The 2001 Japanese animation “Spirited Away”, has been one of my favourite films for quite some time. The brainchild of the amazing Hayao Miyazaki , from studio Ghibli, it is not only beautifully crafted animation, but the plot contains a lot of valuable life lessons. To summarize the storyline: 10-year old Chihiro becomes trapped in a forbidden world of gods and magic when her parents take her to investigate the other side of then tunnel. In order to survive, Chihiro must work and make herself useful, and find within herself the courage and resolve she needs to save her parents and escape from a world where humans are despised.
Let’s start with the similarities between Chihiro as a character and my experiences as UX designer:
Fear of the unknown
Chihiro doesn’t want to move to a new town. She doesn’t want to explore the other side of the tunnel. She is a scared, weak child, clinging to her mother. Unbeknownst to Chihiro, she has inherent maturity and wisdom, which she only discovers once she is pulled out of her comfort zone and has to deal with the spirits as Sen.
Working in the digital realm, you find yourself constantly scared of what you are undertaking. Most projects involve new technology. How do you estimate? How can you know what problems may surface? Can’t you just do a similar project to the last one, where everything is predictable and you know what to expect? Do you have to work with different devs, product owners, etc? The answer is, in short, yes. Origin Interactive has not done the same work twice. It’s what we pride ourselves on. It’s not nearly as scary as a spirit bath-house might be to a 10 year old girl. But in the end, you fall back on the wisdom and maturity you’ve had all along, and the product turns out great.
Optimism, trust and empathy
Throughout the tale of Spirited Away, it is Chihiro’s sense of trust and her optimism that helps her conquer. Even in the face of evil, she strives to understand WHY the other characters act the way they do. As with the spirit No-Face, she has empathy for his loneliness and allows him to follow her despite the fact that he ate half the bathhouse.
When you are part of a great and talented team, optimism and trust comes easily. But we all have had the “unreasonable” clients, or incapable development, etc. I have found that if you try and understand the WHY for people’s behaviours, it is much easier to find a solution or reach launch point. Empathy is a core value in UX, in my opinion. Understanding what users want and why, understanding the business goals, understanding the pressures your client is under… empathy gets you invested in the end-goal and in most cases produce amazing results.
Never forget your true name
The witch Yubaba takes a part of Chihiro’s name, turning her to Sen. This is how Yubaba controls people. By signing the contract to work for Yubaba, Chihiro gives away her identity and becomes someone else. Throughout the course of the tale, Chihiro manages to remember her real name, which in the end frees her.
We all take on various roles on the job. User Experience has been coined a Jack-of-All-Trades profession quite a few times over the last few years. Though some would believe it is at the detriment of the trade, I believe it is a necessary characteristic to any good UX. To know as much as possible, and to deal with as many people as possible, ensures a good solution. This means a UX has to be a dev, or a product manager, or a project manager, or a user, or a CEO. Be who you have to be to ensure everything is covered, but at all times, know that you stay a UX at heart.
The power of the bla-bla
Chihiro’s saving grace in the first part of the film, is her ability to choose her words carefully and say only what is important. Other characters like Yubaba and Kamaji try and distract her from her true purpose with random questions and comments. But their trickery fall on deaf ears. Chihiro wants a job, and keeps asking for it.
It’s easy, especially in the first phases of a project, to get caught up in the bla-bla. We have all gotten pulled in by the temptation of a revolutionary, all encompassing amazing product that will rule the world. Or the opposite happens. Instead of over-delivering in promises for the solution, you find your ideas being shot down, restricted. Developers kick back on every bit of functionality you want to add, clients are upset by the budget. In the end, it’s all bla-bla. You know, as a UX, what to do to make a solution that fits all requirements and more. Just do your job, and keep asking for what you need.
Stick to the rules, be respectful
Early in the film it is clear that Chihiro’s manners and sense of right and wrong is her saving grace. Despite the fact that her parent’s gorged themselves on food they did not pay for, she refuses, saying it is stealing. This saves her from being turned into a pig. Later on, it is her respect for the hierarchy within the bathhouse that leads to great reward.
Rules are made to be broken, and in our industry it is very easy to confuse “revolutionary” with “let’s disregard everything and make something unusable”. We have all seen the end-results when usability and standard practice takes a back-seat to conceptuality. Again, it is about striking a balance. If you are respectful of the end goal and the users’ needs, and push within those limits, the results can be great.
Hard work pays off
In the end of the film, Chihiro’s hard work, values and dedication to her cause ensures her parents’ freedom. She returns to the real world more prepared for the adventures ahead, and more aware of what she is capable of.
The reward of sticking to your guns, and bearing through the tough bits is something we are all familiar with as digital professionals. Every project is in itself an adventure, where you meet new characters, protect the ones you know, and have a goal you aspire to. Of course we all have our own work-flows and methodologies. And nothing is ever set in stone. The appeal of user experience, and the reason why I love it so much, is that it is a practice that can be applied to anything and everything. Don’t be scared, empathise and trust, understand, know yourself and the team’s capabilities, avoid the bla-bla, and push the limits within the boundaries of usability. A fool-proof recipe for any UX-adventure!