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What Can You Learn About Product Development from HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’?

(Spoiler alert: You may want to stop reading if you haven’t seen Season 3 of HBO’s Silicon Valley.)

We’re big fans of the HBO series, Silicon Valley, which follows the often hilarious twists and turns in the life of software startup, Pied Piper.

This week a bunch of us — Bill Horan, Stuart Penman, Jeremy Ridley, Howard Cohen, Kevin Tassini, Matt Ambler, and myself — sat down to talk about Season 3.

We’ve been interested in the Pied Piper story all along, but this season really spoke to this group of interaction designers, a user researcher, a mechanical engineer, and a software engineer. There were many times we wanted to jump into the screen and right the ship.

What Went Wrong? A Lot.

Exhibit A: When Jack Barker becomes CEO and force-pivots Richard and his team into developing The Box, a physical product, and Richard spurns the industrial designer hired to join the project team. Ugh!

Exhibit B: When Pied Piper pivots back into an application built on their file-compression platform without testing the product with real people or thinking about the user interface design. Ack!

Though we know these missteps make for hilarious TV, we just have to get this advice off of our chests. Pied Piper, please learn from your mistakes in Season 3, and consider these lessons as you pivot yet again (!) into a video chat company in Season 4.

Lesson 1: Give stakeholders something rational and visual to react to.

This one goes out to Dang, the industrial designer who sweeps into episode 4 wearing a stylish scarf and loads of hair product, talking about the need to develop “a shared aesthetic vocabulary.”

Dang, we get it. It can be hard to talk visual brand language with stakeholders who don’t have a background in aesthetic design. So we understand why you turned off the lights, turned on the world music, and screened stock photos of nature to try to cross that barrier and suss out clear direction from Richard. But we have a better idea!


Watch Dang’s doomed presentation here

Give your clients something rational and visual to react to. As Dang finds out later that episode when he shows renderings of his uninspired box design to Richard, Dinesh, and Gilfoyle, everyone has an opinion when they’re presented with a concept. This is why we share visuals of competitive products and create matrices to show how different sets of brand values can be articulated via aesthetics. It’s easier for stakeholders to know what they do or don’t want once they see it.

Get a glimpse of how we do this in our case study about Ventev’s line of portable battery chargers and in our Director of Design, Chris Murray’s, webinar, A Rational Guide to Color Selection in Product Design.

Lesson 2: The first step, always, is to craft a great story.

The “Table” ad, which is about everything and nothing, is a harbinger of Pied Piper’s inevitable failure to thrive.

Watch the terrible Table ad here

Because Pied Piper’s engineers develop their product in a vacuum, never considering the users or the product’s use cases, its benefits to the user never become clear. Richard and his team don’t step back to think about how a Pied Piper customer will perceive the product’s experience.

This is painfully clear when Richard tries to explain Pied Piper to a confused focus group by asking them, “What did you have for breakfast?” and then making the observation that everything, even eggs, are made of electrons. … Huh?

The focus group is more interested in locating a download button (something familiar!) so they can watch their videos or see their photos — and so they can discover whether or not this file-compression thing is actually useful. As it is, Pied Piper is just a bunch of fields thrown together, and because that offers no story, the users can’t tell what the value is.

Bill Horan, our Creative Director, Interaction Design, touched on the importance of articulating your product’s story early in Zen and the Art of User Onboarding:

“People start to develop mental models — concepts of how they think things work — long before making a purchase or using a product. It’s important to set expectations accurately from the beginning. Advertising, packaging, imagery, reviews, and word of mouth are all things people use to shape their understanding of a product and to decide whether or not it interests them. Helping potential users create accurate mental models by setting appropriate expectations upstream is an essential, and often overlooked, step in effective onboarding.”

This is vital when asking an audience to adopt new behaviors. Pied Piper tries to introduce a novel way of compressing files across devices. But it does so without giving people a mental model, a metaphor of the experience, to better understand it.

Lesson 3: It’s a little late to be doing your first user testing after you’ve launched beta.

It’s great that Jack Barker hired Dang. Every physical product needs an industrial designer on its project team. Does Pied Piper’s staff also need a personal chef, a fridge full of snacks, and an on-site gardener? That’s questionable, but you know what they definitely need? User researchers.


Watch the focus group here

A successful product makes life easier for its end users. Its success rests on what those users think, not on what its engineers think. You can invent the coolest technology in the universe, but if the intended users don’t need it or can’t figure out how to use it, you will certainly hear the sound of the gong.

User research is a way to learn about your product from people with a vast number of different perspectives. Pied Piper errs because they only sample the engineer’s perspective, and while it performs really well with that one perspective — it never gets checked by anyone else.  (Monica, the sole non-engineer on Richard’s beta list, is the only tester to give it negative feedback.)

The app’s failure could have been avoided by testing the product early and often with representative users – like the ones in the focus group that Monica pulls together after they’ve launched beta.

To quote a character from another fine TV series, “Doh!”

Lesson 4: Bring in interaction design early.

There are no interaction (IxD) designers — designers who know user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design — anywhere on this project.

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of engineers who are also good at UX and UI. But when the new money comes in and Jack Barker hires Dang, the industrial designer, he should have also hired interaction design talent. And when The Box pivots to the app, Richard should have used the money gained from firing the whole sales team to bring in an IxD perspective.


The idea that you can take a completely counterintuitive interface like the one above — although we do appreciate the “Let’s Go!” button — and throw an animated avatar over it to teach you how to use it is, well, it’s as bad as Microsoft’s Clippy!


Watch Pipey here

Both Clippy and Pipey are Band-Aids — quick solutions to a larger, endemic problem. The user interface should be intuitive enough for users to navigate the software on their own. They shouldn’t need a chirpy animation to lead them through the process, especially not one who says things most people are not going to understand, such as, “Looks like you want to compress a movie file! Can I help? You know, with Pied Piper’s revolutionary neural network with an optimized sharded data distribution system, it’s just six clicks away!”

If you’re going to create a virtual assistant, it should be optional and not invasive. And pay careful attention to the language you use — do what assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana did, and hire poets to help.

A UX/UI overhaul is what Pied Piper really needed.

User Needs Triumph in the End!

In the season finale, Dinesh’s video chat application saves Pied Piper. Its number of subscribers soars within minutes from 4,000 to 7,000. You know why? It solves a user need.

Dinesh discovers this user need on his own — earlier in the season he hacks together a video chat app using Pied Piper’s algorithm so he can better view a flirtatious Estonian contract engineer. Sadly for Dinesh, she loses interest once she sees what he looks like over high-fidelity video. But the video chat app’s eventual role as a savior redeems both Dinesh and research-driven product design.

We’d call that a Hollywood, er, Silicon Valley, ending.