Shannon J. McKenzie is an industry leader in digital media. As the Director of Product Development at NBCUniversal, McKenzie has led the design and development of enterprise platforms and consumer products. As an Emmy winning producer, McKenzie has created and produced over 800 digital experiences for entertainment, news, film, and sports. She has brought the world’s largest stories to screens of all sizes; including The Olympics, The World Cup, The Super Bowl, The Oscars and more. McKenzie also holds multiple patents and has designed and developed technologies for creative management platforms, analytics products and consumer facing sites and apps. SfA is excited to welcome her to the Advisory Board.
What are some of the challenges and highlights producing technical products for such big media events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics?
The biggest challenge is the level of coordination required. Most production teams work cross-functionally, today, but with a large-scale media event like the Olympics the main difference is just the sheer number of people involved. Big events have a lot of operational complexity so to be a good leader you have to balance being decisive and patient. You work across many teams, planning and organizing and coordinating and it requires a lot of attention to detail. For global events, there are both technical and geographical logistics to consider. Collaboration happens across time zones, often an entire team is remote. In my case for instance, our technical teams will be in the USA and our production teams will be in Tokyo this year. So, you have to make sure you have clear communication, that everyone understands how to proceed and that you test the platforms, the process and all of the products in advance.
It’s interesting though, the challenge is also really the highlight, too. I think whether you’re working on small technology projects or large ones, it’s less about the technology and more about human beings; that’s what’s most important. It’s the people that make an event a success, so despite the coordination challenges, it’s the collaborative, creative spirit that is truly the highlight of these big events. That’s what makes it fun and memorable.
It’s interesting that you brought up the global element of it. What are some of your insights for working on products with such an international and intercultural scope?
In global product development often the success of a product has as much to do with cultural empathy as it does with technical capabilities. When you’re working on products with an intercultural scope, you quickly learn your own biases. So, you have to be open to understanding how people will use a product in the context of their environment. Something as simple as the colors you choose or the shape of an icon on an app can have significant social meaning beyond the functional intent. It’s always important to consider traditional human factors, like whether the user is sitting at a computer or holding a mobile device. But that’s not enough. It’s not just the functional meaning, there’s a symbolic meaning, and you need to have empathy for the social attitudes, values and customs of your users, too. So, when you design any product that has a global audience, whether it’s an enterprise product or a consumer product, you have to consider the cultural context of that environment.
If there are people who are interested in getting more involved with these intercultural projects, are there any good resources and tips for them?
There are so many ways today to get involved in intercultural projects. Almost every product we use today has a global component. Probably the best way is to engage with a diverse community yourself. We are entirely interconnected as a result of digital technologies. The great promise of the Internet was connectivity and much of our globalization is a result of communications technologies that have emerged in just the last decade. I think almost all industries have in some way, shape or form, harnessed the power of technology, so no matter what interests you, you can find projects that will have some digital element to them. In most cases, digital work will connect you more broadly with intercultural projects.
Alongside some of the ideas and skills we’ve spoken about for intercultural experiences, what are some of the other useful skills you’ve developed and or used in your career?
I think as a product designer, whether you’re in industrial design or software design or fashion design, a good deal of one’s success is a result of one’s listening skills. In the digital world, the quality of your product is always based on the quality of your questions. So, really listening to your audience, your consumer, or your platform user comes first. What problems are they trying to solve? What goals are they trying to achieve? What pain points they are experiencing? These are all questions that help you to reframe the challenges into the language of design. And then you need to refine that language. What is the user really trying to accomplish? And what’s so hard about that? I think the ability to reframe challenges and refine those challenges into intuitive product ideas are important skills. That’s really what design thinking is about.
What are some upcoming projects that you’re excited for?
We have the Summer Olympics and the Presidential Elections coming up, and I’m working on both of those projects right now, so 2020 is a big year. In addition, we’ve just announced a streaming service. There is a lot that goes into preparing for those events and for major product launches. It’s an exciting time and also a lot of work.
Do you ever just get almost amazed or shocked that you have a hand in telling history?
Absolutely. It will be amazing to someday look back at this point in my life and think about the work I’ve done and mostly the unbelievably talented people I’ve met. I grew up in a really small rural farming community in Minnesota. As a kid, anything I knew about the big wide world, I learned from watching TV or reading books or magazines. There was no google or Instagram. I remember watching the Olympics on TV and just thinking how far away the rest of the world seemed. And now I bring those stories to kids like me, and I hope it inspires them in a similar way. So, yes, for me to be contributing to such major cultural events is incredibly humbling. I’m honored and feel extremely lucky to be a part of them. When I think about how these events connect us, it’s so personal and yet these stories unite us across the world and will throughout human history. It’s pretty cool. I don’t think my younger self could have ever imagined this.
How did you hear about Space for Arts?
I heard about SfA through an amazing photographer friend, Sophie Holland. She invited me to a talk which she was giving, hosted by SfA, that took place in one of the studios on the SfA platform. Allyson Torrissi, Deputy Photo Director at People, introduced me to the founders Betsy and Van that evening and told me about their mission, which really sparked my interest. First of all, they were solving a real problem for our industry. I spend more time in video than still photography, but we have the same challenges with studio time. The fact that they’re creating a solution to a long-standing, real-world operational business problem was fantastic.
But what I also liked, beyond the fact that it was a good technical product, was the way they were going about the business. Betsy and Van were eager to give back to the community. Anyone who knows anything about creative industries knows they are built on relationships. Those of us who work in media, entertainment, photography, fashion, design, commercial arts, we are all passionate about what we do. So, when I saw that SfA was building a great product and doing it for the right reasons, and that the founders were eager to build the community, I knew I wanted to find a way to contribute.
So how do you view your role on the advisory board?
I’m really inspired by SfA’s spirit, and principles. This is not just a technology platform; it’s a purpose. I see a lot of digital platforms as part of my job and get pitched many product ideas. What I liked most about SfA is that it is solving a real need. If you’ve worked in the industry, you know the creative process is messy. It’s supposed to be like that. That’s what creativity is. It’s filled with experimentation and play. Things change and evolve until they’re ready to take form. Space for Arts isn’t trying to change the creative process, it’s holding space to make the connection between generating ideas and producing great work. SfA comes in right at the intersection of creativity and business, just as ideas are taking form and turning into production processes.
Production is very linear. It’s a series of repeatable acts. So that crossroads is tricky to navigate. The intersection of creativity and business is where I’ve always worked, and I’ve found technology that supports native workflows are really appreciated when they’re thoughtfully designed. The SfA platform means smart people will spend less energy shuffling sticky notes and more energy generating great ideas. To me this felt like a powerful opportunity to bring my combination of technical, business and production knowledge to the team as an advisor, so I hope my skills can help to guide the roadmap and grow the business. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve on the SfA board and honored to be part of the team.