HBO shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld have taken over pop culture. But all the production work is meaningless if the latest episode isn’t super easy to watch on a Sunday night–whether it’s on a TV, a laptop, or a tablet.
The man in charge of HBO’s key apps is Ryan Wilkerson, the company’s VP of experience design and a judge for our 2018 Innovation by Design Awards. Over the course of a recent interview with Wilkerson, we delved into his strategy–and learned that HBO isn’t content with its apps being mere streaming alternatives to Netflix. Its creatives are imagining how HBO Go and Now can actually serve as the fulcrum to change the way HBO tells stories across many devices, ranging from virtual reality headsets to smart home speakers.
Fast Company: Don’t be offended by this–but what do you actually do at HBO?
Ryan Wilkerson: As of now, I oversee the experience design for our streaming products, HBO Go and Now, as well as our dot com platform. And I’m also peers with, and have colleagues working on, our more interactive and immersive explorative ventures–that’s some future stuff we can’t really go into. But increasingly, we’re understanding how critical the experience with a capital “E” is to digital platforms and to the storytelling that takes place on them. You can’t really separate the story from the interaction. That’s all part of our oversight.
FC: Something I’ve been thinking about lately is that streaming finally seems pretty figured out. HBO, Netflix, Hulu–they all are designed well enough to do the job on a TV or a phone. It doesn’t seem like design matters so much now; it’s more about the content itself. So what do you do now?
RW: Now it’s about evolution, not revolution. Yeah we’ve covered our bases with being able to subscribe to HBO or HBO Now, and being able to play the content, but the next step forward is making that a delightful experience. What that means for us is tying it back to our brand. The HBO brand is 40-plus years old and it’s come to stand for this really premium, curated, editorialized experience of the best content.
When we think of the digital platforms, we’re trying to, I guess, innovate in the areas that reinforce that brand connection to the user, so it’s not just the content itself that’s pulling you there; it’s the all-in experience.
FC: Interesting. Because right now, it’s totally content pulling me to HBO Go–Game of Thrones premiered and I want to watch it!
RW: Right, we’re in a unique position. We want to, and I’ll steal a term from our CEO Richard Plepler, we want to offer optionality to all our subscribers. We recognize some people are going to be cord cutters, and offer them HBO now. Some people want to stay with their cable provider, and we offer them HBO Go. To be honest, there are other ways to get our content, through Amazon or Hulu. My team’s goal is not to compete with those venues, but make our [portal] the best way to get HBO.
FC: A frequent problem happens to me around 8:30 at night. I load up Netflix, and I get lost on what to watch because there are too many options, labeled under absurd categories that seem invented by algorithm, and nothing looks good. Twenty minutes later I just close it.
RW: That is no accident that our experience is a bit more tailored. Not only do we have a wonderful editorial team with a digital and social media department, they really help curate and focus the attention on the shows and brands that matter most at any given time, but it’s an active effort to design our information architecture in a way that it reflects what users want, rather than a reflection of our internal organization chart. We’re structured in terms of movies, series, and documentaries, and really, that’s not how users view the world.
We’re very actively engaged, be it through user research, usability studies, mind mapping, and mental models, working with taxonomists, to develop that new system. And that’s an active endeavor.
FC: HBO has been experimenting with new mediums, like VR. Is HBO going to become more lean-in, more interactive, than TV?
RW: I think what you’re seeing there is a recognition on our part, that some of these stories our showrunners want to tell are larger than can fit on the television. Not physically fit on the television, but the world they crafted is so large that we’re beginning to get comfortable with the idea of, how do we marry the best medium for the type of story up to that franchise. In some cases, it will always be television. In some cases, it lends itself better to that more immersive lean-in experience.
FC: Definitely–talking to Hannah Beachler about designing Black Panther‘s Wakanda recently, there’s so much that production designers like her are putting into a story that we never see.
RW: Yeah, what people see is really the tip of the iceberg. I spent quite a few years in game development as well, and I had the pleasure of working with really top-notch production designers in the game world, and we actually brought some of them over to HBO to work on some interactive endeavors. It never ceases to amaze me that after two years, we’ve fleshed out an entire world, and every character has a back story, and every single detail the user will never ever see has been thought through, concepted, and designed. And some may say that’s a waste, but on the other hand, I feel that contributes to the richness of that world [on screen].
FC: Totally, it’s why HBO productions feel more like Hollywood films than most other TV shows.
RW: Yeah. When you watch Westworld, for example, you see what we show you for 58 minutes once a week, but you also know in the back of your mind that there’s an entire word that exists there, and you’re anxious for those windows to see inside of that.
FC: HBO has played with unpacking some of that–like in Westworld VR. But I feel like all this VR and other experimental stuff is just promotional for a show or movie so far. It’s an ad. It doesn’t actually help tell the story. And a lot of it is just . . . very bad.
RW: To be honest, I’m not the vision holder on this. You should talk to a colleague of mine. But what I will say is, we will develop both, we’ll develop more marketing-based experiences that offer the right promotion of the content at the right time, but we also feel that there is a place for the more meaningful long-form content, and the key to developing that is to not build it as an afterthought, but to partner with the showrunners themselves, and help them be comfortable with these new mediums and paradigms as complementary platforms to their stories–not competitive platforms to their stories. In the case of Westworld, for example, we had the honor of working with Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy directly to craft that story, to build out that world, and make sure that it resonated with the show.
FC: We both saw how Reddit just tore into Westworld to spoil its season one twist, with thousands of fans trying to solve a mystery early together. I sort of hate to see narrative storytelling reduced to a mere brain teaser. But I’m wondering, does this force HBO’s hand to make its shows more interactive by nature, to spread stories across more mediums, and to provide something more to feed this audience?
RW: There is a line between where it becomes a gimmick, and how we stay true to the storytelling basis of HBO. I don’t think anyone would ever say we wanted to add gamification to HBO. On the other hand, there is an art to storytelling and how you tease certain bits of information, and how you provide clues in certain places and not others. If it works with the story, and it’s driven from the talent, it’s certainly something we’d explore.
FC: I’m still shocked that the gaming industry never figured out how to break off the single screen. Why doesn’t a game’s villain call me with new plot points on my phone, or text me a surprise video?
RW: There have been a few attempts at that. Microsoft, a few years back when I was there, had an initiative called Three Screens and a Cloud. At least for the gaming division, the initiative was to roll out games that way and make the most effective use of each screen. I don’t know if the timing wasn’t right, or it had to do with the IP, but it’s certainly something we think about even on the streaming side.
My team is thinking about the connected home and the connected lifestyle. It may be as simple as notifications to let you know that the premier of Game of Thrones is on tonight–like you wouldn’t know that anyway–or to drive other less known IP, or to bring you back to a [Reddit] AMA on something. Or it could be in the future, how we leverage our streaming platform for that type of multiscreen storytelling. That’s certainly something we’re very interested in looking at.
I’d say we also have the same amount of interest and excitement around voice, and what that offers us. We’re in the very, very early stages of what voice user interface can provide. Right now it’s very pragmatic and functional. That’s a great place to be and to start. But I think it can do a lot more to incorporate our brand and play out a bit of the story itself whenever appropriate.
FC: Yeah, I’m not sure how much people are actually using voice, but it’s finally becoming ubiquitous for sure.
RW: As a consumer, I’m excited about the opportunities it provides. As a designer and steward of our brand it gives me pause, because it starts to ask questions like, “What is my relationship to HBO. Am I talking to HBO, or am I talking to Alexa?” There are some interesting questions there, and I think we as designers can play a role in helping craft that relationship.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.