What was it like to lead product design at Disney through the creation of Disney+, one of its biggest launches in the digital age? And how did a designer from Germany become a design leader for Major League Baseball, when he knew almost nothing about the sport?
We talk to Ole Lütjens, former VP of Product Design at Disney, about the arc of his career, from his early days in the electronic music scene through his roles at MLB Advanced Media, Hulu and Disney. We also talk about evidence-based design, the Nemawashi method, and why designer storytelling can be too fast.
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Ole Lütjens is a design executive with over 25 years of experience building and leading product design teams. He was formerly the Vice President of Product Design at Disney Streaming where he oversaw UX for Disney+, Hulu and Star+.
Throughout his career, he’s been generating and implementing new ideas about the design and technology of content interaction. He’s interested in new models of experience and storytelling and has been fortunate to work with thought leaders in diverse industries on the cutting edge of technology since the 90s.
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Summary (via ChatGPT 🤖)
This text is an interview with Ole Lütjens, former VP of Product Design at Disney, discussing his career journey and experiences in the media and design industry.
🎨 Ole Lütjens had a background in art and fell in love with computer graphics during art school in Germany.
🎶 He co-founded an online radio station focused on jungle and drum and bass music, which gained popularity but faced challenges due to the legalities of music streaming.
🎥 Ole's team transitioned to working on interactive music experiences for DVDs, allowing users to switch angles during concert recordings.
💻 The company evolved into a design and development studio called MX Productions, working with Pixar and Disney on second-screen experiences.
⚾ He joined Major League Baseball Advanced Media, where he could work with content and improve products directly.
🏀 Ole and his team became vendors for Disney, later transitioning into employees, witnessing the media industry's transformation.
🚀 Ole's career involved working with major companies like Hulu and Disney Plus, contributing to significant launches in the digital age.
Ole Lütjens (00:03):
You only know what you know after you've done it. And success doesn't feel like success when you're in it. It actually feels like, excuse my French, like a shit show because everybody wants something from you. And everybody knows that the problem that they need to solve by launch day is the most important problem. Designer storytelling can be too fast and to really deeply understand where your audience is is really, really, really important.
Eli Woolery (00:30):
I'm Eli Woolery.
Aarron Walter (00:32):
And I'm Aaron Walter.
What was it like to lead product design at Disney through the creation of Disney+, one of the biggest launches in the digital age? And how did a designer from Germany become a design leader for Major League Baseball when he knew almost nothing about the sport?
Eli Woolery (00:50):
We talked to Ole Lütjen, former VP of Product Design at Disney, about the arc of his career from his early days in the electronic music scene through his roles at Major League Baseball Advanced Media, Hulu, and Disney. We also talk about evidence-based design, the Nemawasho method, and why designer storytelling can be too fast.
Aarron Walter (01:10):
We learned a lot from Ole over the course of this interview and hope you do as well. Thanks for listening
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Ole Lütjens (02:13):
Thank you both. It's really exciting to be here.
Aarron Walter (02:16):
Yeah, we've been chatting for a while behind the scenes about your career, which is a fantastic and pretty inspiring career. Most recently you've been at Disney plus Hulu Stars plus previously at Major League Baseball. You've done a lot of different types of things with a media focus and been through some big events recently too. So could you give us like the nickel tour of your career arc?
Ole Lütjens (02:43):
Yeah, I think it's pretty interesting when I think back, I don't know if I'm gonna start all the way at the back, but let me just try. I was born in Germany. If you haven't figured it out, if I have to say T H or B O W in this interview, you'll probably figure it out. But I was born in Germany and I went to art school, which is called art school, not design school. Actually it's interesting in Germany, art school and design schools are different things, thinking that I was gonna be a painter, but really fell in love with computer graphics. They had a computer lab and I kind of got my start from there. And after art school I wanted to have a startup and try to bring video and storytelling and interactive storytelling to the emerging internet, which was very text-based at the time and didn't really meet a lot of people in Europe at the time.
But I did meet a few folks from N Y U and they said, you have to come to the United States and there's a lot of people thinking about it. So I bought my first ticket overseas and went to Sea Graph in Los Angeles. I think it was the year that Jurassic Park one came and it was all about three D and simulating reality and you know, dinosaurs and all that. It was, it was really fantastic and I found a lot of like-minded people and out of that came kind of a whole network of folks that I stayed in touch with. And for a while I worked with those folks while still living in Germany and you know, did interactive web experience for Lucasfilm when they launched the second three movies for the Star Wars trilogy. I had like a small design studio out of Hamburg and came to the United States as much as I could only to then decide in 2001 there was time to join a group of friends.
We had figured out that there was audio streaming now possible on the internet to something called the Real Player. And we really wanted to put our favorite music on the internet. It was more than that. Like we were all into jungle and drum and bass and going to parties in San Francisco and we couldn't find that on the radio. And so we basically started an online radio station, which really was a warehouse party in the Dark patch here in San Francisco that we put on the internet. And we had an online chat and we experimented with video streaming and it really took off from there. We got a, a relatively large audience, 350,000 listeners a month at the time. That was a lot of people wired and hardwired giving us server space and bandwidth and really super fun to figure out how all of that worked.
However, we got a lot of interest from folks that wanted to invest in it. You know, the startup scene in San Francisco is obviously always very vibrant, but the digital rights, legal music on the internet situation had not been really figured out and it, it wasn't really easy to say this is a business, right? Like you mix music tracks from different artists with different rights attached to it on the internet and try to sell it. That that was not a thing. We are a lot further now, so sometimes, you know, as you both probably know, it's not great to be the first, but it was a great experience to be the first. But that same team, then we did take some investment and that same team started working on IP for the music industry, like interactive music experiences. And a lot of that ended up being on DVDs that had like a, where you were able to do angle switching during concert recordings, stay on a musician where you wanted to see the guitar solo versus watching the master cut.
Also super interesting to figure it out. But the music industry at the time, they were very successful and MP, as you probably also remember when that was invented, they took a big hit when Napster allowed people to download music, et cetera. So the investors pulled out and me and a partner, kind of the tech lead at the company, we bought the remaining assets and turned the company into design and development studio, which was called MX Productions. And what we wanted to do at the time is continue on that path of working with kind of high quality media and see how that relates to emerging experiences on the internet. And started to work with Pixar here in the Bay Area and Disney on second screen experiences, which was really the idea that you watch a movie on your television and then you open your iPad or your telephone and it gives you additional information that is behind the scenes information or deleted scenes or a director's commentary that has a visual information track attached to it. And so we built those for for a while.
Aarron Walter (06:51):
So I mean, clearly from the beginning you just like had this natural gravitation towards media and you happened to be kind of in the right place at the right time as emerging technologies were there intersect with your interests and you probably could not have imagined when you were at Sea Graph and you met these folks and you started, you know, streaming things that it would lead to where you have been at Disney and Hulu and so forth. And I mean that's kind of a, an amazing journey from what you just described to where you've recently been.
Ole Lütjens (07:28):
Yeah, so you know, Pixa being one of our clients, they needed help with, you know, software development mostly for these mobile experiences, but they were purchased, I don't know exactly what time they were purchased by Disney at the same time. So our relationship with Pixa transitioned into being a vendor for Disney. And what was interesting when I look back at kind of the trajectory of being, having been a vendor for Disney and now having been an employee for Disney for a long time, is really that how the media industry really changed. Like back then they were making one movie at a time, essentially, or movies within a franchise and they were looking at it one, you know, set of budget marketing spend at the time. And as a design agency with a strong development arm, we were always trying to build and convince them to use sustainable, repeatable technology so they can, you know, build on these experiences and maybe ask the customers, do you like it?
What can we improve? But they just weren't set up that way. You would move from one producer to another who had another budget for another film, wanted to do something special. So ultimately we had friends at Major League Baseball, advanced media that wanted to move to San Francisco and open kind of an office for them. And we had a really quick conversation. And for us it was really exciting to go from that agency world where you built something that looks really cool and works really great, but you kind of hand it over to another company and then they walk away with it and maybe they improve it or not to working from Major League baseball where the content is being owned and you actually have that power of, you know, working with the content and improving the product around it. So we had a, we had maybe two or three conversations and we pretty quickly came to the point of that they wanted to acquire us and the team and use our company MX as the starting point for a major league baseball advanced media office.
And bam, major league baseball. Advanced Media, as they were known at the time, was an in-house company owned by mlb.com that was responsible for putting video and audio streams for M L B out of market games onto the internet. They had been innovators in that space really early, I think as early as 2002 or 2003, correct me if I'm wrong, the internet knows it better than me. They were selling audio streams, radio commentator streams for baseball games to Blackberry users. I mean that's pretty early stuff, right? And so they kept building on that and they added video and our experience in living room devices like having done Blu-ray discs for Disney and the second screen experiences like this crossover, mobile connected TV living room touchscreen experience was really attractive to them because they had a great product at that, which was also a lot of stats and all that, but you could also stream the games in it.
But they also had a product called M L B T V, which was a subscription video service, but the frontend applications for the different living room devices were mostly built by the companies that built the devices. So Microsoft built the Xbox app, Sony built the PlayStation app, Samsung built the Samsung app, and they were talking to us to bring that back in house and really kind of build a coherent UX experience across these different applications. So as these devices were emerging and more smart TVs and connected devices were coming into people's living rooms, there was a consistent experience and really that's what we did for a few years. So the video streaming technology that ML BAM built was good enough or so good that they then started thinking about hiring the platform out to third parties. And what was probably one of the biggest known projects that we did at ML BAM was the launch of H B O.
Now when they went for a over the top subscription video service with the help of our platform and our design team, there's a lot to unpack here because when we came into M L Bam, designers were sitting next to engineers that were working very closely together, but there was no design practice. User research was talking to customer service agents and asking them, Hey, what are you getting the most complaints about? And project management was done for engineering and design was delivering on time versus, you know, thinking about is design a thing that needs to be its own team with its own career path and job family framework in order to be successful and build a consistent customer experience? And that kind of all started for me at ml bam, deeply thinking about that and and figuring out how to set up a team that can accomplish the subscription video service for M L B and other sports that were owned by mlb.com, and then how to make that a platform play where H B O, PlayStation view Fox Sports go, the World Wrestling Network where all of them could get on that platform and stream videos and charge for it.
Eli Woolery (12:10):
So I, I think we'll get to the design team stuff too, but one other question that I'm wondering about, Aaron and I have both bounced back and forth between being kinda more on the entrepreneurial side of things and then working for a company. And I'm curious, what are some of the things that you've learned after your agency was inquired about, you know, being kind of essentially the leader of a startup within a larger organization? Organization?
Ole Lütjens (12:30):
Yeah, I think the decision making process is very, very different. And that was a learning curve for me, right? To go back into my own body and thinking about how I felt from being the, I think my title at MX was Chief Creative Officer because I never wanted to be a C E O I, I was always a designer at heart, which was also kind of, you know, it's always the advice I give anyone who starts a company and asks me for my advice. It's like, you should have somebody who loves business because we had me and Joe Rice who loved technology and me who loved design, but we were not great in business development. We just had great clients, we did great work, they kept coming back to us. But that was also kind of a weakness, right? And one of the reasons why we wanted to maybe go into the fold of a larger company and do the work that we loved so much with more stability, more resources, et cetera.
However, you're not going into pitch meetings and winning the work. There is kind of a roadmap that is a complex network of business requirements, platform requirements you know, new payment systems, et cetera, et cetera, that you have to do in order to maintain the lifecycle of a product. So for me to go from it, it was the same thing. Like the idea of working consistently on a product sounded really good when I wasn't doing it, but then when I was doing it, having to learn that, and also again, going back to me being German, having to do it with a sport that I knew nothing about, I think that was one of the biggest learning experiences. So, so how, how did I approach that? I literally bought the PlayStation and Xbox Games, M L b, the show, and I started playing baseball and I also looked at how they did the graphics on screen for stats and it inspired me to say, look, I think what you have here might be too complicated.
I mean, they build a great database from every player at bat. You could drill into their college history of their batting averages on a PlayStation three. So essentially you were going down this rabbit hole of spreadsheets on a living room device. And you know, I was able to argue for, well, maybe that should be on the web, or maybe that should be on a mobile phone. But on the living room device, we want to be very clear, we want to have large fonts, we want to have clear colors and we wanna reduce the amount of stuff that you can drill into and really focus on what the device is good at. Which is, you know, playing like video and great audio.
Eli Woolery (14:49):
I can't help but think that
Aarron Walter (14:50):
Making transition from you and a partner kind of running the show, running your own show to being part of another organization, and you alluded to there's, it's a very different decision making process. That's a very tough transition where you've gotta get other people to like buy into this thing. You have the vision, you have clarity, this is what we, we should do, but now you've gotta do a bit of a song and dance to convince others to go along with you. That is not easy. It's a really tough thing. And for many creatives, I think it's like one of the most challenging slash infuriating elements of a transition into more of a leadership position. How did you manage to figure that out? Or did you,
Ole Lütjens (15:36):
Yeah, keep, keep me on track here, but what pops in my head really is this what I know now, what I did then is I did my own user research in order to be able to argue and have evidence-based design, right? I literally became friends with the guy who ran customer service calls and said, what are the most complaints? What are people not able to figure out? And he said, they complain about the video stream quality and well, do they know that that's a bandwidth issue or is that us? And so we basically dug into problems that nowadays, or my next step in my career at Disney, I, I had a great user research team that was constantly trying to figure out what people want and what people are not happy with in order to roll that up. Not to just design, but also to the business in order to be able to argue for it, right?
So I had to build my own cases and I was essentially my own user researcher and design leader. At the same time. I think my experience in pitching jobs from my agency, time came in handy because ultimately I was pitching ideas. I was just not pitching projects and budgets. I was pitching simplification, device appropriate designs, designs that were similar across different devices if people started having multiple devices in the houses, et cetera, et cetera. So that really was the thing. And I think figuring out who you are comfortable with is also incredibly important. The C T O at MLBAM is someone who's really excited about, he's not there anymore a long time ago, really excited about great user interface, really excited about great product features, right? And for me to realize if I pitch it to him first and get his feedback, this thing is gonna get better, right?
But I also have his support, like to try to understand that people will walk around and tell you story or the parts of the story that they like to others helps a lot with the big meetings. I'm a huge fan of a Japanese communication trick, I dunno what it's called. It's called the ni wasi method, where you build alignment in one-on-one meetings with important stakeholders before the big meetings so nobody loses face, right? And I kind of intuitively did that there as well. I, I did walk around with, there were design leaders in the company, they were doing other things, parts of the application. So I built relationships with them. And so over time, building that flywheel of alignment inside of that team helped me to get to the place that I wanted to get to. But I was also getting a lot of feedback.
So what I initially wanted to do changed, right? Being open to feedback and understanding that just because you think it's right, which is also a German thing in my culture, like when you think it's right, it's automatically the best idea that that's not always true. That was a great learning experience for me. And you know, and I, I did get the support, as you say, being at the right place at the right time, right? Streaming UX for sports, streaming UX for movies hadn't really been figured out. There was not like today a paradigm that a lot of people are comfortable with. It was pretty wild out there. What, what you would get when you looked at streaming interfaces.
Eli Woolery (18:31):
I really like your term evidence-based design. And I think people could, you know, use that more often. I'm curious. So in the front end, you know, this technique of getting alignment by having these one-on-one meetings, that's great. And then on the tail end of things, what are the types of evidence you produce to sort of show the value of design to leadership and the kind of measurements that you need to make to do that?
Ole Lütjens (18:52):
Maybe this goes a little bit into our struggle with design thinking, right? There is a world where you don't really need someone like me who has drawn pictures all of his life to design. If you believe that design thinking is always gonna get you good results. So I guess what I'm trying to say is, for better or for worse, my confidence that what I was showing was good, combined with luckily great press and customers that weren't upset when we launched new interfaces allowed me to continue. But I think there was a little touch and go. I think there were moments where we made so many changes to some interfaces that I wasn't sure if it wasn't gonna be a big backlash from a majority of baseball fans that I didn't truly understand as a German who didn't grow up there, right? Like maybe it was lucky that I wasn't a baseball fan.
Maybe if I had to make a soccer app, I would be getting in my own way, right? But I was really just trying to see can I make this really clear device appropriate, argue with that growth market that devices were, and living room experiences and build alignment around that and hopefully get some good press that it, you know, it looked better, it worked better. And that happened. I mean, nowadays I have a lot more access to data, right? Nowadays I can see much better. We can test, we can, you know, we can lean into doing things in smaller cohorts and being pretty sure that it's gonna work. But as a designer, I never forget that I also should be able to have a really strong opinion what I think is going to work.
Aarron Walter (20:28):
So your experience running agencies and pitching, that's a key skill. How to present your story and your vision. Evidence-Based design, gathering the research and using that as a way to present, especially to those who are not designers, don't have that design background. And then this great NEI approach where you're building alignment with stakeholders beforehand. Those are really key insights for anyone who's working their way into a leadership position or find themselves in a leadership position and want to be better at it. Maybe you could tell us a little bit more about that through the story of the Disney plus launch, because you were at Disney and involved with that, is that correct?
Ole Lütjens (21:10):
Yes. So the third party business that ml BAM won grew to a point, and I'm not a hundred percent privy to all of the business ins and outs, but it grew to a point where ml BAM was spun out into an independent company that had M L B as a shareholder called BAMTech. There were multiple companies involved in getting that started, but the team were split. Bamtech had its own a HR structure. Bamtech Media was a website with photos of leadership, et cetera, and service offerings. What we were going to do, and the idea of BAMTech was to provide streaming services, platform streaming and design services for companies that wanted to start selling videos also down to smaller than H B O customers, right? And what happened in parallel was that I think in 2016, Bob Iger announced that Disney was going to start thinking about direct to consumer streaming offerings.
And in 2017, BAMTech really only maybe was out there for nine months, again, could be six months, could be 10 months. I'm not sure Disney acquired BAMTech to do exactly that. I don't know that I was a hundred percent sure at the time that that's why we were being acquired. But pretty quickly it became clear that the third party business of BAM Tech was not what they wanted. It really was the streaming platform that would then become the backbone of Disney Plus. And at the time I was VP of product and design for BAM Tech. And so my team was asked to start thinking about initial product requirements for a direct to consumer streaming offering, which didn't even have a name yet. So yes, I was involved very early on.
Aarron Walter (22:50):
We'll return to the conversation after this quick break. Our pals over at the school of UX are running the UX comp September 13th. It's happening online and in person in London. You're gonna learn through live demos. This is a no slide conference. Imagine that instead of theoretical talks, speakers will show how they use UX and UI design tools from notion to AR builder. There's no waffle here. Just live demos of UX and UI tools, design quizzes, and a designer versus AI Battlefield. Who's gonna win? The diverse lineup of speakers come from companies like Eurostar, TripAdvisor, HubSpot, Skyscanner, and others. Get 10% off your ticket using discount code design. Better podcast firstname.lastname@example.org. That's design Better podcast 10 at email@example.com. Hey Aaron Walter here. I wanna invite you to a unique event happening online Thursday, August 17th at 9:00 AM Pacific, 12:00 PM Eastern in partnership with the UX Design Institute in Ireland.
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Ole Lütjens (26:28):
Yeah, so for me, in retrospect, the most interesting story to think about is going back to what one of my frustrations was with the movie industry as a vendor, which is this one movie at a time thinking, which is absolutely what do, there's really nothing wrong with it, right? They put teams together, they have a director, they make a movie, they put it into movie theaters or streaming platforms and hopefully it's great. And then they might move on and work with a different director, different actor, et cetera. So Disney had been doing that for almost a hundred years. I think this year is Disney's 100 year anniversary. That is a really, really long time. And they had created artwork and metadata and ways to talk about their movies. One movie at a time. They had never had to think about what it would all look like if it all came together in one user interface.
There are franchises that have, I don't wanna name any names, but they make a blockbuster movie one, and then they make Blockbuster movie two, three, and four and we put those key art posters together in rows of tiles and they were indistinguishable because they never had to live next to each other. Right? So I think that points to your question a little bit. The culture of thinking about a home for all of the content and algorithm driven combinations of design elements and artwork and metadata,- I think was something that everybody understood intuitively from using Netflix. But how that affected their day-to-day thinking about how they were making movies, how they were creating artwork, et cetera, that wasn't there yet. That was a big accomplishment for the whole team to think through what we're going to do to fix that and what we're gonna do to make this thing look amazing when we are coming out of the gate.
Right? Disney Plus was not the first streaming service. In fact, there was a lot of concern that, you know, Netflix was already out there, Amazon Prime was already out there. How is a company with the brand promise of Disney going to look next to that? And you know, now obviously everybody thinks of Disney Plus as a big success, which it was. But in 20 17, 20 18 leading up to launch, you know, we weren't really that 100% certain how it would be perceived. And helping to transform the thinking about what the company does with each title that ends up on the service was kind of a way for us to expand the impact of the product design function into a deep collaboration with studio marketing. Where we were able to make the case that we need to sit together and think together about an artwork specification that isn't just highlighting the most important character, but it also is legible down to the mobile phone.
It can be living next to unexpected titles that might be using a completely different color palette. And when you click into detail pages and go through the whole journey of experiencing that title to make the ultimate decision to watch it, there will be UI elements on top of it. Now we didn't invent that either. They were creating assets for Netflix and Google Play and you know, Moana was on Netflix before it was on Disney Plus and Frozen was on Netflix before it was on Disney Plus, but they were delivering that to their spec. But what does it mean to do that for something that becomes the ultimate home for all of Disney's content? That was really the great challenge and the most work we did.
Aarron Walter (29:40):
Did you have like directors and content people in your meetings when you're kind of planning things out, like we should really be thinking about, you know, TV series for Star Wars, for Marvel, et cetera. Like this is how you fill this thing up because you're, you're basically, forgive my metaphor, but sort of building the container for this rich content library. But that content library has to continuously live and grow and if you don't have that drumbeat of growth, the whole thing sort of feels stagnant, right? So you, you've gotta have that partnership across with the content folks as well.
Ole Lütjens (30:22):
Yeah, I think the partnership was there out of the gate, but the teams were being set up and build almost the same time as I build and grew my team, right? So the challenge of, what's the metaphor, building the plane as you fly is really absolutely true for this. And I think it speaks volumes to the quality of the people and the mix of people, which was BAMTech then renamed into Disney streaming as a business unit. The BAMTech folks and folks that came from Disney programming localization, where a lot of what we had to do as a discipline had been established at scale, but bringing it all together into a pipeline that then would also be able to accommodate constantly new content coming in. That was the collaboration that we had to do. So yeah, we were by no means sitting in in an office somewhere designing on our own right?
We had intelligent, really smart product managers that were connecting the dots. We had people that were worried about content, people were constantly drumming up new content. There were obviously a lot of shows were produced. The Mandalorian, you know, we came out with the Mandalorian launch was produced in parallel. So making sure all of that was thought of in a thoughtful way and brought together in that container in a way that worked and was at least to a certain extent, automated by launch was the big challenge. And also we launched in six countries out of the gate. We didn't just launch here, right? Some of them were European countries in different languages. So also thinking about the US version of Disney Plus is really just the American localized version of Disney plus. Disney Plus out of the gate was a global product that also had to be able to accommodate cultural differences and payment systems, very different content catalogs that would have to live together and so on and so forth. There was a lot of that collaboration happening in order to make it possible.
Eli Woolery (32:12):
So you have a massive launch like this multi-country and, and not only that, but you have these different kind of user groups ranging from adults who want more kind of adult oriented content to my kids, you know, and Aaron's kids who want kid level content. So there's a huge amount of complexity, what went wrong during the launch. It must be something that, a challenge you face something that went wrong. Can you tell us a story about that?
Ole Lütjens (32:35):
Nothing went wrong. <Laugh> <laugh>, I think. I think a lot of things went wrong as you can possibly imagine, but I don't think back of the Disney plus launch as, oh my God, that was a huge missed opportunity. Look, we had a couple of technical hiccups because like I think we had a few million subscribers as a goal after a year and we had surpassed five by lunch on launch day. So obviously something was gonna creak the sheer load of interest that we've gotten and people trying to pay for it. There were a few hiccups, but we resolved them, you know, within reasonable amounts of time and they didn't become the headline of the day, the headline of the day was that it's great, right? So I think what went wrong is more like what would I have maybe done different? And I think that goes back to you only know what you know after you've done it.
And success doesn't feel like success when you're in it. It actually feels like, excuse my French, like a shit show because everybody wants something from you and everybody knows that their problem that they need to solve by launch day is the most important problem. And as a designer, you don't find yourself drafting behind that as a designer, as a launch designer, you are actually in front of it, especially in a creative company like Disney where everything is visual and everything is high fidelity and nothing looks like a wire frame ever, right? Like we were always leading with design to say like, oh this is what we are doing. No, that's not gonna work. Oh then this is what we're doing. Oh no, that's not going to work. And it was, you know, it was down to make it wider, make it smaller, make it, et cetera, et cetera.
So I think what I learned through the process is that designer storytelling can be too fast. And to really deeply understand where your audience is, not just subscribers but also your company internal audience is really, really, really important. We build a high fidelity prototype of Disney plus really, really quickly because we were really excited about it and all the things we could do with the videos, et cetera, et cetera. And it fell flat because it wasn't the question that we were supposed to answer. The question that we were supposed to answer is like, how do people sign up? To your point, it's a family friendly service. Is there something we need to consider in terms of pin control or do we need content ratings? And you know, all the things that are really, really important for the Disney brand promise they were a lot more important than what, you know, the Star Wars landing page would look like. And learning that I think made me a different design leader. Like going forward, I think I will probably be slower and you know, measure twice, cut once versus the agency part of my brain that is ready to jump to a great vision and then see if you can get the budget for it.
Aarron Walter (35:11):
What do you think are the skills that you had to develop to survive as a VP at a massive organization like Disney?
Ole Lütjens (35:19):
Self-Awareness? I think collaboration at all costs and brutal honesty. I think a lot of that goes to be able to effectively communicate with my peer level empathy with the fact that the designer in me knows things in my brain that turn into pictures versus their brains turn into code or product requirements. Like being able to empathize with that and retell the story and repaint the picture and offer, Hey, let's make a prototype if we can't resolve this in a conversation is really important in a big organization like this. You know, there've been a lot of mergers. You mentioned before that I've been VP product design for Disney plus Hulu and Star Plus. There were a few mergers where my team was merged with other teams. So when I talk about brutal honesty and self-awareness, it's this idea on and empathy, the skills that I really had to develop is to understand that when people come from a different culture or from a different background, not to assume that what they find is automatically to them as great as it is for you in the moment, right?
And really lead with curiosity and be like, does this feel like a good merger? Are you excited about this or not? Now for all of us coming from BAM Tech, not all of us, but I think for a lot of us coming from BAM Tech, the merger with Disney was a really good thing, right? We were not doing third party business anymore. We were not like, you know, negotiating roadmaps based on budgets. We were given a great challenge, a great project to a great launch to accomplish for other mergers that I've been through my career. It sometimes isn't that right? And so as a team leader to be able to be honest with that and be like, I'm here right now, I'm the face of change. And maybe to you that looks like not such a good thing. That was a big learning experience.
Eli Woolery (37:09):
Your time at Disney. Do you think there are things that you learned there potentially that you might not have learned had you taken another career path or turn twist in your career?
Ole Lütjens (37:18):
Well, I think that, you know, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity to be in such a massive transformation, right? Like the oldest and most beloved media company on the planet. And you know, even though I'm taking a different career path, like I'm still a huge Disney fan, right? Like that company decided to undergo a massive transformation. To go from a licensing model to a direct to consumer model to really embrace the internet and technology, not technology to make great special effects, but customer facing technology as their biggest bet. I don't know where I would've experienced that anywhere else. Like it's just been amazing to see that and being able to work through that.
Aarron Walter (37:59):
Is the creative process different in any way at Disney?
Ole Lütjens (38:03):
I think that really great storytelling requires the audience to suspend disbelief. And in order to suspend disbelief, the great storytelling has to be somewhat airtight, right? So you can really immerse yourself in the story and not see the exit sign next to the screen and hear someone coughing and bringing you back to reality. And in the same way, I would say that translates into the creative process at Disney. It's like we were very concerned about making sure that the experience is all the way down to the settings page and the way you choose your subtitles, really excellent and a premium feel. I think that's very different. There's not a lot of, we're bolting something on organically because we forgot about it, right? Like every pixel is being discussed, every pixel's being turned over, every artwork is being, piece of artwork is being reviewed, the metadata goes through rigorous, rigorous reviews.
They like, you know, the blurbs, how we describe our movies, et cetera. So I think in that sense, the creative process is very different probably from other companies. It's definitely very different from baseball where, you know, the league essentially is the only professional baseball league in the country and they have the freedom to experiment with a lot of stuff because they have an audience that loves the product and there isn't really another place to go, right? But Disney is, in my mind, the only movie studio that stands for something, right? Like that. When you think of other movie studios, you don't say that's a Disney movie without thinking about what a Disney movie means to you. And that meaning that brand promise is what the product has to fulfill every day. And we were under that same brand promise. And in that sense it's phenomenal to work for a great brand like that, but it's also sometimes a burden as a designer, right? Because you, you can't just say, Hey, let's throw something out there and see if it sticks. 'cause It's gotta make sense in the context of everything.
Eli Woolery (39:58):
So maybe that's a, a good segue to this next question, which is you're at a pivot point your career, you're leaving Disney, you're heading to Udemy. How'd you know it was time to make that move and why'd you choose ude be?
Ole Lütjens (40:11):
Right? The way I think about it is that I'm not leaving Disney, I'm just living forward into what interests me. And when you go back to my trajectory in my career as a designer, I went from a one man design business to a startup in streaming to turning that into design agency that then was acquired by ml Bam, that was spun out into BAM Tech and then acquired by Disney. It sounds great and it is really great and I feel very lucky to have been part of these teams. But Udemy is the first company that I send a resume to and actually went through an interview process to win the job. And Disney Plus launched in 2019. We have 2023 right now. I'm leaving behind a phenomenal team of 150 designers, researchers, design program managers, motion and prototypers, and a phenomenal leadership team that I felt is going to do great going forward.
And I wanted to try something else. As part of our agency, I had some nonprofit efforts to think about how entertainment content can inspire STEM learning in children. We build a prototype in collaboration with Pixar and the MU foundation to attach mathematic learning about gravity to scenes from the movie Wally to see if we can get kids to, you know, oh, I love Wally and oh, is this actually real physics? Like, you know, just the kind of the blue sky idea was you're excited about this character, maybe we can teach you something and you don't even realize that you're learning because you're so excited about doing this. Right? And so the question in my mind, how does education change in the digital age has always been there? And having worked in entertainment for most of my career, going into a company that I think has a really great opportunity in online learning is just, it's just a super exciting next step for me.
Aarron Walter (42:05):
Tell us a little bit about how you think about pushing your career forward, being fully invested in that, and then also sort of cultivating your interests, connections, and relationships in your personal life. Oftentimes people refer to this as work-life balance, but really in, in my experience, there's, there's not really such a thing, it's just all the things are happening. How do you think about all of those aspects of your life and how they fit together?
Ole Lütjens (42:31):
Yeah, I think a lot of it has to do with where I am in terms of also my age. I've worked on a lot of high pressure stuff, worked on a lot of deadlines, had my share of ups and downs in my personal life with the divorce back issues et cetera. And starting to prioritize or having started to prioritize kind of an overall sense of harmony across work and life has allowed me to be a better leader. Like, you know, relaxing about who I am and how I come across and what I represent to a large team, I feel like has actually built real meaningful relationships within the team and has also allowed me to feel less stressed about not being at work when I'm with my family. Let me go a little bit further back and try to explain it a different way.
When my first daughter was born, after two weeks, we went back to the pediatrician first, parents for the first time. And like a lot of first parents, we were freaked out about everything. Is she eating enough? How often do we need to wash her, et cetera. And this pediatrician, who was probably my age at the time said, we haven't changed for about a hundred thousand years. Like what these babies are born into is nothing compared to what they could withstand. And that stayed with me. Our bodies haven't changed for a hundred thousand years, but what has changed is what we know. But what's really trippy for me is, is that if you took a baby that was born a hundred thousand years ago and transported into today and put that baby through our educational system, they wouldn't grow up as a caveman. They would grow up just like us and vice versa, right? So learning to think that despite the fact that we can do so many things with technology, our bodies are still the same and you have to take care of them and you have to make sure that they are comfortable with what your brain can exert on them at the same time has been a huge learning factor for me that to not ignore what my body is telling me, my body is still slow, my brain can still take on a lot of stuff, but that doesn't mean that I can execute at all.
Eli Woolery (44:34):
Well, as, as it gets close to the end of our conversation here, we often ask guests what's inspiring them. And we had a little chat prior to starting the recording about a book you're reading called American Cosmic. Maybe you could talk to us a bit about that and anything else that's inspiring right now for you.
Ole Lütjens (44:49):
Yeah, super inspiring. It was recommended to me by a good friend who sent me an email with the subject required reading and I take his recommendations very seriously. So I dove right in. What I find really super interesting about this book, that the author who is a religious scholar tries to explore how we experience and remember things and how what we remember starts to influence our decisions and our belief systems going forward. And what's so interesting about it is this seeming contrast between who she is. She's a religious scholar and what she writes about, which is technology and UFOs. Because in her, and I'm, I'm halfway through the book, so I don't, I don't know if I'm summarizing it a hundred percent correctly, but what's super interesting about the first half of the book to me is that this idea that in the past people have described religious experiences in very similar words as people nowadays describe experiences they have when they think they saw a U F O or had a contact with an extra terrestrial.
And that some people that truly believe that they had contacts with extraterrestrials are actually describing their process of getting in touch with them the same way John Cleese described on your podcast how he does creative thinking, which is asking your brain something and then making it forget about it and trust that it works somewhere in the background and then it comes back with a great idea. And I find those connections incredibly interesting. And another thing that just kind of connected to me, which is kind of like a synchronicity event in, in a weird way, is that she talks about the researcher who did research on memory and how we remember things and has proof that people were remembering things differently because somebody else told them that that was their memory or they remember a photo but they weren't actually there. And so that woman said that maybe our bodies are like Wikipedia pages, we can edit them, but others can too. And on the same day I read an article in the New York Times how AI is the reckoning of Wikipedia. And when you then think about is AI going to rewrite our memories? I think you have a lot of fodder for, for a lot more podcasts that I can't wait to hear because I think it's a super fascinating topic
Aarron Walter (47:00):
Indeed. That is super fascinating. Well, Ole, thank you so much for joining us on the Design Better podcast.
Ole Lütjens (47:07):
Yeah, thank you. It was really great to be here.
Aarron Walter (47:13):
Eli and I love producing this podcast, but sometimes we find ourselves wondering what sort of feedback does our audience have? How could we improve the show? Maybe you could help us by taking just a couple minutes to complete a survey, answering a few questions about your thoughts about the show, sharing your feedback, and telling us a little bit about you. To take the survey, just go to dbt.co/survey. That's db tr.co/survey. Our thanks in advance for completing the survey. It'll really help us improve the show. This episode was produced by Eli Woolery and me, Aaron Walter with engineering and production support from Brian Pake of Pacific Audio. If you found this episode useful, we hope that you'll leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to finer shows, or simply drop a link to the show in your team Slack channel design better.com/podcast. It'll really help others discover the show. Until next time,