How UX Design is Like a Reality Show

Kelly Schairer
Aug 1 · 8 min read
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Photo by Igor Lepilin on Unsplash

Nothing gets my noggin joggin’ quite like drawing parallels between two seemingly unrelated topics. Imagine my pleasure when I discovered that in the realm of UX, this practice is considered an ideation technique that design teams use to rapidly generate new ideas!

When I’m not pushing around pixels in Figma or when I’ve pushed around far too many pixels and need something to take the edge off, I’m a serial watcher and rewatcher of Survivor, the reality TV juggernaut that now boasts a catalog of 40 seasons. The format is relatively simple: 16-20 players are stranded on an island, divided into tribes, and then vote one another out of the game until only one remains. The reality is more complex: it’s part of a sub-genre of reality TV sometimes called “social strategy” or “human chess,” where over time, players learn to leverage the internal logic of the game’s format to work to their advantage. In season 1, finalists were lambasted for the unforgivable transgression of forming an alliance that systematically voted other players out in order to advance further in the game as a group. Nowadays, alliances are a basic aspect of strategic gameplay — if you’re not in the dominant alliance, it probably means you’re their next target.

I was drawn to Survivor and User Experience through similar motivations: both require one to analyze the underlying motivations behind actions and evaluate strategies to suit a playing field of constantly shifting qualitative variables. Though many reality shows provide a rich text that begs for analysis (I particularly enjoy the role of probability in MTV’s Are You The One, which allows viewers to solve each season’s emotional puzzle in advance to add a bit of dramatic irony to their viewing experience), Survivor is particularly compelling because it almost feels like a field of study that you can master if you pay close enough attention. Of course, it’s easy to feel like an expert when you’re sitting around watching other people do it on TV: plenty of “superfans” (a title I do not identify with, though I probably fit the criteria) have been cast on the show, only to flame out in glorious fashion.

You may have guessed by now that I’m not actually going to conduct a mash-up workshop using a CBS reality show and The Entire Discipline of UX Design, but ever since I began pursuing UX, I’ve continually experienced moments that made me go “This is kinda reminds me of Survivor” (often out loud, to the great annoyance of my team members), and the intrusive thoughts continued to flourish beautifully until I finally felt compelled to blog about it.

So, here they are: the top 3 parallels I’ve drawn between starving on an island as you complete for the chance to win $1 million and a professional discipline that’s entirely executed indoors behind a computer screen.

Crafting a Narrative

If you’ve ever written a case study, you know the daily tribulations of a design project factor way less into your professional identity than your ability to spin those events into a cohesive narrative that readers can understand. I know I’ve felt the pain of cutting something I poured hours of labor into out of a case study because it wasn’t relevant to the story I needed to tell. Conversely, there have been aspects of a design project in which I had little agency or didn’t necessarily agree with the decision ultimately made while working on a team, but I incorporated them into a study and carefully outlined the team’s rationale because it was instrumental to our final result.

Survivor seasons film for 39 days, 24 hours a day, and their camera and microphone crews document the trajectories of up to 20 different players, resulting in hundreds of hours of footage. While UX designers are on their own when it comes to thoroughly documenting their daily ongoings, Survivor players are discouraged from talking or doing anything significant unless they’re being filmed, and outright banned from talking in the time leading up to tribal council. The presence of a camera crew can sow seeds of distrust in an environment where you’re paranoid of everyone else’s intentions, and former players have shared that they’ll sometimes tell a cameraman in advance when they’re planning on doing something discreet so they can inconspicuously meet up later. After all, they know it won’t be on the show if it’s not caught on camera.

Even so, most of the things you do and say won’t make it to air if you don’t win the whole thing. It’s known as “winner’s edit”: the show’s editors and story producers are obligated to frame the season around the story of the winner, and other contestants are featured mostly in relation to the winner, and how they played a role in the winner’s story. In fact, there’s an entire online community dedicated to analyzing episode editing with the goal of inferring the season’s winner before the finale airs. Some players last deep into the game and then come home to discover they’ve barely been granted any screen time because their gameplay wasn’t relevant to the season’s overarching narrative, a curse known among fans as the “Purple Edit”. Maybe I’ll start editing my case study drafts by highlighting information that might not be necessary in purple.

Survivor strategy commentator Peridiam’s analysis of how to spot the winner as early as the premiere

Recruiting the Right People

When you ruminate on the type of person who would be most enthusiastic about the idea of spending 5 and a half weeks sleeping outside with no access to a shower and fishing or gathering for any food you’d like to eat that isn’t rice, your mind probably jumps somewhere pretty specific. Someone like river rafting guide Kelley Wiglesworth, or surfer dude Ozzy Lusth. But rugged nature enthusiasts only make up a small fraction of Survior’s body of contestants: if the producers want to tout their work as a “social experiment” (and believe me, they do), they can’t just cast a bunch of people with the same interests and life experience. There may not be a script, but there is absolutely a carefully assembled cast of characters.

We may never know if there’s an exact formula through which Survivor’s casting department cultivates a dynamic and diverse cast, but viewers certainly love to speculate. Survivor enthusiast Angie Caunce maintains a comprehensive, data-driven database of character archetypes that have routinely appeared on the show across its 20-year run. Christian Hubicki, who Caunce christened with the “Know-It-All” archetype, revealed in an interview that he’d been cut during final rounds of casting once before, and when he watched that season, he was able to tell exactly who’d taken his spot: John Cochran, a fellow “Know-It-All” from seasons 23 and 26.

It might seem reductive to boil everyone in consideration for the show down to their most prominent characteristics, but hey, we do it too: it’d be impossible to conduct user research if we weren’t keenly aware of user demographics and how to leverage qualitative data on a particular group of people to solve design problems. While Survivor casts a net so wide that they often recruit contestants who did not actually apply on their own, and as designer’s we’re generally looking to recruit a very specific type of user that adheres to a project’s problem space, it’s the same general principle. You’ve got to know exactly what type of person you’re looking for, and you’ll screen as many potential candidates as necessary until you find people who fit your criteria — the integrity and validity of your work depends on it!

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Two-time winner Tony Vlachos and some later iterations, Joe Mena and Wardog DaSilva. (Photos from CBS)

Feedback and Critique

As a UX designer, you have an obligation to subject your work to the scrutiny of others. It’s the only way to design a product that actually caters to the needs and interests of your target user base, but it’s also the only way to improve over time. Whether its from a superior who has to sign off on your ideas before you can move forward or simply informal opinions solicited from your contemporaries, if you’re not receiving regular feedback and critique on your progress, you’re not really doing UX design, you’re just dragging around a bunch of vectors around in a vacuum (no shame in indulging in a bit of aimless vector dragging on the side, though!)

As we suffer through the mortifying ordeal of being known, Survivor contestants lucky enough to make it to the final tribal council are right there with us. Like most social-strategy reality game shows, the winner of Survivor is not determined by a physical challenge, but by a jury of the contestants who were voted out prior to the final tribal council. Once the game is down to 2 or 3 players, they must plead their case to the jury as to why they deserve to win roughly $600,000 after taxes more than the player(s) sitting beside them.

In recent years, the rhetorical argument finalists must form has become known as a Survivor “resumé: How did you demonstrate agency in the game? What strategic moves did you make that got you to the end? What’s going to be part of your winner’s edit when the season airs if you actually pull this off? Like designers who share their work for critique, having pride in what you’ve accomplished is only half the battle. You can try to sell the jury any argument you’d like, but the jury has to respect your argument and your gameplay.

If you made it to the end and can’t figure out how you got there, you might just be a “goat,” or a player who was dragged to the end by another contestant who noticed a lack of agency or strategy in your gameplay and thought you’d be easy to beat. Every Survivor jury is different, but they generally don’t hold back when a finalist doesn’t have good answers to their questions. It’d be equally unwise to present design work you’re not prepared or willing to defend when participating in a critique.

Survivor: San Juan Del Sur juror Reed Kelly expressing his disapproval of finalist Missy Payne’s gameplay

Conclusion

Honestly, I was entirely motivated to write this because I wanted to ramble about my favorite show, but maybe I’m onto something here: Speaking from personal experience, pivoting into UX from another career and selling yourself as a qualified candidate requires you rack your brains and figure out how your background and skills have prepared you for the field. If you’re caught in a job search rough patch, doubting your abilities, or struggling to articulate what you have to offer as a designer, an exercise like this is a great way to recalibrate your headspace: pick a discipline (or perhaps reality show) you like to observe from afar and figure out how your design skills would give you an advantage. I’m confident you’ll come up with something, because I had to restrain myself from making this a lot longer.

The strategy necessary to win the votes of your fellow gameshow contestants may be vastly different from the strategy necessary to succeed in fulfilling client and users goals while researching, writing, and designing for UX, but like with any two domains, you’ll discover a parallel or two (or perhaps even three). Though I truly love the idea of explaining to a camera how my background in UX design has prepared me for the game of Survivor, my asthma and fear of sun damage will probably prevent me from ever applying for the show. For now, I’ll keep my mental mash-up muscles nice and limber and keep dragging elements I’m hoping to improve enough to include in a project into an artboard titled “Redemption Island”.

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