Billy Wilder is widely considered to be the greatest screenwriter of all time. He was a master of wit and crafting dialogue in a language he didn’t grow up speaking. He also passed on 10 tips on how to write better screenplays. Today I’m going to show you how you can use these tips to sharpen your own craft — especially design
Let’s take a look at how we can apply the creative genius of Billy Wilder to the UX design process.
1. The audience is fickle
This refers to the practice of chasing trends. As designers, we are always at the mercy of the newest design trend – gradient overlays, fashionable fonts and the latest icon sets are the sort of design trends that spring to mind.
Don’t design with the latest trends just because they’re trendy – just because you believe the audience (the users) will like it. Trends will always go in and out of fashion, and being part of a particular trend is one way to make sure your designs look outdated in a few years time. Pay attention to the needs of the project, and focus on solving the users needs.
2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go
Here, Wilder is referring to having a strong, action oriented opening for a script. Grab the attention of your audience in the first few pages and keep them gripped. Some Like It Hot starts with the big sound of a band in full swing and opens with a mob shootout in 1920s Chicago.
The same can be said for designing experiences. Make the landing experience exciting and engaging. If you’re building an ecommerce product, the homepage experience is where you can really dazzle users. If you’re making an online food ordering project, use mouth-watering imagery to get your users in the mood to order. Use this starting point as a way to draw in and excite users — because, as we’ll see later in this article, the final stages of a flow should be free of distractions.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character
While this one refers to the motivation of a character, we could apply this to the expected behaviors of users who arrive at your product. Define the critical user journeys of your product. Define the metrics by which you wish to measure the success of your product, and start a plan to optimise these journeys. As the designer, your role is to facilitate the success of the user – so know exactly what success looks like, and then work towards making it happen.
This will depend on where you want your user to end up, which is covered in the next step.
4. Know where you’re going
Wilder didn’t want his characters wandering off and forgetting their purpose and motivation, and the same applies for users who land on your product.
Think of where they are and where you want them to go. Use customer journey mapping exercises to get a clearer understanding of what would motivate a user to complete the intended task, and again, optimise them. As a designer you should have a clear idea of what you want users to be able to do when they arrive at your site and show them how they can do it.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer
I would argue this point could be made for designers – the more subtle and elegant you are at hiding your intentions, the better designer you are.
I’ve worked on those design projects where I went through the standard “can you make the Buy Now button bigger? and can you put the words in all caps… can you make the button even bigger?” and the end result looks cheap, tacky and desperate.
Similarly, products that use the Law of Scarcity to the extreme risk making their users feel anxious — such as booking platforms that constantly remind users that they just missed out on an offer — what service are you trying to provide to your users by employing this design technique, other than anger them?
A more contentious designer has respect for their user, and doesn’t treat them like an idiot or make them feel stressed. Take pride in your work, and apply a sense of maturity and taste when asking your user to complete a task.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act
I love this tip, because it reminds us to think of the product as a whole, and not a series of steps that are independent from each other.
If your users are disappearing or bouncing at a particular point in the user journey, don’t just examine that page, think beyond this point in the process and examine the entire journey as a whole. If they are not purchasing an item because of the cost of shipping and handling, think – how might you make this information more transparent at the beginning of the journey, or offer some sort of discount if they spend over a certain amount?
Think of ways to provide transparency and openness so as not to shock users at the final hurdle. It comes back to treating them with respect.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: let the audience add up two plus two
This point reflects what was mentioned in Tip 5, and not treating your users like idiots. Have respect for your users. Christopher Nolan, the Coen brothers and David Fincher all trust their audiences to be able to add two plus two.
Apply subtlety to your UI. Instead of aggressively showing them the concert tickets that they just missed out on, show them the tickets that are available while also showing them that the items are selling fast. This does the job of communicating scarcity while also providing a customer with the ability to carry out the task in hand (which is to buy concert tickets).
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing
This follows the age old rule of “show, don’t tell” — and while the concept of voice-overs don’t really lend themselves to interface design (…yet) I think we can all agree it’s a timeless tip for when it comes to presenting.
When presenting your designs to the team, use the slides to inform one thing, and use your voice to communicate additional context and storytelling. If you have a couple of points on the slide, you don’t need to simply repeat these — use the slides to emphasise a point or present a design idea, while making supporting arguments.
9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie
This rule is most apt to the design of a conversion funnel. When a user has placed something in their cart, your goal is for them to check out. Don’t distract them with newsletter sign up forms when they are entering their delivery information, and don’t distract them with other offers or deals when they are entering their payment details. Your goal is to simply enable the user to complete the flow. That’s it. You can always follow up with a newsletter sign up once the main checkout flow has been completed.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around
If you’re designing a particular flow, the final steps are crucial. Don’t ask too much from your users as the are in the final stages of a flow.
Remove as many fields from the delivery and payment fields as you physically can. Allow them to check out as a guest if possible — and suggest creating an account at the end of the flow. Don’t ask them to hang around. Remove as many unnecessary steps as you physically can so that the user can complete the task in hand.
When the flow is complete, make sure the user is aware of this. Provide clarity by showing the success message, or providing the user with “transaction complete” information. The user needs a sense of closure, make sure you give it to them.
Bonus Lesson – Acknowledge the Team
No one gets there alone. Acknowledge the contribution made by the team – everyone involved in the creative process. It’s a team effort, and the team deserve recognition.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
So those are the UX Lessons from the creative genius mind of Billy Wilder, I hope you enjoyed reading them – and hopefully will find a way to include them in your own design process.
And I would also recommend checking out some of his films next time you’re stuck for something to watch. The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot are all amazing.