My Rejected Submission to Interaction11: What Lessons Can We Learn From Soap Operas For Designing Experiences

Rejection emails from IxDA’s Interaction11 conference have begun to circulate this morning.

There were 300 submissions for the lightning sessions and only 30 slots, and no doubt rejecting 90% of the speakers was an extremely tough task. I don’t take it personally at all that I was included among them.

Many people in the industry whom I consider to be my heroes were also turned away; I hope they submit their ideas to other conferences so that I can get the chance to see them! Given the high caliber of submissions to Interaction11, I’m even more excited to attend the conference to see the sessions that were selected — they must be extraordinary.

I wanted to share my submission with you to get your feedback on how to improve upon it. Do you think this is a good idea for a session and something you would want to see? Could I have done a better job with the description or title?

I’d like to iterate on it and submit it to another upcoming conference. I think it would be a lot of fun, and it’s something I really want to spend the time researching and thinking about.

What Lessons Can We Learn From Soap Operas For Designing Experiences

Soap operas have been in existence for more than 80 years, have told the world’s longest stories, and capture an intensely loyal fan base of millions. What lessons can we learn from their format and structure to captivate and transport our own users? How can we make use what theorist Steve Neale refers to as their “chance meetings, coincidences, missed meetings, sudden conversions, last-minute rescues and revelations, and deus ex machina endings,” as mechanisms to engage people in the interactive space? What design patterns can we apply to our own work?

In this talk, I will share the findings of my research into the history of soap operas and their relationship to interaction design. I hope to spark attendees’ interest in the genre as a source of inspiration for the experiences they create, and a deeper understanding of the emotional touchpoints of those experiences.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments! Thanks so much in advance for helping me make this better.

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  1. says

    Sounds like it would have been a really interesting topic. Soap operas stand out, to me, as being a format that *really* understands their target audience and doesn’t try to go outside of that. For the millions of people who love soap operas, there has to be an equal number of people who think they are a complete waste of time. The makers of soap operas must play directly to the vertical that enjoys them and doesn’t waste their time trying to appeal to a broader audience. They truly know their brand significance.

    In the book, How We Decide, one of the things they talk about is how soap operas get directed. They have to make them so often that they can’t afford to do re-takes of many scenes. You get like 1 or 2 chances and you have to move on. The amount of on-the-spot decisions that need to get made seems like a real pressure cooker!!

    To take a quote from the book: “You’ve really got to know how to milk the drama – otherwise, it’s just a bunch of people standing in a room saying stupid stuff.”

    … talk about someone who really understands that the “Experience” of the user is first and foremost and that the content is almost secondary. Of course, such an approach, I have to believe, depends heavily on the targeted audience.

    Now that I think about it, I’d love to see what you have to say on the matter. Seems like there is all kinds of juicy goodness to take away from their approach.

    Good luck on the next submission – I bet this would be awesome.

  2. says

    I’m curious to see how you will develop this, and what your angle is. I used to watch soap operas in high school and college, before I knew the “real world.” Now I’m embarassed to say sometimes I watch them at home while I’m freelancing. The one thing I notice is NOBODY TALKS LIKE THAT. Like when was the last time you heard someone say, “I WILL DESTROY YOU!”?
    And soap operas (since they are written for women), show men at all ages behaving as though they all took conflict resolution classes. They almost always say the right thing to pacify, calm, and charm their women.
    My point is, soap operas are colored to portray an ideal world. How could you tie that to design?

  3. says


    All design is contextual – that’s what makes it work. That’s why, for example, the $200/month sports club is very different than the $40/month sports club; the basics are the same, but the people they cater to – the context – is very different. What works for one won’t necessarily work for the other in terms of design.

    Soap operas are the same way – they are design in the context of their target audience. I think there is a lot to be learned from this. As a fellow NYC’er, I hope Whitney gets to give this talk locally at some point.

  4. says

    @Ben, I absolutely agree that all design is contextual, but I disagree that soap operas are different in context. I have watched lots of soap operas in my life, and they are all interchangeable in terms of sets and characters. They are about relationships, and drama. The spanish novellas are just louder and more dramatic. :)
    This is why I’m curious to see how Whit frames this.

  5. says


    Ahh, I see what you’re saying; I think I was looking at it in a different way. I agree with you that they are all interchangeable (I’ll take your word for it). What I was saying is that a soap opera is different in context than, say, a piece of software. Soap operas are designed for their audience and software is designed for its own audience. And, while the two audiences are (likely) very different, I bet that the theories put in place with each design can be transferable between contexts even if the manifestation is very different.

  6. says

    It sounds like an interesting talk, I love thinking about what can be applied from different industries. We’re all Magpies in IxD looking for those shiny nuggets of inspiration :)

    Deus ex machina is the name of a local cafe here in Auckland, I’d never looked up it’s meaning until now and I love that concept.

    There was an article in ACM 5 years ago called “Designing theatre, designing user experience” which really excited me, but was seriously underwhelmed with (

    Much more interesting was a set of rules about good theatre

    Or even Dieter Rams’ principles for good design

    What I liked about these was that they were less abstract, and easily linked to real life examples.

    My advice would be to pitch a talk that is grounded in real life examples or case studies, and draw the patterns from these. I believe this would make the subject come across as a lot more relevant and useful.

    Also for the title I would have made a reference to something that people might remember about soaps e.g. something like

    “It was all a dream!” and 10 more user experience principles learnt watching Dallas

    …but that’s just me an I’m a bit corny.

  7. says


    I totally agree with Ben’s comments and furthermore think we could all benefit from learning how to execute the perfect steely gaze into the middle distance.

  8. says

    I’d definitely like to hear this (or watch the video presentation online).
    You always offer an interesting perspective on your subjects and I’m sure this would be no different.

  9. brent says

    So you want to discuss narratives in UX… I think narratives already play a huge role in the UX process. Or are soap operas distinct or different in some sense?
    Maybe I am not 100% clear on this.

  10. says

    One angle I always appreciate and find myself using daily is looking outwards to other disciplines to find new application to my own work. This is exactly what I’m seeing in your proposal. First, this approach helps reinvigorate me. Also, when these metaphors or cross-disciplinary approaches are shared with those outside of the UX world I think it helps them better understand my role.

    The only thing I would have changed about your proposal would be the soap opera angle. Really, you’re relating to story-telling that lives not only in the world of soap operas but also elsewhere. Do soaps have a negative connotation to larger populous? Could be…

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