PRODUCTHEAD: What can product managers learn about discovery from a superhero costume maker?
PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.
motion product soundtrack #
Don’t specify rigid requirements to your delivery team, have a collaborative conversation instead
Try out lots of different solutions to the same problem
Don’t be pressured to rush through discovery and prototyping
Share knowledge around your team
Avoid misunderstandings through constant communication with stakeholders
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A slightly different approach this week: a single video and a long-form article about iterative experimentation and collaboration with stakeholders. If you like it — or hate it — send me a message to let me know :-)
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what to think about this week
Whether you love or loathe superhero movies, the real heroes are often behind the scenes. These are the various creatives who work on designing and building the scenes, props and costumes that allow you to immerse yourself in the story.
I recently watched Adam Savage interview Bex Elley, whose team worked on Marvel Studios’ Moon Knight TV show. Bex is Head of Soft Costume at FBFX, a special effects costume supplier to the film and entertainment industry. In the episode they’re looking at the research and fabrication process for the suit worn by the titular character.
Even if you care not one iota about the character or the show, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the intricate detail and craftwork that they’ve put into the practical costume that the stunt performers wear on set. It looks like layers of fabric bandages (think Egyptian mummy) because that’s what a lot of it is in reality.
Okay — it’s a cool-looking superhero suit. Very nice. What’s the product management angle?
The product management angle #
During the interview, Bex talks Adam through how her team approached the research, prototyping and construction of the costume that would be used in the TV production. It’s a perfect example of what happens after you’ve done your initial discovery to take a product from the drawing board to launch.
The video is only about 20 minutes long, but let me break down the key points for you.
A collaborative conversation, not rigid requirements #
Marvel’s production costume designer for the show was Meghan Kasperlik. In this scenario, you can think of her as the senior stakeholder working with Bex (she’s like the product manager) and her delivery team of specialists at FBFX.
Meghan had already defined the problem, namely to create a live-action costume that closely resembled the design from the comic books. The main bit of discovery had already been done, if you like.
[ADAM] Now when you’re talking about echoing those details, is that something that the production designer is coming to you with, or are they asking you for solutions and you’re giving options and showing them what’s possible?
[BEX] I mean, sometimes it comes from comes from the actor, sometimes it comes from the costume designer, sometimes from production. It was quite a fluid conversation that we were having about it all. And I think it was it was ultimately that they decided that we needed to integrate it, but it not feel like one entire thing. And so a bit of back and forth, doing plenty of samples, giving them a few options, and this is what we all agreed upon was the best way to go.00:04:48 (lightly edited for clarity)
The way Meghan briefed Bex and her team was as a collaborative conversation, not a prescriptive set of rigid requirements. Initially Meghan brought along a good idea of the desired outcome, some initial thoughts about the approach, and a few design constraints:
[BEX] This is very important for stunts as well because we really need to make sure that there’s nothing brittle or sharp. Everything has to bend or allow for some compression.00:08:28
[ADAM] And I can see how great that would be for a stunt performer.
[BEX] Yeah, yeah — exactly. Just trying not to limit their movement at all or as much as possible.
They did some quick blocking out of of some of these scenes as well and they were really fascinating to see. So we could see what was required.00:16:02
The approach the delivery team took was not prescribed to them by the senior stakeholder, they agreed on what was needed after back-and-forth discussion, and after conducting some experiments to figure out what was going to work in practice.
Trying out lots of different solutions to the same problem #
One of the defining characteristics of the Moon Knight costume is its original comic book inspiration from mummy bandages. This is not just a random aesthetic choice; the costume reflects the mythos of the character’s origin and holds narrative significance.
So getting this particular detail right was crucial to the success of the overall costume. While some artistic licence was permitted, if it didn’t look enough like the original design from the comics, fans would be constantly distracted from the story.
[BEX] So this was an initial sort of trying to get your head around the construction. So we decided to start in calico first. And this was a whole integrated sleeve and like we were trying to work out what happens if you seam it here, what happens if there’s overlaps. Things like this we had to put to one side because you know stunts are going to get caught.
So these are all our seaming tests here as well just just purely for the bandage idea. And we tried it doing it with a pleat because we were thinking oh we can’t possibly cut out that many pieces. But in fact this was actually a longer way to do it.
[ADAM] Oh fascinating!
[BEX] And not as secure either. There was a potential for it to pop too much, like you see there.
So then we were like, okay let’s have another little think. And these are all [shows the test samples]. We came up eventually with: we bond a piece to it with our seam allowance, net all around. One side is two millimetres on the other side is net, and then as you sew it and then you glue it and you roll it, and then that’s what gives it the sense of the depth.
[ADAM] Oh man.00:09:16
Bex and her team identified that resembling bandages was one of the most important aspects of the costume get right, and one of the biggest areas of uncertainty for them, so they focused their experimentation on it first.
They tried out many, many different prototypes (or experiments) to learn what techniques worked well and what didn’t. They checked whether their tests satisfied the various design constraints (such as durability while performing stunts), and eventually settled on a hybrid approach, which combined parts of their various experiments and ticked all the boxes.
Time spent experimenting before building it for real #
Despite the obvious time pressure from Marvel Studios to get the costume ready before production started, Bex and her team made sure they had spent enough time experimenting and prototyping. Only when they were confident to proceed did they move to fabricating the production costume.
[ADAM] How many weeks was was this problem-solving process before you started to get to construction?
[BEX] It was probably a good month of back and forth.
[ADAM] That doesn’t sound like nearly enough time!
[BEX] Maybe — like — maybe six weeks! Because as we could sign off one technique we could start developing one part of it whilst we were waiting for another part of it. So we get the trouser technique signed off, we can start working on those, get that ‘make’ going whilst we’re still working on this. So that we’ve got this constant flow of of work and there’s progression happening with it all.00:12:01
Many delivery teams are too eager — or under too much pressure from stakeholders — to devote enough time to discovery, experimentation and prototyping. Some managers are uncomfortable seeing teams working with throwaway prototypes because it doesn’t look like progress to them. (“Developers should be writing code, not playing around!”)
Ultimately, nobody benefits from jumping ahead to production before the team has a good enough idea of what to build. You’ll only end up hitting the same problems you’d have uncovered anyway if you’d done a bit more experimentation. Only now they’re 10 times more expensive to fix.
But likewise a team can’t spend forever in discovery or prototyping. It’s important to have a clear idea of the main criteria that a prototype needs to satisfy. You’ll never have 100% certainty, so the goal is to learn just enough from experimentation to reduce the uncertainty to a point where the team feels confident to proceed.
Bex and her team took an iterative and rolling approach to their experimentation. They focused on the most critical aspects first. They made their prototypes from calico, which was easier, quicker and cheaper to work with than the production fabric.
While waiting for stakeholder approval on one thing, they started experimenting on the next. This way they were able to demonstrate their progress to their senior stakeholder, while also increasing the frequency of feedback on their prototypes. This in turn meant they were less likely to waste time on something that wasn’t going to work in production.
Sharing the knowledge around the team #
Different members of the delivery team had particular areas of expertise, but for Bex it was important that each member worked on every part of the costume:
[ADAM] I mean a project like this requires you guys to all of you sort of be investing the whole structure into your heads.
[BEX] Yeah, yeah. Because … everyone had a go at making all parts of the costume but everyone had their specialism within the costume to focus on as well, so that the technique would improve each time.00:15:30
By sharing the knowledge around the team, lots of good things start to happen. Each team member gets an opportunity to broaden their experience by working on something outside of their comfort zone. Everyone on the team gains a perspective of how the whole costume comes together, and how their respective component fits in with that. And given they were working on this project in COVID lockdown, it was a helpful insurance against absences for everyone on the team to be able to fabricate any component.
Constant communication with stakeholders #
Aside from the design constraints of creating a practical costume for use by stunt performers, Bex and her team had the additional challenge of doing all this work whilst under COVID lockdown. This meant that all demonstrations of their work to Meghan Kasperlik, Marvel Studios’ production costume designer and their senior stakeholder, had to be done over video call.
[BEX] But like I say it was a very interesting costume making process as well. especially because of the lockdown factor. And we spent a lot of time on Zoom speaking to the costume designer Meghan. And she would say, “Try this, I’m going to send you this fabric, we’ll try this print.”
It gets sent over to us, we try out some versions, get that sent back to her. Every fitting that we had, [we’d] have her on on Zoom as well. Whilst the stuntmen are doing their spinning kicks, she’s there going okay, great.
And then I remember one particular moment with the hood as well we tried to get as close to the camera as possible and just her guidance really on the fullness of the cape and especially, like, all around here this shape.
[ADAM] The silhouettes and the lines.
[BEX] It was a very interesting experience to work with a designer like that in those particular in those conditions, it was really fascinating. And then she’d go back to Marvel, get Marvel approval, come back to us. It was very much like a constant back and forth. You have to stay in constant communication.00:19:44
While it sometimes feels like a distraction to have to be continually communicating with your stakeholders, the real point of all that communication is to shake out misunderstandings. Communication is all about transferring the ideas and understanding inside one person’s head to another person’s head. Words are an imperfect medium because people can easily interpret things differently. And that’s when conflicts can occur.
So where we can, we prefer showing people what we mean and confirm shared understanding. We communicate often and sometimes reiterate things in different ways to ensure we got the right point across successfully.
Crucially, when we’re constrained in the ways we can communicate, such as when we’re forced to work remotely, we have to make extra effort to communicate frequently and effectively.
Final thoughts #
See if you can carve out enough time for your team to experiment on the most crucial aspects of the problem you’re trying to solve. Understand your design constraints. Only move forward when you feel just confident enough. Communicate often with the goal of shaking out misunderstandings with your stakeholders. Show what you’ve done, rather than talking about it.
We may not be making superhero suits, but it turns out we can learn a great deal about how to work iteratively and collaboratively from a team of specialist costume makers.
If you enjoyed this, there are plenty more long-form product management articles on my blog at I Manage Products. Thanks for reading!
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