“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

Digital Summit ATL Reflections – Part 2

Today I wanted to go over another instance at the Digital Summit ATL conference where I saw Improvisation and what it teaches cross over into UX and Design (or is it the other way around?). I went to the Round-table: UX and Design Trends featuring:

PANELISTS:

Michael Salamon | Director of Experience & Principal, Lousy
Cliff Seal | UX Designer, Salesforce
Austin Knight | Lead UX Designer, Hubspot

Yes, once again, Austin was involved in one of the talks that crossed over into improvisation. I may have to convince him to go take classes at Improv Boston or Improv Asylum.

During the talk the question was asked, and I’m going from memory here, “When do you decide to use what is considered the latest and greatest design trend on your site or what you’re currently working on?”. While sitting in the audience I immediately thought of “flat design” and thankfully Cliff Seal said the same thing as I was thinking it. Cliff you are my UX whisperer. I believe during the answers by the panel “latest shiny object” or something like it was mentioned and it made me think of the Improvisation concept of “side support”.

In improvisation side support is used to clarify or heighten something that is happening in a scene on stage. Players on the side are watching the scene and looking for ways to add detail to what is going on or to heighten and add tension to what is going on.

Heightening Example 1:

2 improvisers are sitting in their chairs having a conversation but at this point in the scene it has not been established where they are. A supporting player on the side could enter the scene as a waiter coming to take their orders OR as a fellow office worker dropping off some reports. In both cases the side support has added new information to help clarify something. In these examples, WHERE the scene is taking place and possibly, who the main characters are.

Heightening Example 2:

Using our restaurant example from before, perhaps a character in the scene is going to propose to his girlfriend after desert. However maybe one of the players on the side decides to enter the scene as an ex who still loves the character about to propose…OOOPS. Now we have more tension in the scene and a “what’s gonna happen now!” moment.

In both these examples either clarity was added OR something going on in the scene was heightened to add some tension. Where side support in improvisation fails is when the improviser coming in to offer the side support is coming in for their own selfish reasons. Maybe someone heard a line of dialogue that made them think of a funny line that has nothing to do with what is going on in the scene. BUT because the improviser wants to get a laugh they go out anyway, deliver the line and more than likely just took a lot of energy out of the scene. The improviser wasn’t serving the scene, they were serving themselves and their own ego.

Now you may be asking yourself what does this have to do with UX and design? Well here it is…if you are adding the latest and coolest design trend to your site because it’s “what’s cool” and NOT because it actually helps your users then it’s probably not worth it to add it to the site. You’re adding it because you want to keep up with the Internet Joneses. Look at the new design trend(s) and ask yourself “If I add this is it going to make it easier for the users to accomplish their task(s)? Will it make this page easier to understand?” If the answer to those questions is yes then by all means work towards making the changes.

So the next time you’re looking at the latest and greatest designs and you’re thinking about adding them to what you’re working on think of improvisation and side support and ask yourself “Do I want to add this because it’s going to help the site’s/app’s users OR am I doing it so I look good and because I’m keeping up with the current trends for the sake of keeping up with the current trends”.

 
Yes and,

Mike

Digital Summit Atlanta Reflections – Part 1

I attended Digital Summit Atlanta on May on May 24th and May 25th 2016 and I had a couple of takeaways that I feel relate Improvisation to the land of UX and Design.

The first takeaway was related to the excellent talk given by Austin Knight titled “Design is Not Art”. The original blog post that became the talk is here:

Design is not Art

Austin’s talk went over the key differences between Art and Design but what really caught my “Improviser’s mind” was the last part of the talk that started off by talking about “The Death of the Ego”. And as Austin writes in his original post that lead to his talk…
“While the differences between design and art are interesting, they aren’t the key take-away here. Rather, from my point of view, the most important learning is that ego has no place in design.”
Austin then goes on to talk about the “humble designer” and lists a few things about the humble designer.

  1. Humble designers create things that exist ouside of themselves. The design is about the user, not the designer.
  2. In order to create a product that properly serves its purpose, the design must be adequately informed by outside data. Designers don’t magically create masterpieces; they collect and interpret information that empowers them to create masterpieces. Design is not a talent; it’s a skill.
  3. Designers must leverage creativity in a thoughtful way, so that the design can better serve its purpose. The design should be built with intent; there should be reason and justification behind the decisions made.

All 3 items in the list above most definitely relate to Improvisers and how they approach their work. Improvisers are trained to not have to think but do and not let their egos get in the way. I’d like to relate Austin’s list above to Improvisers and how they work.

  1. Humble improvisers create outside of themselves with their fellow improvisers. The scene is about what’s going on between the characters not what the improviser thinks they need to do to look cool/funny/interesting to the audience.
  2. In order for an improviser to create they need input from their fellow improvisers. Together they build a scene line by line. This is what improvisers are trained to do. Improvisers collect and interpret information so they can add new information and advance the scene in new, interesting and often, unexpected ways.
  3. Improvisers have to be ready to justify new information. Things can happen out of nowhere that can change the dynamic of a scene in an instant. It forces them to be nimble AND creative. However, if they let their ego take over and think that they’re idea is the most important new information will be brushed aside and the new idea offered will never be explored and die.

So improvisers are continually training themselves to be able to let go of their ego. It’s not something we normally think of in our day to day jobs. I’m completely guilty of it too. I’ve worked on wireframes and other designs that I thought were great only to have them picked apart during a review session. Usually when that has happened it’s because I wasn’t thinking as much about the user as I was about how I would want the interface to work.

I believe that all of us working in UX can benefit by making improv exercises a part of our daily routine. They can be included at the start of meetings, just for fun at the end of the work day or send everyone out to classes and bring that new knowledge and mindset back. BUT you have to practice it daily or it won’t become a part of you and how you think, operate and treat other people.

So thank you Austin for your great talk and stressing the importance of trying to be ego free and humble when we do our work.

 

Yes and,

Mike

 

We Did It!!!

This is a bit belated but THANK YOU to everyone who came out to amUX for our first talk on ImprovUX.

Everyone at the talk was energized and enjoyed the exercises and skills the exercises focused on. We hope all of you had as much fun doing them (in addition to the learning) as we did leading them. I know for sure there will never be any other kitten/otter non-profits created like the ones you all created.

For any of you that didn’t get a picture of it here’s our one and only, easy to remember, super fun slide.

ImprovUXSlide

The talk will always be different and will give the attendees a different takeaway every time and that’s what we love the most about adding Improvisation to the UX equation.

We look forward to doing the talk again soon!

 

Yes and,

Mike & Jim

 

Some “Action Shots”