Illuminating Design: UX Research at Disney+

Interview by Liv Jenks

This fall, SWID’s Design Partnerships team launched an interview series to connect our community with influential designers. We cast a wide net, talking to industry leaders in health, wellness, education, tech, and social entrepreneurship to bring you answers to big design questions, including: What is “good” design, and how is that definition evolving? How can intersectional perspectives be incorporated into the design thinking process? How do we design for social good? How does design thinking differ at start-ups versus larger firms?

In this installment, Emily Rapada, UX Research at Disney+, sat down with us to discuss the role of storytelling in design research, the importance of inclusive design, and the responsibility of advocating for users’ needs.

Could you tell me a little bit about how you got into product design? And how you ended up where you are now at Disney+?

Growing up, I was very intrigued by the intersection of math and art, of logic and beauty. I think without having the language for it, I had stumbled across what I now call ‘design’. I was really lucky to find a Product Design major [at Stanford] that pulls together classes from across mechanical engineering, art, computer science, and psychology, to form this intersection of human-centered design. I learned about the design process end to end: from very initial exploratory need-finding, to actually marketing and pitching product ideas or bringing prototypes to life through manufacturing.

While I got a taste of each stage of the design process in school, I wasn’t quite sure how these translated into the real world. I actually didn’t know what a UX Researcher was until my senior year of undergrad! All I knew was that no matter what I was making, I found myself coming back to the why behind the product — the people it intended to serve. It was actually a recruiter that once told me after I’d finished an impassioned story about someone I met who completely changed my perspective on dog trainers, ‘Hey you should look at UX Research’. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to build my design research toolkit across a couple of digital products for youth, most recently joining the team at Disney+ as a design researcher and lifelong Disney fan.

I think a lot of people have a vague understanding of what a UX researcher does — but what are the different “hats” you wear in your role?

When it comes to design research, there’s two general and equally important buckets that research can fall under — making the right thing & making the thing right. Making the right thing usually takes the form of foundational, exploratory research. You might conduct deep dive interviews with users one on one — what we would call ethnographic interviews — to better understand a problem space, define user needs, and translate these into design strategy. Making the thing right tends to be more usability focused research where you test prototypes with users to better understand how they perceive and interact with your product in context, uncovering ways to iterate further.

It’s funny, I think the most underrated part of what design researchers do is storytelling. Of course, I spend a lot of my time planning studies, running interviews, and synthesizing data. But this is really all in service of being able to clearly communicate the stories of people that use our product, to the people who make our product. It’s about fully absorbing the stories that people tell you and finding compelling ways to share them to help guide the product direction.

What challenges you most about being a UX researcher? What do you love most?

I would actually give the same answer to both questions: being an advocate.

As a design researcher, you often become deeply immersed in the stories of the people you meet and uncover incredibly personal and powerful narratives. I have the responsibility as a researcher to authentically represent the needs of our users — to take the rich stories that I’ve heard and translate these into more bite-sized actionable frameworks, design principles, and tools, all in a way that doesn’t lose any of the meaning behind their stories.

This also happens to be the very part of design research that I love the most. I get to talk to people all over the world and hear about their day-to-day lives, their triumphs, their setbacks, their deep childhood memories, their hopes for the future. This incredible diversity of experiences, thoughts, and beliefs helps me expand my own perspective and understand people in new ways.

Many SWID members are just beginning their design careers and journeys. What advice would you give to them?

  • Ask yourself where you want to make an impact… and why? There’s a framework that comes out of Bill Damon’s research at Stanford that talks about where we feel the most purpose in our lives. It turns out that there’s this sweet spot when we’re able to combine our interests, our skills (including skills we want to grow in), and where we want to make an impact. If you want to learn more about this, check out purposeproject.org (a nonprofit I have the privilege of working on, that seeks to help young people find meaning and create impact).
  • Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. In the world of user experience, it’s easy to start to pigeonhole what you do — ‘I design X’. But what if you started to look at the problems that you’re solving and the needs you have yet to fill? For example, when I think about designing Disney+, a streaming service, it’s true that we’re designing a way for people to watch television. But we’re also designing a way for parents to connect with their kids, a way for people to experience the nostalgia of their childhood, a way for people to engage with cultural conversations going on in the world, a way for people to practice self care, a way to make the magic of Disney more accessible to everyone. When you ask yourself what human-centered problems you want to help solve, it opens the door to industries and products you may not have previously thought of.
  • Sit down and write your story. I actually practice my skills as a design researcher by defining my own personal and professional journeys. This means asking questions, exploring different directions, and synthesizing what I learn about myself. This also means translating these insights into a narrative — choosing what bits of my story are important to include and what parts are no longer serving me. When we start to understand how we want to tell our stories, we can actually make sense of what matters most to us and uncover where we want to go next.

How are design principles changing today? Where is design thinking headed?

An incredibly important shift in design right now is an increasing emphasis on inclusive design. Everyone carries their own bias, so it’s crucial to develop design processes that can help us create inclusive products. I’m encouraged by the folks who are working to implement more equitable design practices on their teams and across their companies. One way I’ve seen this done is through co-design — the process of designing with people, instead of for people. Co-design is about giving users the tools and platform to express their ideas, specifically elevating underrepresented voices. By democratizing the design process, we can create products that more accurately address user needs and, in turn, more authentically reflect our world.

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