Category Archives: ImprovUX

You Don’t Want an Innovative Culture!

Hi Fellow UXers,

While researching for the upcoming ImprovUX book I am co-writing with Jim Karwisch, I continue to find references that fall along the lines of “innovative culture” or “a culture of innovation”. I believe that you do not want an “innovative culture”, what you really want is a company culture that is collaborative, supportive, and focused on solving user problems.


When a product or service is labeled as “innovative” it earns that adjective from the users of the product or service and from others that work in your field. The creators of the product or service do not get to label it as “innovative”. Companies that work to create or improve an existing product or service may later be called innovative but this result comes from aiming to improve the user’s experience. If, using Scott Berkun’s definition of innovation, a product or service is innovative if it provides a

“significant positive change”

which would then be embraced by its users and noticed by its peers.

With that user embracement the product or service now stands a good chance of being called or considered “innovative”. If the product or service doesn’t provide a significant positive change it won’t be embraced and even worse, you might get a label from the users that you don’t want.

The focus of User Experience is on finding out what the user wants and needs and how those things aren’t being fulfilled. Once you’ve done the research to discover potential problems your team has to come up with solutions to solve those problems. How would we describe the culture within a UX team or company that creates solutions that solve those problems (and hopefully have the added bonus of being called innovative)? Let’s break it down.


So how do you build a collaborative, supportive, and creative culture that produces innovative products or services? I believe that we best solve problems collaboratively (#NoUnicorns), where those involved are as ego-free as possible and listen and support each other’s ideas in a non-judgmental environment. Ideas are looked on as opportunities to explore and create solutions. That doesn’t mean all of the ideas end up being used, one idea is eventually deemed the appropriate solution to the problem being worked on.

The possibility of judgment from our peers is a leading cause of fear when approaching potential failure. A non-judgmental environment is key to removing both the fear of judgement and of taking a risk itself. Let’s say you’re really interested in someone and you want to ask them out on a date. Are you really afraid of the other person saying “no” or is it the perceived judgment of you by the other person that the “no” carries with it?

You need something to help train your employees to operate in a collaborative fashion that grows that listening, supportive, non-judgmental environment. Training that they’ll want to get involved with, that will make the learning fun and interesting so it sticks. Something like…


Improv is all about collaboration, support, acceptance and non-judgment. Whether it’s two improvisers doing a single scene or a group of improvisers doing a show the skills we previously mentioned are the core of how the improvisers are operate. In order to create the collaborative group mind, Improv uses exercises that stress the following ideas/concepts/traits:

The Improv Core:

  • Listening
  • Acceptance
  • Non Judgment
  • Empathy
  • Trust
  • Connection

In Improv it is vital to have these skills because there are no meetings to determine what’s going to happen on stage during a show. No scenes are planned out ahead of time; all you have is what is going on right then and there. There’s no time to continuously reject ideas. You’ll never get anywhere in a scene or show if everyone is saying “NO” to every idea.

Using the Improv Core helps get the action moving forward. Improvisers take every idea and build on it with new information and ideas that move a scene and a show towards an unknown destination. While moving towards the unknown can cause fear, improvisers are trained to support each other in a way that keeps them working together despite any fear or uncertainty they might be feeling. They’ve got each other’s back and they know it.

In the working world, when you have all of the skills above instilled in your company’s culture, you then have employees that are:

  • More creative and willing to embrace the own new ideas even if they seem risky
  • More willing to accept the ideas of others and use them to find the most appropriate solution
  • More agile and better at dealing with change as they are now trained to respond to new ideas and situations by exploring them and trying to make them better
  • More willing participate in the design process because they know others will be supporting them 100%
  • A better understanding that the solution they’re creating is for the user not them (just how in improv the scene is the most important thing, NOT the improvisers ego or need to be in the spotlight)

The Improv Core helps to get groups of people from different backgrounds on the same page and working together. Improv stresses that everyone can contribute and that  every idea can be used. By being open and non-judgmental to ideas we may find “crazy” we can work towards solutions we never thought were possible (or never even thought of in the first place.)

Take Aways

You can bring improv training into your workplace to help teach employees these concepts. It is important though that you work to incorporate them into your daily workflow.

  • Use mindfulness warm-ups before meetings
  • Use “yes and” type exercises before ideation and design sessions
  • Use support exercises to help employees get used to making each other look like rock stars

Eventually these habits become the default way of operating and that’s when things can really start to get interesting.

Yes, and!


“Using Mindfulness to Unlock Creativity” Article Review From ImprovUX

Welcome to the latest ImprovUX blog post!

Today’s post is in relation to and support of an article I saw posted on Medium titled:

Using Mindfulness to Unlock Creativity

By Mikael Austin – @mikael_austin

I’d like to start off by saying I didn’t start reading this article with the idea that I’d be connecting it to Improv. I liked the title and I like reading articles about creativity and that’s why I clicked on the link and dove in. However it didn’t take very long for me start seeing ideas and concepts that are very connected to improv. Also, the focus of the article is on bringing mindfulness into the workplace to help foster creativity. So in addition to the exercises and processes Mikael talks about I believe improv can also help create a more mindful environment in a fun and entertaining way for people.

Mikael uses the word “we” many times and he also has it written with emphasis (i.e. we). I got the feeling he did that because he wants to stress that we’re in this together and that it’s really important that we all work towards being more mindful. Improv is also very much a “we” thing. Improv teaches you to support your fellow improvisers by listening non-judgmentally so that you can build a richer, more creative, more interesting and more entertaining world TOGETHER.

The mindfulness/improv concepts in the article that jumped out to me were:

  • “Being Present”
  • “Non-Judgment”
  • “Agility”
  • “Change”
  • “Adapt”
  • “Creativity”
  • “Innovation”

I’ll break the rest of this post in to groups based on the above concepts and I’ll try to show how improv helps support those concepts.



Along with the buzzwords the biggest thing in the article that made me have a “ZOINKS!!!” moment about this all being connected to improv was this quote:

“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

I think this quote describes improv excellently. In improv you’re purposely paying hyper attention in the moment to what is going on in a scene and you’re (hopefully) doing that non-judgmentally. Why do you do this in improv? So that you can be aware of everything that is going on in a scene and let it help you create and add to it. From how your scene partner is standing, what and how they’re saying what they’re saying, and what physical things they’re creating in the location where the scene is taking place. All of these things, no matter how small they may seem, contribute to the world being created on stage. Nothing is insignificant. How a character stirs their coffee, how they sit down, how they somewhat annoyed say “thank you” to a person checking them out at a grocery store. All of those details tell you something about the character and what is going on with them and can be used to inspire more information to add to the world being created.

So how do you create mindfulness in Improv? Well, every improv class starts off with warm-up exercises. The warm-ups are there to help you get yourself calmed down mentally and physically. The warm-ups help you get out all of the clutter that’s floating around in your mind and get you present and connected to your fellow improvisers. The exercises help ground you in the present moment of being in class…o maybe before your meeting starts or before you start off your workday. Set up some time for people in the office to get together and go through some improv exercises to help them be mindful. Maybe after lunch to avoid the inevitable food coma from that Chipotle burrito bomb you had J.

The exercises could be as simple as basic mirroring. For mirroring everyone pairs off and they just slowly mirror each other’s movements. The goal is to exactly match each other’s movements and physicality as much as possible. First one improviser is designated as the leader and the other improviser follows them. Then the leadership position is switched and after that anyone can lead. By anyone I mean at any point someone can make a movement to take the lead in the mirroring exercise. It’s actually a lot of fun to get to that moment where the lead is passed seamlessly between the two improvisers. The change isn’t even intentional it just happens, all of a sudden you’re leading and then it’s passed over and you’re following.

Another warm up is called “21”. In “21” you circle up as a tight group, arms around each other’s shoulders. You can then take a moment to slowly breath in and out and get the group settled and focused. Then try to count out loud to 21 w/o anyone saying a number at the same time. It forces you to focus in to the present moment and listen to the flow of how the group members are saying the numbers. If two improvisers say, for example, “3” at the same time then you start back over at “1”. It can be frustrating but it can also be liberating to let go, get in sync and just let the moment of listening and paying attention take over. For the workplace I could see this exercise being modified to the group just setting 5 minutes aside for it and instead of trying to reach “21” the group just keeps doing it and seeing how high they can get in the 5 minute time period. That way there is no set final “goal” you just try to see how what number the group can get to.

Improv exercises can be a great tool at the start of meetings to get everyone there present and practicing non-judgment. Also, they’re fun! They can feel odd sometimes (especially the first few times you do them) but overall they can be fun and interesting and the fun aspect will help people overcome any fears they might have.



Having agility, being ok with change and being adaptable are also things improv excels at teaching. Because you never know really know what a scene or show is about or where it will take you, you have to be agile. It only takes one word or line to change everything you thought might have been going on in a scene. For example you thought you were about to ask your girlfriend to marry you and it turns out you’re actually being served your last meal before getting fired from your job. Improvisers are taught to deal with unexpected things like that and justify them because those facts are now a part of the scene and that world.

An easy game to play that deals with the unexpected (and having to justify it) is called “Slips” (at least that’s what I know it as). You take a bunch of slips of paper and write down one word, two word phrases or a simple sentence. Then two improvisers will take a few slips and start a scene. The improvisers at some point in the scene have to read what’s on a slip and then incorporate that into the scene and world and make it make sense. You have to be agile have adaptability and be willing to change when that slip is read.

To connect this to UX, don’t be so ready to dismiss something, especially during ideation, just because you don’t think it applies or makes sense. This is exactly what Mikael is talking about when he mentions “divergent thinking”. Be ready to embrace all the different ideas being brought to the conference room table. Support what is going on and you may just find yourself solving problems in ways you hadn’t thought of before.



Being mindful in the present moment also allows for creativity to flourish in Improv because you’re slowing down and listening and processing EVERYTHING that is being said and done. Body language, environment, characters and what they’re saying, it all goes into the sub conscious and gets used…WHEN you’re present and being mindful. Mikael mentions, “They’re able to see beyond what has been done before” as a skill that mindfulness brings out. For me improv teaches you to see all that has been done before and to go beyond it by adding new information to the mix and also making new connections with the information. This can certainly help designers when they’re trying to think of new ways to solve a task that users are having a problem with.

An improv exercise that may help with this is “side support”. In Side Support you have two improvisers performing a scene while the other improvisers are standing off to the side. At any point during the scene the improvisers on the side can enter the scene to add new information to help clarify or add to the world that is being created. The improvisers on the side are trained to watch the scene as if they’re IN the scene. Then if they think of an interesting piece of information, they can act on it, and add it to the scene. For example if the scene has a father and son in it and the father is asking the son why his wallet is now missing his credit card. Maybe another improviser comes in playing a new game he just purchased for his smartphone (with the stolen CC). New information has been now added to show that it isn’t the son in the scene that took the credit card but the other sibling.

Another example of an exercise is “2nd Scenes”. In second scenes you have 2 improvisers perform a scene and when the improvisers on the side edit it they perform a new scene based in the world created by the first two improvisers. The 2nd scene could include one or both of the improvisers from the first scene or it could be all new improvisers. The 2nd scene could be at the library if the library was mentioned in the first scene. The basic premise is that some piece of information from the first scene inspires the 2nd scene but you should be able to tell that both scenes take place in the same world.. The improvisers on the side are looking for ways to create more from what is being presented to them in the first scene in interesting and innovative ways.

Coming back, finally, to UX, I wholeheartedly agree with Mikael that creating a culture with mindfulness can be hugely beneficial at your workplace. In addition to the ways Mikael mentions I truly believe that incorporating improv exercises into your workplace can help establish that mindfulness. Improv can also help with creating empathy, trust, and collaboration along with other skills that help employees be more creative and in the end innovative.


That’s all for now!


Yes and,



“Design Thinking 101” Article Review Part 2

Hi Everyone! This week’s post is part 2 of my review/take and connections to improv on the article:

Design Thinking 101

by Sarah Gibbons of The Nielsen Norman Group@segibb

You can check out Part 1 if you haven’t yet and then come on back to Part 2. Part 1 covered the following sections from the “Design Thinking 101” article:

  • History of Design Thinking
  • Understand
    1. Empathize
    2. Define

This week we’ll be going over:

  • Explore
    1. Ideate
    2. Prototype
  • Materialize
    1. Test
    2. Implement
  • Why – The Advantage
  • Flexibility – Adapt to Fit Your Needs


Explore – Ideate | Prototype

The Explore phase comes after the Understand phase in the article and it is where the team doing the design thinking process wants to come up with possible solutions to the user’s problems.

Improv is really about exploration. Exploring ideas, themes, concepts, feelings, relationships etc. I mentioned in Part 1 that the start of an improv show is where themes and ideas are generated; well the rest of the show following the opening explores those things and creates a world based on them.

I love that during the Ideate phase Sarah says “no idea is too farfetched”. The same holds true in improv (yes and). Now obviously for the business world, not every idea is going to end up being used. Eventually the team needs to settle on what they believe is the best solution. The best solution will take into account things like budget, platform, time frame, resources etc. BUT while ideating leave no stone unturned or idea unexplored.

What learning improvisation does for you is that for ideation it trains your mind to be open and ready to grow ideas. You’ll end up making connections you wouldn’t expect to normally by being open to and listening to and adding on to other people’s ideas. The group working together stands a better chance of coming up with something far more interesting and likely to solve the user’s problems than one of the team members working by themselves in a vacuum… #NoUnicorns

After Ideation comes Prototyping and the article talks about this being the place where you bring tactile representations of your ideas to life. Here you’re analyzing all the ideas and connecting different thoughts, defining and writing up your findings and then building a prototype. You’re bringing your ideas to life here and if the ideas are new, innovative or…<gasp> “disruptive”, you have to be brave and willing to take a risk in order to do that.

Improv helps you with that process by getting you to act on your ideas. In improv the following example is called “side support”. For example if there’s a scene (you’re watching from the side of the stage) going on and the location hasn’t been established you might see them as being in an office, in the break room. Well then get out there, go to the coffee pot, then to the fridge, grab your lunch and sit down and start eating. Jump on your idea and get it out there! That brings more life to the scene by adding new information and it helps clear up where the scene is taking place and helps the audience (sort of the “users” in this case) have a better mental model of the world the scene is taking place in. Get in there and build that world just like you should get in there and start prototyping out ideas so you can see how they’re taking shape and affecting the user’s world.


Materialize – Test | Implement

Moving on to the Materialize phase we start with Test. Here is where you are actually bringing your solutions to the users and getting feedback. Does what you built solve the user’s problems? Hopefully you’re working with an iterative design, prototype, test cycle that doesn’t have a lot of wait time between phases. The more often you’re working through the phases the faster you’ll get to a solution.

What you have to be ready for is that what you’ve initially conceived isn’t what the user wants or it doesn’t help them the way you thought it would. You need to be ego free at this point, which is hard to do because you’ve put a lot of work and yourself into the design and creation. It can hurt and be taken personally when all that work ends up being rejected by the users.

Improv in this case teaches you to be ego free or at least ego lite. There’s no time in improv to get too attached to your ideas. You may go out to start a scene with the idea that you’re a Mom dropping her daughter off for her first year of college but then your scene partner comes out and says “So I tried cleaning the family room but the vacuum cleaner broke”. Well you have to be ready to drop that idea and go with the new one. You may still be a mother and daughter but the circumstances are now completely different than what you thought they were going to be.

Just like you may have come up with, what you think is the greatest checkout work flow ever, but then in testing you find out that the majority of your users don’t want to create an account in order to checkout (which you have set up to provide all sorts of perks and extras if they do, which is why you think the users won’t mind creating the account). The users just want to checkout as fast as possible. You tell them in focus groups how they would get discounts and special promotions etc. but the users you speak with don’t care. Well if you’ve done your work bringing in a representative group of users for testing then you need to listen to them, be flexible and make the account creation optional.

Again, Improv teaches you to be flexible and not too attached to your ideas because things are ALWAYS changing in improv scenes and shows. Listening and staying in the moment will keep you from getting thrown off in scenes and in your daily work.


Why – The Advantage

Probably the shortest part of this post but Sarah goes over the advantages of using design thinking. Design thinking really puts the user at the center and source for the designs the UX team produces. The skills needed to really do that work are taught or supported by improvisation. A short list of skills taught by improvisation are:

  • Listening
  • Acceptance
  • Non-Judgment
  • Empathy
  • Trust
  • Connection
  • Collaboration
  • Authenticity
  • Simplicity
  • Agility
  • Creativity
  • Disruption
  • Innovation
  • Change
  • Risk


Flexibility – Adapt to Fit Your Needs

This final section talks about the design thinking process described in the article as being flexible which is important. The design process can be messy and the process is more of a scaffolding to work within and support what you are trying to do design-wise. Also, because it is iterative you are returning to phases you have gone through before to handle the feedback you’re getting from the users.

Improv does the same thing. There are myriad formats for long form improv shows and in addition to that there’s also long and short form improv. All of these forms of improv have a structure to them. That may seem at odds with improv. Usually when I talk about improv having a structure/framework the response is “but its improv aren’t you just supposed to make it all up?” Yes you are creating a show from nothing but the structure and framework help the improvisers organize and order the information they are creating. The improvisers aren’t being told what to say or do or what characters to play or where the scenes should take place.

So flexibility is a skill all improvisers learn about and by learning more about improv, maybe even taking some classes you too could take that skill over into your daily work. You’ll learn to react better when things come up and you and your team will be able to better pivot towards a new, and possibly, more interesting solution with your design.

That’s all for this article’s review I hope you enjoyed it!


Yes and,


“Design Thinking 101” Article Review Part 1

Hi Everyone! Time for another article review. Today’s post is different than our normal article breakdowns. I’m not reviewing an article about improvisation being used in business. Instead I wanted to talk about the article:

Design Thinking 101

by Sarah Gibbons (@segibb) of The Nielsen Norman Group

Sarah has written a wonderful article providing a brief history of design thinking and then breaking its process into 3 phases with each phase having its own sub-steps. My plan is to connect what Sarah has written to improvisation and how it can help support UX workers who are involved in the design thinking process.

Before getting into the rest of the post I want to say that, while it’s fun to show the connections and give examples that show how improvisation can help UX, in order for this to work improvisation has to be engrained into your company’s culture. If you want to make lasting changes in your employees thinking and behavior there are improvisation exercises that you can use on a daily basis. By doing these exercises daily with your teams the mindset and skills fostered will become a part of how your employees think and behave by default.


History of Design Thinking:

Sarah starts off the article with a brief history of design thinking and there’s a really good quote that, IMHO, connects well to improvisation:

“We’re always looking but we never see…it’s the act of attention that allows you to really grasp something, to become fully conscious of it.” – Milton Glaser

“We’re always looking but we never see…”

The first part of the quote makes me think “always looking” is really never taking the time to stop and absorb what we’re looking at in a certain moment of time. We just stay stuck in a non-stop mode of constantly bouncing from one thing to the next. It makes me think of how, during a scene, an improviser wants to remain “in the moment”. In improvisation bad things are coming if an improviser is busy focusing on things like

  • An idea for a scene/show they have in their head that they want to force on everyone else
  • What the audience wants to hear or laugh at
  • How they didn’t get enough stage time during the last show and by God they’re gonna make up for that tonight!

Are you, as a UX Designer “in the moment” when you’re listening to the users tell you what they like and don’t like about the product? Are you already looking to solve the problem before the user fully communicates their needs? Are you trying to push your own agenda regardless of what the users are saying? Are you “in the moment” when you’re listening to what your other team members are offering as possible solutions to the problem? Be in the moment so you can really see what is going on and what you’re users are saying.

“it’s the act of attention that allows you to really grasp something”.

The second part of the quote is what can make for great improvisation…ATTENTION (note the CAPS in order to get your, attention). When you’re improvising you want to be hyper-focused on what is going on right then and there in your scene.

  • What is your scene partner saying?
  • How are they saying it?
  • What physicality are they taking on?

All of these things are communicating information to the improviser receiving them. An improviser HAS to be in the moment and paying attention to their scene partner! When an improviser is paying attention they can process that information and respond to it with new information that adds on to what is being created. If the improviser tries to shoehorn the “funny” line they had in their head before the show into their response it’s going to look and sound awkward and worse, kill the idea that was just being offered by their fellow improviser.

Are you and the rest of the UX team giving your users and each other your full attention? When you’re ideating are you allowing everyone’s ideas to be fully explored? Be in the moment when you’re working, try as much as possible to not have a lot of…SQUIRREL!!!…moments. Like the quote said paying attention allows you to truly grasp something and you really do want to truly grasp what your users are trying to tell you.

Design Thinking – The Process:

The article breaks down the Design Thinking process into the following:

  • Understand
    • Empathize
    • Define
  • Explore
    • Ideate
    • Prototype
  • Materialize
    • Test
    • Implement

We’re going to finish up Part 1 with the Understand – Empathize | Define phases.

At the start of a project you (obviously) want to understand what needs to be accomplished. What are the business goals, the user goals and how do you satisfy both of those? I tend to lean towards the thought that if you satisfy the user goals you’ll end up taking care of the business goals for the most part.

This is of course where user research comes into play. The user researchers start gathering all the information they can about the product and what the users are doing and not doing with it. All of this information has to be gathered up and then analyzed for patterns like seeing where users may be abandoning the checkout process or why they don’t complete the sign-up form. All of this information is going to inform the initial design i.e. the content, information architecture, user flow, content flow etc.

To relate this to improvisation, at the start of the show you have nothing. You don’t have any goals other then to put on a well-improvised and entertaining show. Notice I didn’t say “funny”, try to be funny and you’ll most likely end up with a show resembling a turd. Regardless, at the start of a show a group will get a suggestion from the audience like “can I have a suggestion of a kitchen utensil” (how many of you just thought ‘spatula’ to yourself?).

From the suggestion the group will then run through what is called “the opening” and during the opening the group tries to generate as many ideas from the suggestion as they can. There is ZERO time for rejection of ideas here. The improvisers should be working together to build off of what is being said by everyone else. Patterns and themes will start to emerge and the improvisers should be picking up on them. Those patterns and themes will form the basis of the rest of the show just like your user research data will form the basis of your design solutions.

Empathize is the first sub-step mentioned in the understand phase. Empathy is one of the buzzwords in UX right now and everyone is talking about how you need to empathize more with the user. If you’ve done enough user research and really gone through it and tried to see things from the user’s point of view you should be able to empathize with their pain points and what is causing them frustration. This can take effort though as we normally just like to see things from our own point of view.

Improv with its mantra of “yes and” forces you to focus on your scene partner though. You become a more natural empathizer the more you improvise because you start to go into your scenes by looking forward to the scenic gifts your scene partner is going to give you (think of the feedback your users are giving you as gifts to help you make a better product). Not only are you looking forward to them but you also start to take on the attitude of how can I also make those gifts even better.

It’s a different way of thinking but I can attest to the fact that when I work now I really try my best to help explore other people’s ideas and take them as far as I can (and they do the same for my ideas). The idea may not end up being the best solution to the problem but often times by having that open, improv mindset to other peoples ideas I’ll have another solution pop into my head because I remained open and ready to add on to the idea we were exploring.

Define is the second sub-step mentioned in the understand phase. Here is where you are actually working with the overall team to take the user research and look for patterns and organize them something you can work with. That will help inform you as to what the users are specifically struggling with.

Details are important in improvisation. The details help define the who, what and where of an improv scene. A scene can survive without these 3 things but they can be much richer and more entertaining when you do have them. By even giving basic details with your lines you can help create a richer world. Make the mustard you want on your hot dog “Grey Poupon”, not just “mustard”. That detail can inform your scene partner that maybe you like the finer, more expensive things in life.

By paying attention to the details in your user research you can define the patterns and issues more clearly. And if you have a more defined issue you’ll be better able to address that issue with a solution created by the entire team. If you know that users aren’t completing the checkout because they don’t want to create an account for the site you know exactly what is wrong vs. just looking at “we had 100 people start checking out and only 20 completed it”. Define those details and define them by talking to, empathizing with and connecting to your users.

Improvisation helps you to connect better with others because you have to learn how to connect with your scene partners. The two improvisers are working together and the stronger they connect to each other the better the chances are that they’ll create a scene that is rich and full of interesting ideas and directions that can be explored.

Improvisation teaches these skills, skills that absolutely help support understanding, empathy and defining patterns, themes and details. Improvisation can help all of us in UX; the researcher, content strategist, project manager, information architect, interaction designer, visual designer, front-end coder etc. all be more focus and connected with the users and each other. We just have to be willing to try something new and different on a consistent basis that will take us out of our comfort zone, which in the end will help us grow.

That’s all for this week. Come on back next week for Part 2!


Yes and,


“Taking Improv From The Stage To The Workplace”

Hi Everyone! It’s been a little while but we’re back for another article review. For this week’s blog post I’m reviewing the article:

“Taking Improv From The Stage To The Workplace”

by April Dudash – @AprilDudash for @WorkingAtDuke

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:

The article mentions:

  • Confidence
  • Agreement
  • Attentive Listening
  • Authenticity
  • Adaptability
  • Specifics

The article is short but talks about Improv being used in the Duke Fuqua School of Business, the School of Medicine, and finally the Pratt School of Engineering (where I hope they also teach…Pratt Falls <rim-shot>). I’d call that a pretty wide spectrum of educational areas that all believe that Improv can help their students to be better in their eventual fields of expertise wouldn’t you?

From the list of skills above the article is broken into 3 sections:

  • Specifics are best
  • Be accepting of new ideas
  • Be resilient in the face of ‘No’

The School of Medicine talks about how specifics can help with the diagnosis of patients and bring issues into sharp focus. In the School of Business acceptance and agreement help with keeping an open mind to ideas being presented. And finally for the School of Engineering resilience and agility help to deal with when you hear “no” because not all ideas in real life and business are unconditionally accepted like they are in improv (unfortunately!).


How it relates to Improv:

I believe that some of the things mentioned in the article are a result of Improv’s training (empathy, confidence, resilience and authenticity) while others are skills that Improv specifically teaches (listening, agreement, specifics).


At the start of a scene the improvisers have only a suggestion from the audience (sometimes not even that). The improvisers really have no choice but to agree to the suggestion, it is what it is. However, the suggestion can inspire anything in either improviser. Both improvisers have the chance to get their idea out first. If an improviser doesn’t deliver their opening line first they need to agree to the facts the other improviser puts out there.

It is easier to agree to what is offered when there are specifics given (IMHO).

The line:

“Thank you Tim for getting the Manhattan consumer statistics that showed they’re spending less money so far this Christmas shopping season.”

Is easier to agree to and move forward with than the line:

“Thank you for getting me the numbers.”

The specifics of the first line give the Improviser listening to it a ton of details to work with as opposed to the second line. The ambiguity of the second line opens up the possibility of the second improviser responding in a way the first improviser wasn’t expecting. And then we have miscommunication and possible panic and denial.

Improvisers need to be agile if they don’t get the response they were expecting because miscommunication does happen. Agreement helps with being agile and allows an improviser to pivot in case they need to because they get some unexpected information or idea thrown at them.

Listening is being done throughout the entire process above. And listening is part of it but it’s also paying attention to the body language of your scene partner. How are they standing and saying what they’re saying? Also the improvisers are listening to understand not to respond. Letting a scene partner get their entire line out before responding allows the improviser to fully understand and process what their scene partner is trying to communicate.


How it relates to UX:

Crossing over into UX I’ll start with specifics. Specifics are going to first help and support user research and personas. Trying to build the user personas with specifics will be much more valuable because the different users you’re trying to connect to will be more fully fleshed out. User personas built on really good specifics will let the designers, programmers, business analysts etc. be able to better understand and predict how they’ll interact with an interface. The specifics of the personas would also allow the team to target and bring in actual users that fit the personas so the team can validate their designs through actual testing. And if details and specifics are missing they can update the personas.

Authenticity can come into play when the team interfaces with users. If the team is authentic and empathetic with the users the users are going to be more likely to open up and give honest, valuable feedback. The users will feel valued and appreciated.

Resiliency comes into play because with the Agile and LeanUX processes becoming commonplace there are going to be a lot of revisions to designs. Designers, programmers and the rest of the team are going to have to get used to testing, getting feedback and updating more often. Sometimes that may cause the team’s morale to go down (if they seem to keep missing the mark with their designs).

Improv also teaches improvisers to trust in the process, being OK with not knowing where things are headed. This can translate to the team understanding that the problem is solved when the user can accomplish their task easily and with delight. Until that point is reached the team needs to understand that it’s not about them it’s about the user and they need to keep communicating with them and uncovering what works best. Support their other team members, support the user and eventually by being open and working together the solution will be found.

That’s all for this week!


Yes and,

Mike and Jim

Connect Tech Recap!

Jim and I would like to first thank Connect Tech for having us speak at the conference, thank you Pratik (@prpatel) and Vincent (@vincentmayers)! The two of us had a great time giving our talk and meeting people before and after…and running attendees through some fun improv exercises!

I got to see some great talks in the Design & UI & UX track such as:

As well as the fantastic Saturday morning keynote:

  • A Programmer’s Guide to Humans by Janelle Klein (@janellekz)

“Don’t be an asshole”

…I couldn’t have said it better myself Janelle!

Which reminded me of one of my favorite Improv teacher’s lines:

“If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” – Susan Messing

Again one thing I see more and more of at the conferences is the idea of connecting teams with people from different disciplines together. In this case, because the conference was more dev-focused the talks mentioned connecting developers and designers. I’d like to thank the above speakers for bringing up the topic because it made for a nice way to piggy back ImprovUX on to and in support of what they were talking about. And if there’s one thing Improv talks a lot about it’s supporting your fellow players (or in this case developers and designers).

I feel even more confident about Improv being a great way to facilitate these groups becoming more egoless, unified and focused on the most important thing and that is PROBLEM SOLVING. And the initial problem to solve is WHO is the user, WHAT are they trying to accomplish, and how to include them in the design process as much as possible.


One last note I’d like to mention in regards to our talk that I didn’t mention at the end. Improv teaches you to focus on your scene partner and how you can make them and their ideas look great, like a rock star. When everyone has that mindset you’ll get much more done and people will be eager to participate and share their thoughts and ideas because they know everyone else has got their back.


Yes and,

Mike and Jim

“What Improv Can Teach Your Team About Creativity and Collaboration”

For this week’s blog post (sorry it’s a day late) I’m reviewing the article:

“What Improv Can Teach Your Team About Creativity and Collaboration”

by Ken Blanchard and Scott Blanchard – @KenBlachard @LeaderChat

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:

IMHO, this week’s article focused on the themes of:

  • Positive support fosters
    • Creativity
    • Innovation
    • Engagement
  • Big egos are b a d, bad!
    • Ditch the search for the Rock Star/Guru/Unicorn

The article goes over a training session provided by the Second City to help with collaboration in the work environment. The session was lead by Colleen Murray and Mark Sutton. I love Second City having gone through its beginning training program and they have in recent years expanded heavily into the corporate world to provide training and team building. Mark Sutton* is an excellent improv coach and is really insightful as to how improv can be applied outside of the theater.

The article mentions how the group went over some basic listening and support exercises and how people with big egos generally don’t do well in them.

“People with big egos aren’t very good at improvisation because they constantly want to look better than the other person rather than work with the team to bring out the group’s best”

The problem with big egos is that they don’t listen; they focus on themselves and what they want to say. The whole time the rest of the team is trying to contribute ideas the big ego is trying to kill those ideas and push their own idea.

The big ego also doesn’t appreciate other teammate’s contributions because they think their ideas are the most important. One of the main ways this was shown to the participants was with an exercise that showed what support does to help generate better ideas.

“The “yes, and…” response made all the difference. Ideas flowed. The groups generated innovative, creative approaches that none of the individuals would have come up with on their own. The increase in energy and collaboration was palpable as the room buzzed with animated conversations, laughing, high fives, and every other behavior you would expect to see when people are genuinely engaged with each other.”

The participants of the training session not only got to see, but experience first hand, what being truly supportive can do for collaboration. And that’s where improvisation really separates itself; the participants are truly experiencing what is being taught and that leaves a far bigger impact than having a “Hang in there!” or “Teamwork” poster hanging on your cube wall.


Hang In There

-courtesy of Google images and my sarcasm



-courtesy of sarcastic motivational posters


How it relates to Improv:

I’ve mentioned agreement before and the power of “yes and” so I’ll be brief. Agreement is paramount in improvisation for the theater. The big issue a lot of beginners have is thinking agreement means your character has to like and agree to everything that’s going on. In actuality, agreement means that the improviser agrees to the ideas and facts being offered by their fellow improvisers in the scene. Their character however doesn’t have to like the facts at all. Supporting other ideas always leads to more interesting and impactful scenes in a show. Otherwise the scenes are constantly stuck in the cycle of:

new idea

no support

new idea

no support

scene ends up going nowhere

Audience hates improv, leaves and never comes back to see your group again.

Improvisers with big egos need to learn to work with their teammates or they will, in a short period of time, be looking for a new group to play with. That’s actually one nice thing about improvisation; it tends to weed out a lot of the jerks. Some people who are super talented can hang around for awhile, usually because they get laughs during a show or elicit some sort of reaction from the audience. However, this is more often than not at the expense of their teammates.

I encourage improvisers to not put up with that crap, as no improviser is irreplaceable. Wouldn’t you rather have someone you enjoy playing with rather than someone you’re constantly complaining about outside of rehearsal and offstage? (end of tiny rant)

TL:DR Agreement good for collaboration and creativity. Big egos are of no help and suck the life out of everyone and everything.


How it relates to UX:

Bringing it home. There is a lot of talk about


“be innovative!“

“we need to innovate!”

“did anyone bring the innovation?”

As UX practitioners we’re at the front end of trying to make things innovative and great for the projects we’re working on. In order to do that we focus on the users first and what they want and need to accomplish their tasks and goals.

Speaking from the viewpoint of Improvisation, the user’s feedback and thoughts are the “suggestions” we can take to create our solutions. This can be done during the ideation phase and it’s where a lot of great things can happen…IF we listen and support each other. Great ideas don’t exist by themselves in a vacuum. They exist because someone has an idea and others work together to grow them into something more. I truly believe that together, we make far more interesting and creative solutions to the problems we’re solving. And again that includes everyone in the project from the UX team to the developers to the stakeholders to the business analysts etc. Everyone’s ideas are valid during ideation.

Like improvisation, a project eventually needs to focus in on the best ideas that will solve the user’s problems. This is like the opening of an improv show where a suggestion is taken from the audience and an opening is used to generate ideas and themes. Not all of the ideas and themes from the opening are used but the ones that do end up in the show were influenced by all of the ideas generated during the opening. The best and strongest ones become apparent by the end of the opening and the show takes off from there.

So just like the opening of an improv show the ideation and creation phase is used to get the ball rolling and together the group will refine the ideas down to the best ones. But the key is everyone got to participate which gives everyone on the project shared understanding of what is going on as well as the feeling that they contributed which will motivate them to work their butts off to make the final product a massive ball of awesome.

That’s all for this week!


Yes and,

Mike and Jim

* A long time ago in a galaxy (Chicago) not that far away I was fortunate enough to have Mark coach my Indie improv group.

“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


  • 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:


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


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,


“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.”


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,