Design should support content, not overshadow it

An interview with Showmax Design team lead Daniel Valčík

Daniel Valčík is one of Showmax’s longest-serving designers. He worked on the first designs for the platform, and he sets the tone for the team’s UX-first approach. We sat down with Daniel to discuss how his team approaches creative design and innovation — It all starts with asking the right questions and listening.

You’ve worked at Showmax for more than two years, and know the Showmax brand as well as anyone. What do you find unique about the brand design?
Put simply, we enrich lives. We need to keep this in the front of our collective mind every time we work on any design — and it drives us! We design to meet users’ expectations; for us that means letting the content do the talking, with our design supporting it, not beating it or overshadowing it. It has to be seamless and invisible, but it also has to guide the user, support the interaction, and leave a good impression. In short, we intentionally supress our design to make the content shine, much like cinemas do.

Showmax aims to offer multi-platform experience that is simple, reliable, and convenient to use. How do you test new product designs to keep this promise?
We simultaneously design and collect feedback to continuously re-think and improve the platform.

It all begins in the design kitchen, where the designer shows the concept and collects feedback from the team. Later, product managers and engineers get involved and, after several internal feedback rounds, we conduct moderated usability tests with our participants — or, we proceed with guerrilla testing in the office, subway station, or shopping mall, as we did when we were redesigning the mobile app environment.

Another option is to publish the new design as a test on production. This live test is shown to a small number of subscribers and inevitably reveals drop-offs and problematic spots in the flow. If the drop-off is higher than expected, we know we have a usability problem and we need to rework the design.

You work a lot with user experience (UX). How can design improve user engagement?
To improve engagement with our product we have to go to the beginning of the process. It’s not enough to just work on the design, we need to work on the product to build something that people want to spend time using. We work closely with the Product team to design something more like a subscriber experience than a product.

In the end, we do not compete with our well-known rivals on the market, but with the activities our users can do instead of watching Showmax. We ask ourselves: Why do they choose to do something other than watching Showmax? Maybe they don’t know what to watch, want to hang out with friends, or maybe they would like to watch with friends but don’t have enough mobile data. We take into account as many possible scenarios as we can to improve our product, add features, and use design to reliably communicate what we want to communicate.

In a lot of ways, the options and opportunities are endless. Personalized recommendations and downloads of unfinished content, social features, shared watchlists and profiles, and much (much) more.

How do you turn these ideas into reality and prepare them for testing? For example, cases in which a user searches for shared experiences with friends.
Some time ago we conducted a small survey to try to better understand the virality aspect of the service. We saw potential in the survey data and, with the Product and Engineering teams, we put together a selection of ideas for how to boost viral sharing of the service to non-subscribers.

We designed and implemented the very first version of the basic share function to iOS to learn how open our subscribers were to it. Based on the data we collected, we organized the social channels to place the preferred ones in top positions and continued with iterations.

What I like about the way our team works is our agility. We are constantly experimenting and learning — developing ideas, prototyping them, testing, iterating, and then repeating that process across everything we do. I think the beauty of being a designer is in being a lab scientist and artist at the same time.

How do you collect customer feedback?
In close cooperation with the UX research team in South Africa, we collect feedback from surveys, app reviews, customer care, user studies, and we use quantitative data from our own internal Analytics. With all of that in hand, we analyze the data with the Product team, see what we can immediately improve, and decide what issues require further/deeper analysis, prototyping, and testing.

Gathering user feedback is something we aim to improve this year. We want to establish continuous user research and conduct several tests per month. This will give us a really nice overview of friction points and other trouble spots we need to focus on. At the moment, we are creating a private user community that will help us improve the Showmax experience on something closer to a daily basis.

You were recently promoted to Design Team Lead. What is your vision of the future Showmax UI? Where do you see opportunities for improvements?
There are 5 key pillars for me:

  • Delightful experience
  • Product cohesiveness
  • Continuous user research
  • Design quality
  • Innovation

Delivering a delightful experience is about creating a personal cinema experience for the user at any time, anywhere. Every user deserves content that fits them, and we should not ask our users to spend ages finding something to watch. To prevent paralysis via paradox of choice, we want to actively give them relevant content based on any number of data points.

To achieve that, we have to rethink our information architecture and how content is presented to the user; UI itself is just one part of it. To offer a true personal cinema experience, we are aiming to adopt a minimalistic, predictable approach where vivid elements, motion, trailers, and the content itself become even more apparent. “Predictable personal cinema” is potentially the best term to describe where we want to direct our thinking and work.

Product cohesiveness is another topic we have to address as we design for small screens on smartphones all the way up to widescreen TVs. The experience is not the same, and we want our UX and visuals to be as similar and consistent as possible.

I have already spoken about continuous user research, but it’s incredibly important to conduct research, use it systematically, and work with the outputs. Ad hoc user studies simply do not offer a 360 degree perspective — but a 360 degree perspective is exactly what we need.

I want to drive innovation as well. We need to have the confidence to assess our work and evolve as a team. A big part of this is actually serendipitous thinking and acting on it — have an idea, do a one-week design sprint, prototype the idea, and do a mountain test (or other type of test) to get results fast and present it to the company.

It takes effort to innovate, and I know my colleagues are as driven as I am to build the best streaming platform in the world. The best part of it is that all five pillars are connected to one mechanism — using design system components to prototype something innovative and interactive literally in a few hours (no development needed) and test it immediately with our user research community. Get feedback, incorporate it with even better experience, and present it.

This sounds like a lot of work. How big is your team? Is there a plan to grow?
When I started at Showmax, it was just me and Lukas, a.k.a. Piky, on the design team. Later, Tashi joined our crew, and a few weeks ago Luke and David boosted our creative power even further. We also have Roza, who joined Showmax as a QA tester, but was so passionate about design that she joined our creative team in January. So, we are a team of 6 cool people including me.

Each of us focuses on different areas of the Showmax experience, but we try to stay closely connected and aligned so that everybody in the team knows what the other members are working on. We have people who worked in small, dynamic startups, and others from big, well-established corporations. Personally, I like the diversity of the group as it brings different knowledge sets and experiences.

As the company grows, we will grow our team to deliver a constantly-improving Showmax experience. We love to connect to other people, designers, or design fans to have a chat, coffee, or popcorn.

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