Process: Design to Tech & Back

I was in a design meeting for a theater job. We were a few weeks out from load-in. As I was waiting for the conversation to come around to my department — projection design — there was an extended conversation about set design. The theater production director told us that the price of wood had gone up so much in Austin, TX, that the theater might as well build some key parts of the set in metal as the set designer wanted. The sigh of relief from the set designer and the rest of the design team was palpable, if not audible. There may have even been a smattering of golf applause. I have an inherent abiding allegiance to process. My inner voice was screaming at me.

That’s not good news! That’s bad news because it probably means the set budget is going over. — Colin Lowry’s inner voice

A few years later I was referred me to an exciting Austin edu-tech start-up. Querium was evaluating licensing existing math help videos versus creating new original content. The videos would be integrated into an innovative mobile test prep product release. Having trouble selecting the correct answer to a math problem? Click help, and the video associated with that concept will fill the gaps in your knowledge. How do you calculate the slope of a line again?

Querium chose to hire me to produce and edit more than 100 algebra help videos. We hired a President’s Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching awardee to be our math talent. She would write a script that included individual graphics that she could mark-up in Photoshop. I would screen-record her drawing all over charts, graphs, rules, equations, coordinate planes, number lines — math stuff. After we were satisfied with picture, we moved to sound. She stepped into my makeshift sound booth, donned the cans and read her script into the Yeti microphone connected to my MacBook Pro and Adobe Audition.

Scripts, followed by rough drafts were evaluated for approval by Querium marketing and project management staff as well as an independent math editor. We had completed about 60 or so of these, when feedback came in from the project manager that there was some random clicking sounds in the audio recording. That feedback started an in-depth root cause analysis to find what I was certain was some technical issue. After hours upon hours spent in troubleshooting hell testing cables, microphones, software and even borrowing my wife’s MacBook, I could not find out where the clicks were coming from. Finally during a session, I heard the click. I interrupted our math ninja. She took my headphones. I took hers. I started reading and recording her script. No clicks. She gets back on, clicks. Aha!

I can hear my sound engineer friends reading this yelling at their mobile devices.

“Mouth noise! Mouth noise! Mouth noise, you big dummy!”

And they would be correct, our math talent organically made a click sound when doing voiceovers – something she could not control. I sought out and received some excellent expert judgement on this. Mouth noise is very common, and there is little that can be done to mitigate it in production. One has to identify, isolate and repair it in post.

Querium was traveling top speed towards a release. We were not going to spend resources to fix or even process the possibility of fixing the issue now. We would flag the clicks, and re-visit it, post-release. I went ahead with more recordings and editing, completing more than 100 help videos.

My assumption was that we would eventually fix the clicks and replace the videos under-the-hood. That assumption came from a relentless pursuit of a very subjective sense of getting it right without any calculation of the tradeoffs involved in product development. And in full disclosure, I was also assuming that after our release, there would be a good chunk of hours available for me to fix the clicks.

The MVP went out. The user feedback came in. They wrote about about the login process, UI design, videos or questions they liked or didn’t like, and plenty of other product features, but nothing about the clicks. Not one single comment. That drove me a little crazy because all I hear are the clicks. In all of the creative processes I had worked on in the past, whatever the creative leads wanted, they got, regardless of actual market necessity, like whether the receiver of the product even perceives it!

In the tech universe, if users don’t experience it, it doesn’t exist, therefore we don’t waste resources on it.

When this was first explained to me, it was one of those perspective-bending, paradigm-shifting moments that feels like in the movies when the camera radically dollies back and zooms in simultaneously.

I’m used to a director saying that a piece of content is wrong, and then staying up all night to get it right. That’s not just a function of a hierarchal theater tech process. I’ve had similar experiences with a theater collective with everyone equal in the decision-making.

My mind was blown. My mind is still blown because I can feel it all over again as I write this! It took me awhile to get over it because I knew those clicks were there. Actually, I may not be over it.

My intention is to tell this first person story about working in the arts, followed by working in tech. This is not binary. One approach is not necessarily better than the other.

However, is there a chance getting close to our collective sense of perfect rather than the perceptions of our patrons contributes to wasted effort in an enterprise with margins as small as theater? If the audience does not hear it, then there are no clicks anyway.

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