In 2000, Lucasfilm created the Star Wars Holocron, a continuity database designed to keep track of all narrative details and branching storylines in the Star Wars universe. In 2015, Amazon saw an opportunity to partner with Lucasfilm and Disney by building an improved database system, powered by AWS, that could easily scale and take in all the new content pouring out of the franchise’s numerous upcoming projects. In exchange, Amazon sought a licensing agreement that would enable them to feature the Star Wars IP in certain products and services, most notably Amazon Instant Video.
A small team within Amazon Game Studios had already begun developing a concept to enhance Amazon Instant Video by giving customers the ability to pause any Star Wars film, or tv show, and interact with key elements on the screen. A partnership with Disney was crucial to bringing the team’s vision to life.
Despite Lucasfilm's eagerness to work with Amazon, Disney, the rightful owners of the Star Wars franchise, wasn’t so keen on partnering with us. The year prior, relations between Amazon and Disney had soured due to Amazon placing restrictions on pre-orders of Disney’s DVDs in order to regulate Disney’s pricing on amazon.com. We knew getting Disney’s approval was going to be a steep hill to climb, and we were going to need to offer the entertainment giant more than just a cool new video player feature to get them on-board.
I was tasked with further developing the team's core concept while also exploring additional ways Amazon could benefit Disney through the licensing of one of their most valuable IPs. Over a period of nine months, I led design efforts exploring how the integration of an AWS database solution could be leveraged to not only bolster Disney’s marketing and merchandising efforts within the Amazon ecosystem but also provide Star Wars fans with entirely new and highly immersive ways of experiencing the sci-fi universe.
To ensure the success of the project, the team established clear project standards that aligned with Disney's expectations for excellence. These standards included requirements for visual accuracy, contextual accuracy, technical feasibility, and effectiveness in achieving both Disney's business objectives and the needs and wants of their audience.
To deepen my understanding of the Star Wars universe and ensure the accuracy of my designs, I conducted in-depth research into the source materials, including books, interviews with creative contributors, and behind-the-scenes insights.
To better understand fans’ needs and wants, I also began engaging with Star Wars communities through fan blogs, online forums, and events such as Emerald City Comic-Con and PAX West.
The top insights I gained from these activities were:
Just how much of the Star Wars lore I didn't know. For instance, episodes 1-6 only span a total of 32 years, whereas the stories covered in the novels span over 25,000 years.
Watching the movies is great but fans want more. It seems almost everyone wants to be fully immersed in the Star Wars universe so they can wheel a lightsaber, fire a blaster, or use the force.
Fans are passionate about their knowledge of Star Wars and are quick to share and debate the unique perspectives they forge based on the information they’ve gathered.
In addition, I thoroughly reviewed numerous samples of Star Wars themed and general sci-fi themed designs to better hone the aesthetics of my visual style.
I continued exploring the team’s core concept by mocking-up examples of how we might embed mini-experiences into the websites where we assumed Star Wars fans were already gathering. The goal of this effort was to imagine how we might introduce Star Wars fans to the new capabilities of Amazon Instant Video and get them excited about using the platform. Although the general consensus from people was, “This is really cool,” we recognized that this solution alone wasn’t going to incentivize Disney to partner with us. The other thing we weren’t sure about was exactly how many people these experiences would be reaching.
In our ongoing effort to elevate our pitch to Disney to the next level, we continued developing additional product concepts. One standout idea we explored was a mobile app that I had a hand in designing, that offered real-time supplementation to further immerse viewers in the experience. Additionally, I envisioned an app that would revolutionize kids' imaginative playtime by bringing their beloved Lego models and action figures to life in new and exciting ways.
While these concepts were intriguing, we knew that they might not be a perfect fit for everyone. We recognized the need to deliver a more robust proposal that would capture Disney's interest and seal the deal.
Ah-Ha Moment #1:
Before joining this project, I considered myself a huge fan of Star Wars, but as I delved deeper into the Star Wars universe and its lore, I found myself growing even more fond of the franchise. I shared my insights with my team, and everyone agreed that they felt the same way too. It dawned on us that other fans would likely have a similar experience if they also had access to the same information. We dubbed this new insight “Reward with Story” and made it the driving force behind our project. Our aim was to create a highly immersive and richly themed experience that provided fans with a wealth of supplemental information that would deepen their love of the franchise.
Ah-Ha Moment #2:
We took a step back and examined our initial belief that StarWars.com was the perfect home for our interactive video concepts and realized that we had overlooked an essential detail - we had not validated our hypothesis. Upon further exploration, we discovered that the site had limited traffic, prompting us to explore other options. Our attention turned to Amazon.com, where we uncovered compelling evidence through thriving merchandising campaigns that demonstrated the significant presence of Star Wars fans on our retail website.
So, I started exploring ways we could bring a Holocron-based experience to amazon.com.
Ah-Ha Moment #3:
The team and I held discussions with leaders from various teams within Amazon, including Amazon Retail, Amazon Prime, and Amazon Search, to identify differentiating capabilities that could be leveraged to create unique product offerings for Disney. Through these discussions, we discovered key insights about Amazon customers, including their surprisingly low transaction rates and repetitive shopping behavior.
The average customer completed just 3 transactions per year.
The average customer returned to shop for the same 2-3 types of products they had purchased before. Which types of products those were differed from customer to customer, but the behavior was consistent for most customers.
Even with these seemingly low numbers, Amazon regularly processed more sales transactions per day than all brick-and-mortar retailers in the United States combined.
These insights led to a key-takeaway: Exposing shoppers to the vast variety of categories and catalogs within the retail site would hugely benefit both Amazon and customers alike.
With that in mind, I identified 3 business opportunities and sought to create a solution that targeted all of them:
Delight fans and further strengthen their emotional connection with the franchise
Increase customer engagement and sense of immersion on amazon.com
Provide a high-profile top-tier marketing solution for Disney and its officially licensed Star Wars merchandise
I conceived a concept called "narrative-based product browsing." This idea involved an integrated web application accessible from any Star Wars-related product page on Amazon.com. The goal was to enhance customer engagement and immersion while providing Disney with a premium marketing solution for their officially licensed merchandise. Over time, the variety of merchandise that a user would be exposed to would eventually impress upon them the vast variety of product categories Amazon had to offer.
Ah-Ha Moment #4:
It dawned on us that our Amazon subsidiary, IMDb, would serve as another perfect avenue to showcase this entertainment-driven experience. I created this animatic as a proof-of-concept and shared it with our IMDb counterparts, who were quick to grasp the possibilities of expanding their platform's content with more narrative-focused elements.
Ah-Ha Moment #5:
It also occurred to us that this "narrative-based browsing" solution had the potential to scale beyond just Star Wars.
Despite the team's initial challenges in securing Disney's support, my designs gained Lucasfilm’s endorsement and were personally reviewed by the head of Disney himself, Mr. Bob Iger. They were instrumental in securing Disney's approval and facilitating the exchange of confidential information and resources necessary for further development of our concepts.
Furthermore, Amazon secured two US Patents based on my designs, further protecting the company's future R&D efforts in the areas of context-aware computing and dynamic data visualization.