Host Nathan Fielder is operating at the outer edges of experience design
Nathan Fielder is different things to different people. To some, the host and creator of The Rehearsal (HBO’s latest masterwork in cringe) is a supernova of disarming sex appeal. To others, his gaze is “cruel and arrogant.” To me, he’s emerged as the personified id of rabid, blue-sky experience design.
It’s all there in his mission statement: “If you plan for every variable,” he tells us, “a happy outcome doesn’t have to be left to chance.” In his quest to generate rewarding outcomes for his charges — volunteers who seem eager to rehearse critical life events before engaging in them — Fielder identifies as many pain points as possible and tests solutions in a controlled environment. Though his demeanor remains steadfastly low-key, he’s sprinting the design thinking wheel in a cold-sweat.
In the first episode, “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” we meet a trivia enthusiast named Kor Skeete. After joining a pub trivia team years ago, Kor got caught up in a discussion about master’s degrees and lied to the group by indicating that he had one. He’s been tormented by this misdeed for more than a decade and is ready to come clean to a key member of the group who he fears will have an ugly reaction.
Kor rehearses this interaction hundreds of times under the watchful eye of Fielder, stalking around like an arcane project manager with his laptop in a cradle harness worn over his shoulders. The rehearsal space is a replica of the bar that Kor selected for the encounter, meticulously recreated by Fielder inside a warehouse, down to details like a half-filled foil balloon trapped near the ventilation system, exact spice combinations in the condiment rack on the bar, and patches of exposed padding on the chairs. The bar is populated by extras and an actor hired to play the woman he’s confessing to.
This unexpected allocation of HBO money isn’t even Fielder’s first spelunk into the depths of user research on his client’s behalf. He admits to Kor early on that he’s not good at meeting people for the first time and so, after Kor replied to his Craigslist ad, a phony utility crew was sent to take photos of his apartment so that Fielder could build a replica within which to scheme.
Inside this paste apartment, he bounces jokes off on another actor hired to play Kor. Fielder says that he uses humor to ease the attention and is oh so committed to nailing all of his material. Proving that even the most meticulous planning sessions can run aground, after meeting the real Kor, Fielder is left to reflect on an errant toilet plunger joke: “I’d intended the joke to be self-deprecating, about my unpredictable bowel movements, but … I realized he could have misinterpreted it as a criticism that his bathroom was under-equipped.”
These actors that Fielder brings in are almost supercharged personas, the well-worn design tool for attempting to understand users. In casting Kor’s foil, Fielder found a performer who was even willing to meet with the unsuspecting woman she’d be playing to try and gauge her level of anger at being lied to. This action, however, marks one of his dalliances with dark UX — experience design that manipulates people in ways they don’t always realize to control outcomes. He also has the cute idea of going skeet shooting with Skeete, but here again, Fielder has the guns preloaded with blanks so they can bond over being bad at shooting.
Fielder gets a lesson in ethnography as the product launch draws near, realizing that if there is pub trivia happening in the background, Kor will be distracted. In response, he once more turns to dark UX, orchestrating a ruse that gets him the trivia answers for the night of the confessions. He then hires more actors to surreptitiously feed Kor the answers while walking around the city. “Maybe it’s more unethical to leave things to chance when there’s something you could have done,” he reasons.
It’s actually quite batshit, but it’s a familiar and fertile guana.
Even UX tools get showcased in the scene I alluded to earlier, where Kor is rehearsing with the actor. Fielder is watching him while keeping close tabs on the flowchart software he’s using to create optimal conversational pathways. He refers to it as a “decision tree that would guide us toward key milestones and help us avoid pitfalls,” and it elicited the excitement of mapping possibilities that experience designers know well. As UX moves toward a moment when the primary interface with technology will become conversational, Fielder’s attempts to wrangle the wildly unpredictable outcomes of human speech behavior is also rather salient.
Still, what bears out is that predicting human behavior remains difficult, and in an experience economy companies are willing to go to great — often nonsensical lengths — to figure out how to best meet their customers and employees where they’re at with something of real value. Fielder seems to be operating on this wavelength. (Or maybe it’s just me looking into a self-reflecting pool. Lemonade makes the case on their blog that by selling anxious clients some peace of mind, Fielder is in their same game: “… it doesn’t seem like too much of a leap to argue that what Fielder is actually selling is a form of … insurance.”)
His belabored endeavor delivers something beguilingly modern. There is no tangible exchange. The product is simply an experience meticulously designed to match or beat-out expectations. The Rehearsal gives us an exploded designer-eye view of how complex it is to do that.
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