Stepping Into Their world — How Improvisation Helps Us Become Better Designers

A few years back I ran a workshop at a summer camp for high school students on the topic of user centered design (UCD), which probably doesn’t sound as fun as the workshop where they made ice cream with nitroglycerin. A large portion of the workshop was taken up by an activity where groups of students designed a machine to accomplish a simple task, like making a cup of tea. As an added level of difficulty, they had to act out the various interface components of the machine so that a student from anther group would be able interact with them to accomplish the task. One student might curl up on their knees to be a computer mouse. Others might act as buttons or switches, and one was assigned the fun role of the speaker and yelled loud, annoying sounds when the user made an error. In addition to being fun, improvisation can help us become better designers by improving how we think, removing fear of mistakes, becoming better story tellers, and teaching us to be more adaptable and flexible. However, rather than talk about all the pros of practicing improvisation, the first step to becoming a better designer is to accept the fundamental principle of improvisation, which is to “step into their world”.

Whenever I think of bad improvisation, I think of a scene from “Life’s Too Short” where Ricky Gervais and Liam Neeson are practicing Liam’s comedy skills, https://youtu.be/MKTh7zBIcrM?t=4m21s which unfortunately, or comically, lack imagination. One of the golden rules in improvisation is to engage the other actors in a positive manner and embrace the world that they have created, regardless how outrageous, to continue the conversation. If someone says the sky is purple, don’t shut them down by trying to argue that the sky is in fact blue. All you are doing is creating a different, separate world, and the other individual is going to dig their heels in and continue to argue that their view is the correct one. Instead, embrace their view and start to play out the conversation to understand why they think the sky is purple, or the implications of a purple sky. This keeps the conversation going in a positive manner.

So how do we as designers step into the world of our users? Well there are varying levels of how much we can explore from another perspective. At one extreme end, designers can physically put limits on their abilities (mittens on their hands, translucent glasses), to simulate the limits of being a senior. Alternatively, designers can use personas to view the problem from the perspective of the user.

The easiest way to adopt the philosophy of stepping into their world is through our interactions with our team on a daily basis. The stakeholders for the project (marketing, developers, business analysts, clients, etc.) all bring their own perspectives on how to address the design challenge. Meetings that are held to discuss and decide on an approach can quickly escalate into unproductive disagreements due to individuals firmly holding onto the opinion that their way is the best or only way. A better practice is to have someone suggest an initial premise (“this form should be 3 steps long”). Rather than disagreeing and proposing your own ideas, adopt the premise and playout what that solution would look like. After playing out one scenario, a different stakeholder can suggest the next premise (“the form should only be 1 step”), and so the session continues until everyone has a chance to share and explore their world. Through this exploration you might come to understand the stakeholder’s point of view, and realize that there are valuable insights that can be taken into consideration. The individual stakeholders will realize the faults of their approach, which makes it easier to abandon their own world view and throw their support behind another.

Improvisation doesn’t require you to be a great actor. All you need to do is embrace the principle of stepping out of your world and into the world of another, and you will find that you don’t have to walk in someone else’s shoes, but you can always walk along with them.

Daniel Iaboni, is Senior Experience Architect at Akendi, a firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design. To learn more about Akendi or user experience design, visit www.akendi.com.

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Originally published at akendi.com on October 13, 2015.

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