The Hidden UX Lessons From Your Favourite Christmas Movie Characters

This holiday season, as you put your feet up and switch on your television screen, you can fully relax knowing that you’re also hard at work brushing up on your design skills. Sound too good to be true? Let me show you. I’ve rounded up wisdom from nine Christmas characters as lessons you can apply to your own design process.

UX Lesson #1

Kevin McCallister: Sketch Out Your Ideas

Kevin’s ‘Battle Plan’ from Home Alone (1990)

Before you start setting up traps around your home, get all your ideas down on paper first. Start with a sketch.

Even in just low fidelity, a visual representation of our ideas or proposals will better communicate our intent than if we merely describe them verbally. Sketches and pictures are communication tools we can use to help form mental images and demonstrate our approach. When we start with a sketch, we will always have something to show in a meeting, or if a manager (or wet bandit) drops by.  


UX Lesson #2

Susan Walker: Don’t Be Afraid to be Wrong

Susan doesn’t believe in fairy tales, from Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Skeptical Susan Walker doesn’t believe in fairytales. When she sees the department store Santa Claus speaking Dutch to another little girl, she begins to doubt her once firmly held beliefs. When we believe something strongly, it’s not easy to admit when we’re wrong.

If a user struggles to use our product, sometimes it can be difficult not to take that feedback to heart.

It’s sage advice to create distance between our designs and ourselves, and think of our work as something that still needs to be refined. Remember that evaluation is an important part of the process, and iterating based on user feedback will only strengthen the final result.


UX Lesson #3

Buddy the Elf: Explore New Horizons

Buddy explores dessert pasta, from Elf (2003)

Whether it’s the world’s greatest coffee, passionfruit spray, or an afternoon in the mailroom, Buddy isn’t afraid to try new things.

A UX designer should be just as open to seeing things from a new perspective. It’s at the heart of why we conduct user research; we want to improve our understanding of how people use our designs. Analytics might give us the ‘what’, but not the ’why’. We still need to listen to users as they explain the problems they are facing with our products or services. And, remember the mantra ”you are not your user”; how can we gain a new perspective if we only listen to ourselves? The people we design for are likely to have a different set of concerns and circumstances.


UX Lesson #4

Jack Skellington: One Size Does Not Fit All

The Pumpkin King initially misunderstood the true spirit of Christmas, from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

When Jack Skellington takes Halloween and repackages it as Christmas, the effects are terrifying. Repackaging iOS or Android apps and shipping them to the mobile web can have a similar effect.

For instance, a bottom navigation bar is a great device for iOS and Android apps, but mobile Safari will summon the browser controls if we tap within 40px of the bottom. We must learn how to leverage the different patterns, permissions and limitations on each platform to make the interactions as smooth as possible for the people using it.


UX Lesson #5

Patch: Test Before You Ship

Patch is promoted to assistant, from Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

In Santa Claus: The Movie, Patch becomes Santa’s assistant by building a machine to automate the manufacture of toys. In the rush for quantity, quality isn’t always maintained.

In the tech world, where it’s important to ship early and often, other parts of the design process can get squeezed out. To mitigate this, we can schedule design testing while the engineering team are doing theirs, or even combine the two and test a version of everything together.  Taking the time to test an implementation before a new feature gets pushed live (and not falling for ‘we’ll fix it in phase 2’) means we can learn early from any mistakes, in time to have both quantity and quality.


UX Lesson #6

Gizmo: Know The Rules

Cute, furry and probably the worst Christmas present ever, from Gremlins (1984)

I’m not talking about staying away from water or bright lights.

What separates a good designer from a terrific one is their understanding of human psychology and behaviour, and their ability to use it to strengthen their designs. Designers who are familiar with the Von Restorff Effect, Gestalt Principles, and Miller’s Law know not just what works, but why it works too.

That, and no snacking after midnight.


UX Lesson #7

Clark Griswold : Be Aware of Your Assumptions

Clark becomes obsessed with ensuring that everything goes right, from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

We assume that the enormous tree will fit in the living room, that the turkey will taste as delicious as it looks, and that we can use our Christmas bonus to pay for a new pool.

We all make assumptions, and there is little we can do to avoid it. The trick is to be aware of the assumptions that we are making, so that we can call them out. It might be that we are assuming that everyone who uses our products has access to great wifi, the latest smartphone or perfect eyesight. When we’re aware that we’re making assumptions, we remember to test on older devices, using poor wifi and with users who have impaired vision.


UX Lesson #8

John McClane: Get Comfortable Improvising

McClane 'comes out to the coast, gets together and has a few laughs', from Die Hard (1988)

Multiple projects can impact a single screen. Changes to navigation, filters, buttons and images can make the designer feel they are on shifting sands.

How do we deliver designs when there are so many moving parts? Designing with too many changes will confuse engineers and can give product managers unrealistic expectations.

One approach is to try blurring out the irrelevant parts of the screens, or to make these areas appear like wireframes. This helps us focus only on the specific area that we are currently working on, and will help us explain that the blurred out areas are work in progress.



UX Lesson #9

George Bailey: Facilitate the Success of Others

George wants a suitcase ‘this big’ for 1001 nights, from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

The Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan gives everyone in Bedford Falls the chance to “Own Your Own Home”. George Bailey invests in people, and the returns are more worthwhile than we can imagine.

Our own response might be to facilitate the success and development of the more junior designers on our teams. Invest in them by offering short, regular mentoring and coaching sessions. Set up regular 1-on-1 meetings so you can learn how to support them where they need it most. Graduating with design skills is one thing, knowing how to navigate the complex world of feedback, scope-creep and persuading product managers is another. Remember to highlight the things they do well, and not just the areas that need improvement.


Those are the UX lessons from your favourite Christmas movie characters. Designers are always looking for ways to improve their process, so the next time you’re putting your feet up to watch a classic Christmas movie, think of it as research. Maybe you can find a new lesson to apply to your own design process.

I would like to wish you all—wherever you are—a very happy Christmas.

Eleanor McKenna

Eleanor McKenna

Eleanor McKenna is an Irish Interaction Designer who loves Christmas films. She is currently based in Munich and works at Google.

She started out almost a decade ago as a front-end developer before making the transition into design, and loves to share what she has learned on her design blog.

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