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Experience Design

SxSW Day 2 – From Muppets to Mastery

Following a wonderful experience working with upcoming SxSW speakers during the Tweak Your Talk workshop, Russ Unger delivered his presentation on the life of Jim Henson and the lessons UX Designers can learn from him. I’ve personally been able to see the evolution of this talk of the years and it was great to see it presented on the big stage at SxSW. The highlight of the talk was ~1000 people singing along to Rainbow Connection. Below are my thoughts and notes from the session. (These notes are simply my stream of consciousness from the session, so I apologize in advance for any sloppiness. :D)

From Muppets to Mastery

  • Went to the museum of history and they had a muppets exhibit
  • Always knew of Henson and liked the shows
  • Looking at the history of it noticed that a lot of the work applied to ux
  • You wouldn’t decide to be a puppeteer, I don’t think – statement about his career
  • Henson got to follow his passion. He wanted to create things that mattered.
  • Diving onto his career. Born in the 1950
    • Grandmother was an artist and inspired him
    • During high school he did his first puppet shows – made $5 an episode
    • Graduated in college in 6 years
    • While in college he got a show Sam and friends with the first Kermit. 2 weeks turned into 6 years of shows.
    • Started to do commercials for Wilkins coffee
    • Videos of old commercial
  • In the 60s doing spots on Today. He started getting more popular
    • Ralph was built for purina
    • Ralph was the first 2 person muppet
  • He was hired by IBM to do training videos on how meetings should be conducted


  • In the 70s he tried selling the show
    • Networks wouldn’t buy it though
    • First pilot was a bit too much for them
    • 1976 the muppets show showed up on tv – it lasted 6 years and Henson ended it on his own
    • 1979 we got the first muppet movie
    • 80s things really took off. We see this dark crystal and fraggle rock
    • Starboppers pilot was produced at the time too. Scifi muppet show
    • The labyrinth movie came out with the odd song dance baby dance
    • 90s and beyond – muppet vision 3d came out which was his last project. 1990 Henson passed away.
  • Muppet are on the rise again with the new movies and a new generation is experiencing them
  • MuppetLean – Henson had a long term approach to building things
  • Kermit was built using his mothers coat and ping pong balls
  • 13 iterations of Kermit have existed over the years.
  • 2005 is the most recent version
  • With something as simple as Kermit they always thought they could do better with the model they were working on
  • Project ecosystem
    • Father was an agriculture researcher and taught him how everything works together
    • Fraggle Rock – showcases the working ecosystem we work in today. PM – Designers – QA – Clients etc

Project Team

  • Henson also taught us that good experiences are invisible
    • A lot of work went into making sure people didn’t know that muppets were hanging in the air
    • Give audiences enough to work with and they will do the rest for you.
  • Visual thinking
    • Henson played around with visual thinking using the muppets to explain the process
    • We have visual thinkers today that inspire like Sunni brown, Dave grey, and James macinifufo
    • Sweetums started out as a sketch and turned into a large lovable muppet
    • We are supposed to take our sketches – to wireframe – to some beautiful visual design
    • Story boards helped plan out the shows and the action.


  • Prototyping
    • Used prototyping to try and pitch new shows.
    • He didn’t want to invest in sets and computer animations and used a prototype to test out an idea
    • Sketches wireframe and prototypes are all necessary at some point. Just depends on the project
  • Patterns
    • Created whatnots, changing out simple parts and you get a whole new muppet
    • The whatnot workshop shows how easy it is to create new creations.
    • When you start playing with a muppet you notice that each muppet has its own voice and personality
    • We have our own pattern libraries that allows us to not start from scratch every time we approach a new project


  • Hacking
    • Henson was hacker – figured out to stuff
    • With Kermit and rainbow connection, he built an under water bubble and he could operate Kermit under the water.
    • This bubble had o2, a fan, and a monitor to see what he was doing.
    • The first big bird had a large monitor built into it so the puppeteer could see what they were doing
    • We do this know with mobile testing rigs, you can make one with $9 bucks
  • Ask yourself now what would Henson do when trying to figure this stuff out.

So What
Slides from the Presentation

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Brad Nunnally

Brad has been practicing the craft of User Experience for the past 4 years. During that time he has helped clients in the financial, health care management, public utilities, and pharmaceutical management industries. He's provided them with deep insight into their customers and users, and designed engaging experiences that were catered directly for their customers and users. As a Senior User Experience Consultant at Perficient, he's performed a variety of UX activities that allows him to build an empathic link to a variety of people that directly informs the designs he creates. These activities cover the full spectrum of research, modeling, design, and testing. Brad's passion in User Experience Design is centered around the modeling of data gained from user research and the creation of interactive prototypes and wireframes. He's mentored and presented on these two aspects of User Experience Design to people around St. Louis, MO and across the country.

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