacy lives on today, including the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial award given to a distinguished Producer at the Academy Awards every year, and of course the continuing practice of user centered design with previews of new movies. I actually attended several movie and TV show previews, the one that most readily comes to mind being a preview for the movie The Abyss. I distinctly recall the fairly lengthy multi-page survey each audience member had to complete after viewing the movie, including questions about how much I liked or disliked each of the major characters, scenes I like best, or worst, and overall satisfaction with the movie, along with many others. It’s interesting to think that a user centered design practice established during the beginning of the golden age of the Studio system is alive and well and still being used today.
For more about Irving Thalberg: