The Moment of Zen: The Daily Show and Product Development

Watching The Daily Show as part of the studio audience is like being part of a highly efficient—and undeniably enjoyable—product development team. Mondays through Thursdays, the show begins with an extensive “warm up” where Jon Stewart (the show’s host) and the “warm-up guy” get to know the audience, and vice versa. By the time the taping starts about an hour later, not only has the temperature of the audience been taken (and raised), but the audience feels they have participated in the process and, on good days, helped contribute to the show’s content. How might this form of participation affect people’s affinity toward a product?

One of these things does look like the other
While the consumption of them is quite different, there are some striking similarities between developing a television show and developing a product. Both involve a group of people working together toward a common goal, typically on a limited schedule and budget. Both may involve a compromise of values, an evaluation of costs, late nights, and mistakes that require quick thinking to repair. And, most importantly, both are created for an audience.

Whether you are developing a mediated experience like The Daily Show or an online experience like a website, understanding audience is imperative in creating and maintaining a compelling experience. Teams of market researchers, user researchers and writers are hired to think about just that.

Yet, after a product or television show is created, after all the research has been done, how does that experience encourage and celebrate a person’s participation? How does audience contribution and participation affect the product? How does its distribution and usage create value?

Both The Daily Show and product developers share an approach that I’ll call participatory disclosure. Participatory disclosure is, in part, what gives audiences a voice in the product and builds loyalty along the way. It has some visible components—invitations, beta branding and revealed secrets—among others.

Love at first invite
When Google introduced their web-based mail program, Gmail, they didn’t release it publicly, but to an exclusive audience. New accounts were distributed by invitation only, with each person given five invitations. Those five people could invite five more, and so on. And as with any supply and demand model, the exclusive nature of this invite system increased the value of having a Gmail account. Strategies for releasing other products such as Flock, Measure Map, Newsvine, and certain TiVo features have included similar invitation approaches.

Likewise, although they are free, getting a ticket to The Daily Show isn’t easy for most people, requiring a combination of phone calls and email messages months in advance. But once you secure a ticket, you’ve been included in something exclusive. Seeing “The Daily Show! You have tickets!” in your inbox is better than some major holidays. Because very little about the studio audience is shown on the show itself, what one can expect is unknown. If people could simply request or buy tickets online, they wouldn’t be nearly as valuable.

“Seeing, “The Daily Show! You have tickets!” in your inbox is better than some major holidays.”

The beta brand
The state of a product can be important in creating audience loyalty. In product development, a product may be released in “beta” before a public launch. Beta testing—the testing of that release—is limited to a small audience to uncover bugs. As a result, engineers get the bugs worked out before a public launch, and the company gets a loyal core of people who are already using their product. Because beta testers have helped contribute to the product, they may be more invested in it. Its beta state becomes less of a brand attribute and almost a brand itself.

Not only was Gmail released in the spirit of participatory disclosure, but it was (and still is) visibly in beta (See Fig. 1). The limited, but growing, number of people using Gmail, therefore, are in on the secret. Product developers can build loyalty with the people who are using the systems and momentum and anticipation for those who cannot yet.

The Daily Show audience too gets to see a process that is only revealed to a limited audience—one never revealed on television. And while the show is not being performed in beta, per se, the audience is getting to experience a pre-show prior to the airing of the show itself.

The first stage of the pre-show is a warm up. The warm-up guy’s job is getting the audience excited, of course, but he also gets the audience to know one another. Sometimes the crowd is full of New Yorkers, where the show is recorded, but more often it is full of people from out of town. Questions are revealing, exposing hometowns, jobs and insecurities of audience members. When the show is delayed, the warm-up guy lets us in on further secrets, “They’re just making some last-minute changes to the script back there.” Where in other circumstances an audience might feel impatient, they are now empowered. The warm-up guy is entrusting in them what is happening behind the scenes. They have secret knowledge.

Behind the curtain
With research and beta testing come ideas for improvement. In the beta phase, questions and suggestions from the beta testers inform the final product. Products are better and stronger for it, and beta testers are fans for life.’s “Customers who bought this also bought” feature, for example, was a direct suggestion from a customer (See Fig. 2).

“Perhaps the right combination of audience participation and product is the real moment of zen.”

Attendees at The Daily Show get to ask their questions in person. “Jon wants to get to know you, so get your questions ready for him,” the warm-up guy says. Audience members can ask Jon questions about him, the show—anything seems to be fair game. From “Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?” (Yes, once, and it was pointless, but he was a psychology major); to “My dad wants to know when you’re coming back to Atlantic City.” (Ten years ago, he opened Sheena Easton there); to “What kind of suits do you wear?” (Canali). Although the dialog officially stops before the show, Jon works parts of the conversation into the script when he can. To the audience watching on TV, the integration is seamless. But to that live audience? When he slips in your hometown in the opening monologue, well, he’s made a fan for life.

And Jon cares, “And be careful on your way out—it’s a dangerous neighborhood. As you leave, just stack yourselves up ten at a time and you’ll be fine.”

Good things come in secret packages
While there’s nothing particularly unique about the way The Daily Show involves the audience, it does remind us that good design practices that truly include audiences are ubiquitous; not just for narrowly defined brainstorming sessions and design reviews. Being more aware of how people grow to love products can help us be better designers. Care about your audience. Invite them along. Then listen to them.

Originally published in Voice: AIGA Journal of Design