In the d.school this quarter we are using the principles of design thinking to explore what makes superfans so passionate about their heroes. Our field of study includes the fans of the Dale Earnhardt Sr, Michael Jordan and Stephen Colbert, with those learnings culminating in design principles and prototypes that will help a young athlete — Stanford Junior and race car driver Julia Landauer — build her fanbase.
Design thinking has always been keen on observing and interviewing extreme users to learn how their needs and workarounds are amplified; this tends to expose meaningful insights that aren’t easily visible in the middle of the bell curve. But how does a superfan relate to an extreme user and what exactly are they ‘using’? If we think of the hero as a consumable, the superfan is its most ardent extreme user.
Early design principles are already starting to bubble up to the surface from the interviewing we’ve been doing in and out of Stanford. Two weeks ago we went for our first immersive experience at Petulama Speedway. The speedway is a 3/8-mile dirt oval that hosts races every Saturday night; it is the atomic unit of racing heritage in America and its fans are there not so much to see superstars but to congregate with their family and friends, watch new racers rise up through the ranks and just have a plain old good time on a Saturday night. New heroes are made and the environment is fertile for a good story to take hold.
Our experience at the track focused on doing intercept interviews (‘intercepting’ someone in public to do a short interview with them) with fans in the parking lot and the stands. From those interviews a great story emerged; a couple of friends were at the track to support a guy who had never turned a wheel in a race car before, but there he was with a gleaming #3 on the side of his black car. A local pig farmer, Pete Langley was nevertheless on the starting line, his car an homage to Dale Earnhardt himself. There was no way a newcomer like Pete had a chance to win his first race, right?
Start the video from 10:00 for the final lap and watch for the black #3:
It’s hard not to root for pig farmer Pete Langley. The raw emotion of being there produced its own set of atmospherics, but even watching it on video and hearing the narrator you can get the sense of transformation taking place. The spectators at Petaluma were clued in to Pete’s remarkable story by the public address announcer, a Cinderella story that was almost too good to be true. The applause was greater for his win (a support race for the bigger events) than all the others put together. Pete earned his fans that night.
For our class, two design principles emerge from the experience and they are closely related if not co-dependent. The first is that the fan must be able to view the hero experiencing a transformation (from rags to riches / from failure to success / from pig farmer to race winner) and becoming new in that transformation. And because we are focusing on the fan here and not the hero himself/herself, the act of viewing the transformation is actually as important (if not more important) than the transformation itself.
Secondly, our interviewing over the last few weeks revealed a common word: family. It’s not the first word that comes to mind when you think of racing, but it is almost always one of the words that a racing fan will describe when telling you their stories and emotions. Family is important here because the fans in the crowd experienced Pete’s transformation with him and ownership is shared. Frequently you will hear a fan use first person pronouns to talk about their heroes: “We lost that race!” “We won!” “When we lost Dale…” etc. As I walked out of the track on Saturday night, I passed the beer line when one fan said to another: “Pete Langley is one of us!” Farmer Pete Langley better plan on a big pig roast; his family just grew by about 500.
To see more photos from our trip to the track, view this gallery.
Reilly Brennan is co-teaching Understanding Superfans and Their Heroes with Michael Sturtz this quarter at the d.school. He is also the Executive Director of the Revs Program at Stanford University, an appointed lecturer at Stanford University School of Engineering, an advisor to numerous startups and co-conspirator on various rogue projects. His personal land speed record is 168 mph, behind the wheel of a Chaparral 2E.