How The Muppets Taught Me About UX
That's a picture from Halloween 2009 with me in the middle, in a Muppets' Animal costume, that I made from scratch, along with a Janice costume for my wife and Chef costume for my friend. That Animal costume is my greatest accomplishment. You read that correctly - helping to organize the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, litigating multi-million dollar cases, redesigning websites - all inconsequential compared to that Animal costume. It is my greatest personal achievement.
Here's how I did it:
Identified the Issue: I immediately determined that all store-bought Animal costumes are complete junk. Any Muppet fan should be embarrassed to wear one of those. Horrible.
Identified the goal: To make a life-sized Animal costume that is not made of plastic junk and looks as close to the real Animal as possible. Simple.
Research: I collected images, illustrations and lifelike recreations of Animal; I watched old Muppet Show footage of Animal and I studied others' approaches, like this one. I also researched the methods and materials needed to create the costume. This "Where the Wild Things Are" Instructable was of particular inspiration, for example. As was this 3M super adhesive spray, which nearly killed me when I failed to use it in a properly ventilated area. It is still probably in my lungs in some way today.
Sketching to Test Research Conclusions: This step was essential. One interesting outcome of my research was that Animal's appearance has evolved over time. His depictions were quite inconsistent, so I knew I would have to synthesize his different looks throughout the years.
I sketched Animal over and over again, referencing the materials I collected through research. Each time I sketched him, he just wasn't "Animal" enough. I kept sketching, iterating again and again until I discovered that which separated Animal from just a normal Muppet - his eyes, particularly his eyebrows and facial expression and how that expression makes you feel when you look at it. What it makes you think about. Jim Henson probably crafted Animal with that intention so, now, I would too.
Revisiting my research also helped me identify another critical component – his hair. Other Animal costumes just do not feel like Animal unless you get that zainy, unpredictable, zapped hair effect. So I did some more research and discovered that Jim Henson used ostrich feathers to create Animal's hair. That was it! Another key component, ostrich feathers. So I schlepped off to the garment district in Manhattan and got me some ostrich feathers.
The Process and Final Construction: I had my accurate sketches, ostrich feathers, glue, felt, stuffing and other necessary materials in hand but I needed to find a way to put it all together. Luckily, I come from a family of Italian tailors so finding someone (my loving mother) to sew on the feathers would not be an issue. Plus, I could put together the Animal clothing using my grandfather's old sewing machine. My friend Chris, who was simultaneously working on a Beaker costume, aided with his meticulous attention to detail.
Production: The hard part was combining all of the components and research findings. The Animal head was obviously the focal point and priority. Felt needed to be dyed then dried over night to mimic his orange-ish fur. I used a foam costume cowboy hat as a basic structure and reinforced the front brim with cardboard using staples, and a lot of 3M glue to create Animal's mouth structure. Foam stuffing was next, and that had to be applied in such a way so that the head captured Animal's unique oblong shape. Eyes were next - oval styrofoam balls. The essential facial expression components, the eyebrows and those signature bags under his eyes were puffy/frilly knitting thread rolled on styrofoam and orange rolled felt, respectively. It all came together quite nicely once my mom sewed on the ostrich feathers. That was, of course, critical.
In the interest of time, I will spare you the rest of the details and invite you to take a look at the process and payoff here. In short, it was a success, especially when coupled with a full herd of other Muppets.
So what does this all have to do with user experience design (UX)? Well, in hindsight, I realized all of these steps, mimic, if not, embody the UX approach to problem solving. Issue and goal identification, research, design, critical thinking, synthesis, empathy - all UX and all essential to Animal's success.
In this particular case I have to say research, sketching and empathy were among the most critical components. First finding out how to accurately construct an Animal through research and then determining what makes a person feel like a recreation of Animal is accurate. The latter, as a I said, was the emotion he conveys in his eyes.
Regardless, after leaving the law (which, incidentally embodies similar principles, albeit with a lesser dose of design, creativity and empathy) and exploring UX for the past two years, this exercise has taught me another lesson. I now realize why I am so drawn to UX - because it encapsulates all of the things that make me tick. The Animal costume equaled success for me because I built it (with some help - thanks ma!) through critical thinking, process, problem solving plus the procurement and efficient use of resources. It also took a good deal of ingenuity, creativity and empathy to pull it off. The hope that my work aligns with these values is what gets me up in the morning and it is why I poured my heart into that thing. It is also why I am pouring all of my efforts into studying UX and solving some real-world problems with the hope that I will use what I learn to make an Animal-like impact one day.