John Blakely loves Star Wars.
It’s not because, as Sphero’s Chief Product Officer, he was involved in the creation of the consumer version of The Force Awakens’ breakout star BB-8™. It’s not because he can’t hide his excitement at a video of an IBM scientist mind-controlling BB-8, sending the little droid skittering across the floor. It’s not even because he’s wearing shoes with the Star Wars lettering printed across the top.
No, it’s because of the emotional connection.
“I’ve grown up with the characters,” says Blakely. “I’ve laughed with them, I’ve cried with them, so they’re a part of my world. I still have my original, now very old Star Wars toys that I’ve played with that brought that world to life.”
At Sphero, he’s responsible for bringing that world to life for a new generation of kids (and kids at heart). And a big part of that comes from designing for, you guessed it, the user experience.
We had an in-depth conversation about UX, BB-8, and the nature of play. And, of course, a galaxy far, far away.
‘Making your pretend better’
We’re in an era where the Internet of Things is coming into its own. Products like Fitbit and Apple Watch have entered the mainstream, uniting our physical world with digital interfaces. For Sphero, who specializes in connected play, this combination brings the best of both worlds. Their breakout ball, Sphero, and more recently, the consumer product version of BB-8, are controlled by apps on a user’s phone or tablet.
There are inherent benefits to this connected play approach, Blakely explains.
“What the digital world allows you to do is make things much more immersive,” says Blakely. “Now that the devices are connected to that digital world, we can use some of the tools we have available to provide a context and a set of information and a set of reactions that you couldn’t get if you just had an unconnected toy.”
Blakely gives the example of one of the games you can play with the Sphero bot. It’s a supply drop game, where there’s a virtual layout of where the treasure points are. The twist is that you can’t see these treasure points, so you have to steer the ball around and pick up the treasure. The ball turns red if you’re cold, and once you find the treasure, it turns green and you earn a new trick or funds for the Sphero store.
Taking either the app or the ball away completely disrupts the experience, Blakely explains. But combining the two makes for a brand new experience:
“The power of bringing those two pieces together is being able to bring that physical product to life and make it more sophisticated, more interactive, and more delightful to interact with. There’s no screen we can build a fantasy world around, but we have your imagination. So if we can make you believe that that droid is alive by using the tools and technology at our disposal, then we can stimulate your imagination. Your imagination is the best rendering engine out there…For us, it’s kind of providing amplification of your imagination. It’s making your pretend better.”
Blakely admits that there’s a fine line balancing between the screen and the physical product. There’s also a balance between the hardware team designing the physical experience, and the software team designing the digital experience.
When Blakely and the Sphero team were first getting started, the software and the hardware teams worked separately. They built hardware first and told the software team to write apps for it, and then come up with the experiences. Blakely realized they were looking at it separately, but the players weren’t. They didn’t care about hardware or software—they cared about the final product.
Over the past couple of years, Blakely says Sphero has tried to unite hardware and software design. They start with the experience and why they’re excited about the product, as well as what’s innovative and inspiring. While there’s a lot of friction from all the teams meeting and sharing their own ideas, Blakely says it’s “great and healthy.”
Ultimately, Blakely says the physical and digital his teams design are intertwined.
“You can’t treat them as separate, otherwise your user experience is going to be separate.”
‘Simpler is better’
With all the possibilities presented by digital technology, it’s easy to start adding any and every feature to your product. But Blakely and the Sphero team have a straightforward mandate: simpler is better.
“You don’t want technology to get in the way of the experience,” says Blakely. “Sometimes, as engineers, we all get caught up in making it more complicated because that’s more fun and challenging, but really the elegance of that design is really what makes it better.”
But simplicity isn’t as, well, simple as it seems. Although a product may look simple in its final iteration, getting there can be anything but, especially if you’re facing constraints as a designer. However, as Blakely explains, constraints can make for a better design.
“When you have constraints in design, you lean into the other areas you aren’t constrained in,” says Blakely. “And sometimes you find a more elegant and simple solution to do it. It may not be the ideal one, but it can still get the job done.”
‘Bury the technology’
Sphero pushes themselves in three main areas regarding product experience: innovation, surprise and awe. They want to create new, wondrous experiences that unite the physical and digital; they want to delight users; and they want users to feel an emotional response to the product.
Each bot elicits a different response. Sphero, “the ball that started it all,” brings out a sense of wonder, as it does things you’ve never seen a ball do before. Ollie rolls around on two “wheels” and brings out a feeling of mastery. BB-8, evoking hints of R2D2, brings out a sense of familiarity.
For BB-8 in particular, connecting with the character was critical. Sphero had to release the character two months before the movie came out, and by creating vulnerable moment of “aww,” as Blakely calls it, it really resonated with people.
“We wanted to make [BB-8] look like [the movie version] and work like it, bury the technology under there and all the technology that makes it happen so that you can really connect directly with the character,” says Blakely.
Creating an emotional connection with the physical bots is something that Blakely thinks differentiates Sphero from other connected toys like Skylanders.
“You have a stronger presence and interaction of character,” says Blakely. “Your emotional bond occurs in the real world and is reinforced digitally, whereas [with Skylanders], your emotional bond with those characters is established in the virtual world, and then it’s reinforced in the digital world.”
And, as mentioned above, Blakely has quite the emotional bond with Star Wars.
‘Being part of the magic is awesome’
Sometimes Blakely still can’t believe he’s involved with the legendary film franchise. He’s had the chance to work with Star Wars several times in the past, he still says, “Wow, 10-year-old John would flip out if I was doing this stuff.” Still, he acknowledges that being part of the Star Wars legacy is a big responsibility.
It’s also pretty awesome.
“Just having something where I could contribute back to the intellectual property as a leader and as a team, that they have contributed to me in my life in terms of enjoyment and fun, it just makes it feel special. Being part of the magic is awesome.”
There’s several different stories about how Sphero got involved in the magic, but the basic story is this: Bad Robot and Disney created BB-8, a design Blakely calls “brilliant.” Sphero was part of the Disney Accelerator Program, part of which meant they met with a couple different executives, one of whom was Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger. Sphero’s founders and CEO met with the Disney team, who was intrigued that they made a ball robot and asked if they could make a consumer version of BB-8. Sphero’s founders quickly put together a prototype, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Disney shared certain details of BB-8's design and didn’t elaborate on others, either because they wanted to keep it secret or because they were still working it out. Luckily, Sphero had experience working on ball droids:
“We took all the pieces that we had and we kind of put our Star Wars lenses on and said, ‘Okay, how can we turn this into a magical Star Wars experience?’” says Blakely. “We tried to focus on that relationship between you and the droid and not necessarily use the droid’s character to connect it back to Star Wars and things that you would do in Star Wars. We didn’t have any specifics to rely on, which I think was a good design challenge. We had to be like, ‘Okay, what would this character do?’”
‘Stimulate your imagination’
The BB-8 bot can do quite a bit, like patrol and project holographic messages, but soon he’ll be able to do even more. Take the Force Band™, Sphero’s next foray into the Star Wars universe. The wristband can control BB-8’s movements using the Force. Still, the Sphero team is working things out.
“UX a lot of times is like human-machine interaction—this is like human-real world interaction,” says Blakely. “So it’s a whole new vector that brings software UX in with physical UX like industrial design and then projects it into a direction that’s unknown.”
Blakely admits they “don’t have a guidebook for what the Force interface is,” and says that using the Force has to come naturally. You can’t just, well, Force it into certain scenarios.
“Technically we can do all this stuff—just contextually it has to be there,” says Blakely. “It opens up some whole new possibilities where we can stimulate your imagination.”
Luckily, we’ve got a boy at heart and his bot to guide us.
Screencap courtesy of Sphero, Lucasfilm and Disney. © & ™ Lucasfilm Ltd.