Looking behind the curtain

Growing up I was always a Star Wars kid. But this year, after exhausting pretty much every other long-running modern sci-fi series—Doctor Who, Battlestar Gallactica, Babylon 5, Dollhouse—I figured I might as well see how the other half lives, and watch seasons 1–7 of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It’s a good series (if you’re short on time, Kevin Wu’s Graph TV will, as ever, tell you which episodes you can skip). But one thing that always annoyed me was how little you see of the people in the background.

There are 1014 people on the Enterprise D. But how many do we see in the typical episode? Picard, Riker, Troi, Worf, La Forge, Data, and Crusher. Every now and then Guinan or Wes Crusher might pop up, but basically that’s it – A crew of 1000, and 99% of the action appears to happen to just 7 people.

That is, until episode #176: Lower Decks.

Halfway through a thoroughly dull 7th season, Lower Decks bucks the trend by following a group of ensigns, rather than the main officers we normally get to see. And it’s fascinating.

Nurse Ogawa (who has featured as an extra in Beverley Crusher’s sickbay for a few seasons already) is worried her boyfriend has gone cold on her, because all he does is worry about his research. The stereotypically good-looking Ensign Lavelle awkwardly attempts to boost his chances of promotion by ingratiating himself with Commander Riker, who’s clearly thinking “Who the fuck is this guy?” Meanwhile, Lavelle’s academic rival, Ensign Sito Jaxa, fumbles with phaser alignments and has a harsh dressing-down by the Captain, bringing back everyone’s memories of the Headmaster’s office at school (or maybe that’s just me?).

The episode has some of the feel of a much more modern show like Battlestar Galactica – because when you focus on the little guys, away from the laser battles and the orders from Starfleet HQ, you get to showcase proper interpersonal relationships.

The moment where Captain Picard appears, without notice, from his ready-room, orders a change of heading, and then exits with all of the senior officers, leaving a handful of quivering Ensigns in charge of the bridge, is fantastic. Usually, by this point, the camera would already have switched to the observation lounge, to follow the senior officers’ discussion. But not this time. This time we linger on the bridge, and see what the underlings gossip about when the officers are away. And it’s brilliant.

The theme of focussing on the little guys isn’t unique to Lower Decks. Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead which focusses entirely on two minor characters from Hamlet did the same thing thirty years earlier. But the episode’s so well known in TV circles, that it’s even the basis of its own TV trope: The “Lower Deck Episode.”

Anyway, watching Lower Decks made me think…

There is a fascinating part of being a designer that is just watching Lower Decks

All the projects I work on are guided by research into what the product’s users want and need. But the best projects are ones where I’ve actually sat with the users, watched them, soaked up their habits and behaviours, and spotted all the little things that high-level research just doesn’t capture.

Sometimes it turns out the people we thought were the primary users actually aren’t. Or the primary users were correctly identified, but there was a whole network of dependencies below them that we weren’t told about.

Getting behind the curtain—sticking around after the captain has left the bridge CEO has left the boardroom—can make you a better designer.

It can also make you a better salesman or project manager. Just like the ensigns in Lower Decks, your users are generally quivering bags of neuroses. They have likes and dislikes, fears and hopes. Getting behind the curtain can help you build clients the ideal products they never even knew they wanted. You can measure your progress against their defining hope or fear, and make sure, whatever you deliver, it satisfies the one central pain-point they probably never even articulated.

It isn’t a shortcut for making a fully-rounded product that solves all of your users’ needs, but knowing what motivates your users helps you prioritise your work without all the guess work.

Plus, for folks like me who peoplewatch from the windows of cafés, getting behind your customers’ curtains is completely fascinating. Because, just like on the Enterprise, there’s a whole world there that you never normally get to see.