Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

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:


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,


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,



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.


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”