What Product Teams Can Learn From Disney’s “Moana”

The power of applying insights from immersive experiences in order to fuel innovation — or in the case of Disney — creativity, vision, and brilliant story-telling

When the co-directors began developing the early storyboards for Disney’s latest blockbuster, Moana, set in Ancient Polynesia, John Lasseter, Disney’s Chief Creative Officer advised the team: “You’ve gotta do more research … you gotta dig deeper into this whole world.”

All Images: Disney

The team’s first trip to the Pacific Islands was a 3 week immersion. But, over the course of its five years of development (between ’11 and ‘16), the team made it back many times, logging tens of thousands of miles and developing profound insights that directly shaped the film.

“For years we’ve been swallowed up by your culture …
One time can you be swallowed by our culture” — Papa Mape (local Elder)

Insights or “Digging Deeper”

Seeking and developing meaningful insights plays a critical role in innovation whether building an application, solving a problem, or in this case, developing a major feature film. Insights can help teams go beyond “expected product refinements” and move towards “creating delight.” Insights derived from inspiration as well as working closely with customers are at the apex of building better products that create delight.

The point of this post is to highlight the enduring impact inspiration and meaningful insights can have on the direction and development of a product. It’s inspiring to note the many themes and insights discovered by the Disney crew and their influence on the final product. It’s also important to call out that when done right, the approach can be incredibly rewarding for those involved in the process.

Below are a few insights that had a dramatic or critical impact on the film. When listing the insights I couldn’t help but ask myself, do I (and my team) go deep enough to discover what really matters for customers. Are we truly developing deep empathy and meaningful insights?


Insight

Implication to the film …

Both the co-directors took notes, sketched their ideas, wrote down their impressions and everything derived from their new insights related to the relationship between the Samoan people and the ocean.

They both concluded, “we need to make the ocean a character in the movie.” It required a bit of re-work because it changed everything going forward.

Introduced to “the ocean as a character” with the child Moana.

Here, the directors saw an opportunity to highlight the culture (and its ties to the water) in a way that added a new dimension and a new character to the story — in a both unique and authentic way. A story with well developed, meaningful characters is the foundation for creating something worth sharing. A product founded in deep understanding of your customer’s pain is equally important.

Insight

Implication to the film …

Not only did the storytellers want to respect the Samoans heritage as explorers, they wanted to show Moana’s maturation as a voyager by including accurate details of ancient navigation methods as shown below:

These details help the story become richer, more authentic, and interesting.

Accurate portrayal of ancient navigation. All Images: Disney

And details matter. When creating stories or developing new products. Here, the creators of Moana learned about how the early explorers of ancient south Pacific were able to navigate (without much instrumentation) effectively for thousands of years. A small part in the film — but a detail that is accurate. Do this over and over, and your story, or product, has increased credibility. Details (even when overlooked) can illustrate your mastery of the subject which translates into trust — especially important when building products that have elements of compliance, etc.

This insight is important to call out because it was derived through a collection of experiences —a theme that emerged over months of interaction. The resourcefulness of the people and relationship with the island became central to the conflict — as well as being culturally accurate.

It’s important to take time and make effort to observe the less obvious — to take note of the surrounding environment or conditions of your customer e.g. the context in which they will use your product. This approach will ensure you don’t solve surface problems — but build a more complete solution. You’ll find yourself asking the question, “is this the solution they really need — or is it something bigger, more foundational.”

The Oceanic Story Trust

As the team further developed the story, it was important to ensure a level of accuracy or honest interpretation of the Samoan culture and influence. They developed an advisory group, The Oceanic Story Trust, to help do just that — and to provide their ideas along the way.

We made changes along the way based on the input we got.
We wanted people in the community to be involved in making the movie. Experts in their fields would provide context and correction. When locals see the movie, it will make sense.

Example: Moana kicking and hitting out coconuts (early rendition of a frustrated Moana) “… a kid would never do that. It’s a food source and community property.” —member of the Oceanic Story Trust

Developing “advisory boards” or “customer councils” when building software can also be incredibly valuable. Leveraging expertise and industry knowledge is essential — and expected. But … don’t overly rely on a “council.” There is often group think and they are typically risk adverse. View your council as a sounding board — as one of your many sources in the development process.

A better way to make movies (and build products)

After the film was complete, the team felt a change — a change within themselves. The world was better because of the work they accomplished. They left with a different perspective on life and people.

[We created] a story that accurately represented their story … their spirit … this will help give our young women a voice … it carries values, it carries our lives … I hope we are striving to tell our story/culture to our children (tears).

Moana is a great movie — a great story. I’ve also come to appreciate the film more as I’ve learned about Disney’s approach to making it. It reminds us of the incredible effort it takes to make something great.

I don’t think great movies, or great products, happen without inspiration and meaningful insights. It also takes an incredible focus on execution to turn insights and vision into reality. From beginning to end, great products need leadership to ensure teams don’t settle on “expected refinements” but instead, insights that drive “customer delight.”

If you feel your team is suffering “expected refinements syndrome” (we all do at times), get out of the office and go talk with your customers — or prospective customers. Become grounded again on why you exist and what problems you are trying to solve. Debrief with your team and you’ll begin to notice the conversations, the goals, and the outcomes will begin to improve.