“Silicon Valley’s cure for awkward geeks? Improv”

For this week’s blog post I’m reviewing the article:

“Silicon Valley’s cure for awkward geeks? Improv” by Wendy Lee – @thewendylee

As always the articles we review may or may not directly talk about User Experience and that’s OK. What Jim and I will do with our article reviews is pull out the main improvisational themes being talked about. Then we’ll give our perspective/take on those themes and how they relate to and support User Experience.

 

Article Summary:

Wendy’s great article covers how Silicon Valley is employing improv training as a way to help its massively tech oriented population connect, collaborate and become better able to think on their feet.

I feel the main takeaways from the article are:

  • Thinking On Your Feet
  • Listening Skills
  • People Skills
  • Participation
  • Playful Environment

Wendy starts out with the example of Jun Liu who started taking improv classes with the intention of the classes helping him to learn how to raise money more effectively. What Jun found out though was that improv helped him in another way:

“It teaches me how to anticipate unpredictable things,”

The article goes on to mention how listening skills and being able to add to other people’s ideas is difficult in Silicon Valley because people are really caught up in focusing more on the technology than maybe the people involved with it all.

Wendy also mentions that Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter once performed with The Annoyance Theater in Chicago and helped spur voluntary improv trainings at Twitter. As an aside, I’m very familiar with The Annoyance and their style of play. So I have no doubt that Dick has some fantastic skelet…errr stories, yes yes I meant stories, from his time at The Annoyance. Dick if you’d like to share any of those with Jim or myself I promise to only tell them to the internet. Scout’s honor…back to the review.

The article also mentions how Stanford’s business school and other entrepreneurs and companies are seeing rewards from having their employees either go take improv classes on their own or having trainers come in and run improv workshops with their employees (we do that! <cough> <cough>). The employees are learning how to collaborate more, communicate with customers in a more conversational tone (as well as listening to and understanding their problems better) and use humor to help build teams and connections more quickly.

The article mentions the following survey done by Accountemps in 2012:

“Humor can make or break careers. Seventy-nine percent of chief financial officers surveyed said humor was important for employees to fit into a company’s culture”

Having humor helps with creating a more playful and participatory environment. Employees feel better about contributing and also about supporting other people’s ideas and thoughts.

 

How it relates to Improv:

I think the “people skills” carry over from improv more into the real world as opposed to directly in Improv on stage and by that I mean during an actual scene on a stage. Those skills certainly carry over into how the group functions off stage at rehearsals or just hanging out with each other. There you’re interacting with…surprise, other people. Having your ensemble be able to get along and work together is important just like working together at your job with your co-workers is important.

Improv requires a lot of listening and responding in the moment (thinking on your feet). This can give a lot of beginning improvisers problems, most likely because

  • They’re more focused on what they want to say rather than listening to what their scene partner is saying

and

  • They’re scared to death of responding with something “instantly” because they don’t think it will be funny, entertaining, interesting, creative or cool.

Ironically, the more you think about responding with something funny, entertaining, interesting or cool the longer you will sit there saying nothing and end up saying something that is decidedly NOT one of those things. Improv has a lot of exercises to help with listening, “yes, and” which I’ve mentioned before is one but for thinking on your feet there are others like word at a time story or community monologue.

Community monologue is a fun exercise where a single character is created and the entire group tells a monologue all as that character. One improviser will step out and start a monologue based on a suggestion. They create the initial character and the rest of the improvisers must continue using that character when they step out to continue the monologue.

For example if the character has an accent the next improviser must continue the accent. That next improviser can also add their own quirks to the character. At the same time, in addition to maintaining the character, the following improvisers continue the monologue adding to what was previously said and creating more and adding to it. The exercise is a great way to train improvisers to immediately process information and then add new information to it.

For participation and people skills improv is also great because EVERYONE gets to particpate in class and no matter how you feel you know that everyone there is going to be up in front at some point and that everyone there is going to support you no matter what. I can’t tell you enough how important and awesome that feeling is.

So I’ll say it again…everyone there is going to be up in front at some point and that everyone there is going to support you no matter what. Burn that into your brains please as it is, as the French say “le merde”.

Improv also strives to make the atmosphere playful because when you’re playing you have more fun and then fear takes a back seat and you’re more likely to take risks, try new things and try out other ideas you normally wouldn’t.

A great game for warming a group up as well as being really playful is “Hey Fred Schneider”. The premise of the game is simple:

The game starts out by having the players stand around in a circle and asking, to a rhythm,

“Hey Fred Schneider, what are you doing?”

Then a person in the circle can sing a non-sequitur line in the voice of Fred Schneider, the lead singer of the B-52’s. After a person answers the question, they pose the question to the entire group again. But don’t just take our word for it, Thomas Middleditch from Silicon Valley uses it too:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ylye9JiqnuQ

 

How it relates to UX:

So how do the takeaways of:

  • Thinking On Your Feet
  • Listening Skills
  • People Skills
  • Participation
  • Playful Environment

…relate to UX? I think the connections are readily apparent. An initial connection is to the User Researchers. They need to interview and listen to the users during the discovery phase. Even though the researcher may have a list of questions prepared they need to be able to think on their feet and in light of an answer that offers some new, interesting or unexpected information, the researcher may need to ask a new or previously unthought of question to further delve into what the user is telling them. This of course also falls under people skills.

The participation and playful environment aspects affect how the over all UX team operates between themselves but also with people outside the team like stakeholders, subject matter experts etc. If an atmosphere that allows everyone to participate exists there will be a great chance of discovering a new and interesting way to solve a user’s problem.

If the atmosphere is playful more people will participate because it’s just plain fun. It’s not going to feel like work to solve the problem and a lot of that will have to do with everyone supporting each other EVEN WHEN THERE’S FAILURE! Which is important because people need to know they can fail without it having negative consequences. People are going to be more willing to risk bigger and more creative ideas if they know they’re not going to get killed for them if they don’t end up working out. And as always when we’re talking about the offering up of and generation of ideas we know not every idea will be used or is the answer to a problem but being able to offer an idea and have it accepted and explored IS important.

That’s all for this week!

 

Yes and,

Mike and Jim

 

“The Health Benefits of Practicing Improv”

In this week’s blog post I’m going to review the article:

“The Health Benefits of Practicing Improv” by Kristine Crane – @CraneKristine

As always the articles we review may or may not directly talk about User Experience and that’s OK. What Jim and I will do with our article reviews is pull out the main improvisational themes being talked about. Then we’ll give our perspective/take on those themes and how they relate to and support User Experience.

Article Summary:

Kristine’s article speaks to the health benefits of getting involved in improv. Many people take improv classes as a way to:

  • Try something different
  • Get out of their comfort zone
  • Get better at speaking in front of people…etc.

What a lot of people discover once they start taking classes though, is that improv is a kind of therapy too.

“The biggest joke is when we ask for evaluations, at least one student will say, ‘It’s cheaper than therapy,’”

-Mark Chalfant, Washington Improv Theater’s artistic executive director

The main person in Kristine’s article, Alyssa Marciniak, originally decided to take improv classes because she was asked to give a presentation at work (but she suffers from social anxiety disorder). What Marciniak discovered was that all the fun she was having at improv classes was helping her to break through her social anxiety issues. A large contributing factor for Alyssa was that she was in a room with a group of people who were all doing something “weird” in front of other people. The non-judgment that improv teaches goes a long way to helping its students open up and get out of their comfort zones.

Marciniak points out at the end of the article, along with another article subject, Meredith Whipple, that she has already seen improvements in their lives at work, one of the main improvements being an increase in their confidence.

The overall improv points of the article are:

  • Non-Judgment
  • Mindfulness
  • Overcoming Anxiety
  • Risk Taking

 

How it relates to Improv:

I would break the points of the article into two groups of two:

1) Non-Judgment and Mindfulness

and

2) Overcoming Fear/Anxiety and Risk Taking

IMHO I think the first two points, mindfulness and non-judgment, are things that improv exercises help you “do” better. What I mean to say is that the exercises focus on the improviser being mindful and being non-judgmental. The improvisers actively have it in their minds that I’m going to be mindful of my fellow players. Improvisers will listen to their fellow players and support what they have to offer in a scene and in a show. Going along with mindfulness is the non-judgment. Having the mindset of non-judgment lets the two improvisers in a scene explore an idea fully. The scene will go to more interesting and unexpected places when the improvisers aren’t judging what their fellow players are saying and doing. Also, that non-judgment applies to the players judging their own actions in a scene. We can be our own worst enemies when we constantly doubt our ideas.

I think the second two points are things the exercises help you overcome or become more comfortable with vs. things you’re actively doing like being mindful and non-judgmental. Overcoming anxiety and being willing to take more risks all boil down to fear:

  • Fear of looking bad
  • Fear of not saying the right thing
  • Fear of not being creative enough
  • Fear of failure…etc.

Improv helps you deal with those fears in a fun and supportive atmosphere. Everyone in the class is going to be up there doing the same exercises. Everyone in the class supports each other and the decisions they’re making during scenes and exercises. Knowing that everyone is going to be out there makes it easier for each individual to get out there. Taking that first step puts you on the road to being more comfortable with what your fear is keeping you from doing. As far as getting on stage goes you’re never going to be not afraid or nervous but you become comfortable with not knowing what will happen. You know you have the support of your fellow players and that together you’ll build something AMAZING.

 

How it relates to UX:

So connecting this up to UX…

Bringing mindfulness and non-judgment to your workplace is going to naturally make you a more valuable teammate. Your fellow teammates are going to feel like you value their opinions and ideas and that you respect their input. Again, for the business world, that doesn’t always mean everyone’s idea is going to be the one implemented. On a project you still have to deal with budgets, timeframes and technology (i.e. can the platform even support what is being proposed?). However, by acting purposefully to be mindful and non-judgmental you are going to build a foundation of trust that will allow for more honest debates on what might work and what might not work. You’ll be able to focus on the idea and not make it personal, you’re just focusing on what is the best way to solve the problem you’re facing.

Now to address the last two items. If you have an atmosphere of trust and respect then people are going to be far less afraid and far more willing to add their ideas and thoughts to the mix. The people who might normally be quiet during meetings will start to participate because they know there is support in the room for their input. People will be more willing to throw out riskier or “wilder” ideas because that idea could be the answer or the spark that leads to another more innovative and creative solution. It all depends on everyone really looking out for his or her fellow teammates and having the mindset of “I want to make you and your idea look like a rock star”.

 

Yes and,

Mike

“Develop improv comedy skills to succeed in business”

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 8.29.27 PM

Article review! Article review! In this week’s blog post I’m going to review the article:

“Develop improv comedy skills to succeed in business”

by Bill Connolly – @billconnolly

As always the articles we review may or may not directly talk about User Experience and that’s OK. What Jim and I will do with our article reviews is pull out the main improvisational themes being talked about. Then we’ll give our perspective/take on those themes and how they relate to and support User Experience.

 

Article Summary

Bill’s article touches on the soft skills used by comedians/improvisers and how they are important to people working in the business world

A few of the soft skills Bill mentions are:

  • Creativity
  • Teamwork
  • Agreement (yes and)
  • Listening
  • Failing to succeed

According to the article a Career Builder survey showed that 77% of employers believe that soft skills are as equally as important as hard skills. Bill’s article also mentions that the business schools at Duke, UCLA, Stanford and MIT are starting to use improvisation to help grow their student’s soft skills before they’re release into the business wild. If those schools are starting to recognize the value of improvisation and what it teaches by jumping onboard the improv train then why don’t you jump onboard with us? There’s plenty of room.

Bill talks about the many times in business that we tend to hear “no” a lot more often than “yes”. The reasons he mentions for hearing “no” are because people spend more time trying to get their own ideas chosen, or because they think the other ideas will be to hard to do, or maybe they just like being negative and feel good about trashing other people’s ideas.

Some business examples for me on this are brainstorming or going through ideation exercises. The whole point of those exercises is to generate new and different ideas. Making sure everyone participating is open to all ideas is required in order for it to be a success. One person shutting people down will limit exploration and cause people to participate less. Why would they participate when they know Jerky McJerkface and his attitude are just gonna crap on them and their idea because his ideas are CLEARLY much more important than their ideas.

Listening is also mentioned and how more often than not, people are listening to respond rather than taking the time to actually hear what the other person is saying. We can all fall into this trap unfortunately and it really takes a conscious effort to focus, listen and stop you from interrupting the person speaking.

The final idea Bill mentions is “Failing to succeed”. Many times in business people afraid to fail because they fear punishment i.e. “you’re fired!” If the office environment is one that punishes every single failure then the people working there are going to do everything they can to not fail and stay out of trouble. That makes it really easy to take the path of least resistance in order to make sure something gets done. However that my not be the best solution and it’s more than likely not going to be new and interesting.

 

How it relates to Improv

So to relate those soft skills to improv really isn’t really too difficult. Those skills are taught at the very beginning of the training schools whether that’s Second City, iO (formerly improvOlympic) or The Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Listening, agreement, teamwork, creativity, risk taking and failure are all part of what makes up learning how to improvise.

For listening and agreement the first exercise I always use with improv students is the classic, “yes and”, in the context of 3 line scenes. Here’s how the exercise works. Two improvisers take the stage and one of the improvisers gives an opening line. The 2nd improviser says “yes” and repeats the 1st improviser’s line as accurately as possible. Then that improviser says “and” and adds a new piece of information that builds on the 1st line. Finally, the 1st improviser does the same thing with the 2nd improviser’s line of dialogue (end of exercise).

Now a scene on stage would never go like the exercise but the point of the exercise isn’t to do a scene. The point is to really force the improvisers to slow down and listen and agree to what is being offered. We know the improvisers are listening because they repeat the line said to them. We know they’re agreeing because the new information being added supports the previous lines. The other skill being tied in here is teamwork because the 2 improvisers are working as a team to build the start of a scene.

“Yes and” example

I1: “I was really hoping to get down to the drivers license office today.”

I2: “YES, you are really hoping to get down to the drivers license office today. AND if you don’t you won’t get your license renewed.”

I1: “YES, I won’t get my license renewed. AND without a license I won’t be able to drive us down to the beach this Saturday.”

“scene”

Now a way to get the improvisers thinking more creatively while doing “yes and” is to tell them to use not the 1st, not the 2nd, but the 3rd idea they think of for their lines. Usually the first thing you think of is the knee jerk, expected response, the 2nd thing moves away from that but still may not be surprising or original but the 3rd idea, many times, is something unexpected. Why? My take is that you’re giving your brain a chance to connect what was said to other ideas that are lurking in your subconscious. You give your mind an extra second or two to explore and create.

In improv failure happens a lot, and I mean a lot at the beginning. But by constantly practicing and failing you eventually get better (I swear). I wouldn’t say that improv helps you overcome failure/fear. In my experience it helps you become more comfortable with failure and fear. If an improv show bombs, it’s not the end of the world (although immediately after a show it doesn’t feel that way). But you get over it, move on, work on the skills you need to at your next rehearsal and do the next show. You learn to acknowledge that fear is there but you don’t let it paralyze you. You can’t let it paralyze you because you have the rest of your group depending on you to support them (and they’re ready and willing to support you).

Many times though, when you’re out there on stage improvising and having fun you don’t even have time to remember that you’re afraid. You’re engaged with your scene partner supporting them and creating a new and exciting world. An improviser friend of mine, Greg Tavares, has a TedX talk titled “Fun Kills Fear” that addresses this. Check it out when you have some time.

 

How it relates to UX

The constant failure of improv lends itself well to the LeanUX model where constant iteration and testing are paramount. But the nice thing about the testing and iteration is that there really is no failure. You and the team are just learning what works and what doesn’t work for the users. LeanUX mentions, if I remember correctly, a story about a pottery class where one half of the class had their grade based on only 4 or 5 pieces and the other half was graded on the number of pieces they made. The half of the class that went for volume saw a clear improvement in their work over the course of time because it didn’t matter if they failed or not they just had to keep creating and trying different things.

Through all that repetition and failure the students learned what worked and didn’t work and they were able to try new things without the fear that if it wasn’t perfect they would be punished with a bad grade. The other half of the group didn’t produce nearly as interesting pieces because they were limited in the number of pieces they could be make and they had to be “perfect”. So those students were less willing to take risks and created more “safe” work.

For the UX team listening and acceptance help the team to start working together collaboratively. Jim and I feel that starts with empathy (buzz word alert!) because you can’t really start to form a relationship with someone unless you can empathize with them. Usually the UX team has many varied positions and if you have a specific person in each role you could have the following: user researcher, content strategist, visual designer, information architect, interaction designer, user interface developer and a project manager. And that’s just the UX team because on the other side of that you have the stakeholder(s), subject matter expert(s), marketing etc. All those people are trying to work together to create something new and awesome. Oh yeah, you also have the most important variable in the equation…the users.

So the importance of those soft skills really shows up when you have all these potential moving parts. One person not listening, another person pushing only their ideas. Another person being negative because they don’t like the project. Improvisation trains people to BE empathizers, listeners, collaborators, creators. I think improvisation does such a good job of this because you’re really experiencing these soft skills first hand, in the heat of the moment along with the amazing results you get when you are actually using them.

 

Yes and,

Mike

“Could Improv Troupes Become The New Creative Department?”

This is the first of, hopefully, many reviews of articles that mesh the worlds of improvisation and business. The articles may or may not have to do with User Experience and that’s OK. What Jim and I will do with our article reviews is pull out the main improvisational theme being referenced and give another perspective/take on that theme and then relate it to User Experience.

For this review I’ll be going over the article:

“Could Improv Troupes Become The New Creative Department?”

by Will Burns – @WillOBurns

In summary, Burns’ article focuses more on improvisation and how it can be of use in marketing departments, branding and communication to their audiences. There is, according to Burns, a push to make interactions between brands and their audience more real-time. With all of the different channels and platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.) today, the people working in social media for a brand need to be flexible, spontaneous, informative and entertaining.

And that’s where Burns talks about the possibility of having improv comedians becoming the people that are hired to staff “brand teams”. In the article Burns talks about the brand teams being fully briefed on the brand’s identity and then communicating that identity using the real-time platforms for communication. Basically the brand team would channel the brand when interacting in real-time conversations. Burns wraps up the article with this thought:

 

“As our marketing becomes more real-time and we have less time to think, it’s going to be important that our branding remain just as thoughtful, if not more so.

A few carefully chosen improv comedians might just, well, make up the difference (right on the spot, without even thinking).”

 

So the main point I take from the article improv-wise is the ability to think on your feet and being able to channel the brand’s identity. For improvisation on stage I relate this to being able to handle any piece of information your scene partner may throw at you and being able to justify it. As well as the ability to create a character and filter all of your thoughts and lines through that character’s point of view.

As an improviser you always have to be ready to change gears and shift your thinking. Improvisers are taught that they need to be ready to drop their idea if another improviser gets their idea out first. The easiest example of this is at the top of a scene when two improvisers take the stage. Both may have an idea for a great opening line but those lines are completely different. Well whichever improviser gets their line out first “wins”. The other improviser needs to completely drop their idea and work with the idea that has been given to them. The improviser needs to hear what the other improviser said, process that information in a very short period of time and then add their own new information to that line. From there both improvisers keep adding information and the conversation builds and the characters, emotions, what’s going on and where the scene is taking place, can all be figured out. Also, the characters points of view can be revealed.

Point of view is huge in improvisation and without it your character really doesn’t have much to go on. The improviser’s lines more often than not end up just being words that don’t add a lot to the scene (to reference Seinfeld you’re in a scene about nothing). However, if the character has a point of view the lines take on more meaning. If a scene is about a father trying to connect with his son at a baseball game the scene will be a lot more interesting if the father’s point of view is being filtered through the lens of baseball being one of the things he truly bonded over with his father when he was growing up. With that point of view the improviser can really add weight to all of his lines as the father. The improvisor can really make the lines have meaning from all the details going on during the game. Then the improvisor can relate those things to how they’ve translated into his character’s life etc. Instead of having no point of view on baseball and just sitting there in the stands talking about the game but not having any emotional investment because there is no point of view. The scene WILL BE BORING.

This makes me think of the really fun exercise and performance game called “Panel of Experts”. Panel of Experts is one of the best examples of filtering through a character’s point of view. The improvisers take the stage as if they’re a panel on a television show. The areas of expertise are given to them by the audience. Then a moderator (another improviser) takes questions from the audience to the panel on anything and everything. The key to this game is that no matter what the question is, the experts answer the question by filtering their answer through their area of expertise. A Plumber would always answer the questions by relating it to a plumbing situation (“Well a bad relationship is like a clogged pipe…”). A computer programmer would relate it to a programming issue (“Love is like an infinite loop that keeps going and going until you overheat and die…”). The great part about the game is you don’t have to be an actual expert you just throw out some terms from the area of expertise and map that onto the answer and it works because it’s coming from the character’s point of view.

So bringing this all back (finally!) to User Experience I see this applying to the area of user research. When creating the personas for who will be using your application it helps to have everyone involved in the persona creation. Let everyone work together to build up the personas. And again here’s where being agile and nimble and accepting come into play. Together the group will, more than likely, build a more accurate persona than one person sitting in their cube on their own. The persona will have details that allow for the entire group creating them to get what the point of view of that persona is and how it will relate to the application. And because everyone was involved in the creation there is a shared understanding among the team of who the persona is and what drives them.

And if you have the point of view of the persona, what drives them and why they do things, then you’ll be able to create better user stories, user journeys, user workflows, empathy maps etc. All because when you’re writing them you’ll be writing them with the improviser’s mindset of “I need to filter all the information I’m creating THROUGH the point of view of this persona”. And with better designed user journeys, user workflows, empathy maps etc. the rest of the team working on things from information architecture, interaction design, visual design etc. will be able to do their jobs better as well.

I hope this post is helpful to your UX work and a big THANK YOU to Will Burns for his article which inspired this post!

Until next time/post!
Yes and,

Mike