January 26, 2009

Peanuts to Profits: It’s Hammer Time in Designing the User Experience

Before becoming president of NBC Universal Cable, Bonnie Hammer (whose father taught at the Cooper Union) had been president of the U.S. cable channel Sci Fi since 2001 and the USA Network since 2004. During her tenure she helped increase the reception and ratings of both networks: Doubled the former’s audience and made the latter the number one channel on basic cable. Orson Welles is quoted as having said, “I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts.” From her experiences in the high-stakes world of television, Hammer offers some “peanuts” for practicing design:

Take risks

For the Sci Fi channel, Hammer didn’t go to the “usual suspects,” she instead selected on-air talent that would help “open up the channel to make people see how it relates to them.” Risks were taken on original programming in order to make it viewer-centered.

Use cohesive branding
For the USA Network, Hammer re-branded with a campaign called “Characters Welcome” which connected diverse programming from Monk to Burn Notice to the W.W.E. Good branding “gives you a business platform so it's really easy to translate your mission and your goals to the ad community and to Wall Street,” said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, Senior Vice President and Director of the media-buying agency Starcom Entertainment, which was instrumental in Hammer’s re-branding of the USA Network. The effort also reinforces the tagline as a compelling anchor. In Hammer’s case, the tagline helped manifest an entire programming framework.

Apply executive decision-making
On the Bravo network’s reality television program Project Runway, on-air mentor Tim Gunn repeatedly orders the designer-contestants to “Make it work.” Hammer digs collaboration among peers but doesn’t hesitate to yield a ruthless editor’s hand. “What we ended up with, instead of in-fighting, was everybody becoming invested in a given show’s time slot and making it work. That’s not to say I’m always going to listen. An executive decision must overrule sometimes.”

Enjoy the ride
On the hard-earned journey of her success, Hammer said, “Frankly, I don't want to be here for our first failure, because I am enjoying the ride of the success!” Success is a sensation but one that must be constantly re-earned. Because success can make people complacent, even stupid.

Find a character
This doesn’t mean any character. In designing programs, Hammer and her colleagues wrestle with determining appealing stories by asking “Is there a central character? Is this character slightly flawed but upbeat?” and not “…just accepting pitches from anyone about anything.”

These platitudes may sound like peanuts, but they can be easily overlooked at any point of a project. Television is described as “furniture” at times. At least Hammer keeps attempting to make the furniture as engaging as possible to the values of accessibility, cohesion, and editing. In other words, it’s furniture worth making and sitting in.