The journey to transform film programming

Collaboration, Design, Development, Adaptation; all apply to the work carried out here at Vista since our story began back in 1996. Sometimes though, more radical action needs to be taken. That’s why Vista Product Director Joakim Kampe and Head of UX Design Tristan Phipps partnered with Regal Cinemas, to take Film Programming to the next level. Film Manager is the outcome.

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There is often a misconception about the software industry that you start building software with a clear end goal in mind, specify what needs to be done, and then build it.  Once you have reached your goal, you are done and ready to move on to develop the next piece of software.

But software does not work like that.  The truth is that software is only ‘done’ when it is no longer being used at all, and clearly that is not what you hope to achieve with your software. Great software evolves.

As you might expect (at least hope), our approach to software development has changed over the 20-year life cycle of Vista.

Over more recent years, Vista has radically shifted its software development methodology. That is mostly a reflection of the continuous need to build better software, but also the drive to bring our software to the web.

We have identified the need to develop user-centred and evidence-based design practices, so that we can provide real value changes in our software for our customers.

We knew that this approach applied especially to what we wanted to do with Film Programming.

What we discovered was sometimes surprising, always revealing.

So where to begin when undertaking a very large project? With hundreds of system settings and data inputs, we knew it wouldn’t be simple. Additionally, Vista's software had been built on Windows, using desktop interaction design paradigms, something that did not transcribe fluidly to the web environment.

On our journey to develop the next generation of Film Programming, we were privileged to be able to partner with Regal Cinemas. Together we started by figuring out:

  • What does Film Programming do well? Let’s keep doing that!
  • What does Film Programming not do well? Let’s do it better, or not do it at all!
  • What does Film Programming not do? Well, maybe we should do it?

It was important to us that we engaged with the people who use our software most, actual Film Programmers. To do what we wanted to do, we knew we had to understand in detail how our customers were using our software and thus how we could improve upon it.

What we discovered during a series of workshops with Regal was sometimes surprising, always revealing. Through a series of observational research activities, persona work, functional, affinity and story mapping, as well as user journeys, we identified areas which were pain points for Film Programmers, but opportunities for Vista's software development:

  • Geographical and technological issues caused the software to be sluggish, making the Film Programmer’s job frustrating
  • The programming process was intense and involved double handling of data
  • Programmers relied on the printing of countless pages of reports, creating hand-drawn plans and working using reams of paper…
  • The software was only used for data entry.

This detailed user research prompted us to form a concept: to build the process of programming films around the life cycle of the film itself. Through an understanding of how Film Programmers thought about the planning process, we were able to break the journey of film programming down into parts: an exploration, a planning and a programming phase. 

We immediately saw an opportunity to make impactful improvements and leverage the most from our findings.

This allowed us to prioritise the information that programmers need to complete their job during the different parts of the process. It was clear that the Programmers’ inability to make sense of how films were performing was affecting their capacity to program on the Film Programming holdover sheet – the list of films that exhibitors hold for the week of play. We immediately saw an opportunity to make impactful improvements and leverage the most from our findings.

Working with wireframes, we then attempted to reimagine the film programming experience using the holdover sheet. We validated this with the Regal film programmers with bright-eyed anticipation, believing we were close to cracking it.

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Introducing... the Film Manager team

We were wrong. 

But that was a good thing, because the benefit of following a user-centric design approach is that you test, fail, and pivot rapidly towards a more viable solution for the product.

Armed with a slew of changes and areas to improve upon, we again ideated and validated with our Regal partners. Our designs were presented to and critiqued by the Film Programmers. We encouraged them to draw their ideas on whiteboards, nothing was ruled in or out. We made further improvements, moving into a clickable and interactive prototype of the holdover sheet with the help of a single skilled front-end developer.

Through iterative usability tests, we were able to shift the product to the point where the Film Programmer’s original frustrations (and inefficiencies) were removed.  Once we were confident with our design, we put a full development team onto the product to complete the work.

Throughout the development cycle, we conducted further usability tests to validate the project's progress, which further changed the look and feel of the final product – Film Manager.

For all of us involved in developing Film Manager, it was an amazing journey. It revealed to us the benefits of working closely together with our customers, as well as the dangers of making false assumptions. The experience is just one that has taught us that a collaborative process at Vista is the way forward, and while the first version has just been released, the journey for Film Manager as a whole, is only beginning.

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