Improv to Improve: How It Helps Us Thrive at Work
It takes more than just being a great designer to succeed at work.
It is not what people think that matters, but how. Being able to understand the nature of a conflict and adapt one’s behavior is an important quality for a UX designer.
In improv, you learn how to accept something and build with it, how to listen to people and read between the lines. As designers, we have to learn to see behind people’s minds. We know that what their body expresses can be something else than what they are actually verbalizing. Some do it naturally, others have to learn it.
3 years ago, Morgane, Camille, Matthieu and I ran our first improv workshop together during one of our two annual UX meetups. At that time, we wanted to train the team to face difficult situations that can occur in projects.
It all started with workshops for the design team, then for cross functional teams within our company. And finally this year, we had the opportunity to do it for design practitioners from around the world during UX events in London. Here’s how we made it happen!
The benefits of improv at work
The whole purpose of these workshops is to train people on empathy and understanding. It sounds like a no brainer, but in real life it's not always so simple.
For each of these events, we created ad hoc workshops around special topics. So far, we achieved to manage topics such as :
- “How to manage conflict situations”
- “How to communicate on design methodology”
- “How to be a digital ambassador in big companies”
- “Create your safe space”
Playing the role of someone else in the project team allows us to understand their issues and feelings. It teaches us how to better reassure our collaborators and support them the best way we can.
Another silver lining of playing situations we haven’t faced yet in our daily jobs is that we can be prepared and know how to react.
How a side passion became something serious at work
If you’ve read our team’s other Medium articles, especially Caroline’s article The 5 things we look for in a UX Designer, you may already know that we all have deep passions. When we recruit people, we always ask what makes them tick because we consider that it’s important for each of us not to project all our expectations in our professional life and feel fulfilled outside of our job.
I’ve always loved writing stories and scenarios. I’ve done it since I was a teenager. Back in 2007, I had stopped writing for some time and really missed it. I felt the urge to find an opportunity to build stories again. That’s when I began improv within the Parisian Attorney League of Improv (Libap).
Around the same time, I started to create my own designer job in the company in which I was working, doing UX design without knowing it. Was it a coincidence? I don’t think so.
From Improv to UX Design
During my first improv course, the teacher listed some easy rules to follow all year long. More than a decade later I’ve just started to realize how much I applied them to my everyday life, especially in my job.
Everything is about the others.
Everything is not about you. You are a tool to build a great story. If you are just using yourself, not taking others into account, it is called affectedness. It is a major fault and you can be banned from the game for that.
Everything is in details and observation.
If one of your team mates opens an imaginary door in one direction, you have to keep it and open it in the same way. Likewise, if there is an imaginary table on stage, you can’t walk through it. By being consistent and respectful of what other gamers inject in the game, you can build a meaningful story (and win the game).
There is no easy solution.
You can’t take easy shortcuts during the game. Doing something easy or self-centered is considered unsporting. Which brings us to next rule.
Collaboration is the key.
In any situation, if you don’t respect other gamers, don’t listen to them or don’t build on their ideas, you commit a fault and lose points.
One day Morgane told me that she wanted to train the team to face some situations. The idea immediately popped: we had to make them live these situations by acting them!
Turns out, we also had another improv practitioner in the team — Matthieu, who actually teaches it and has his own stand-up comedy side gig. I brainstormed on it with him. We listed what kind of experience we wanted our team mates to live:
- Be in a theatrical area to disconnect from everyday life
- Be in a benevolent space
- Understand other people’s issues
- Experience empathy
- Share experience
- De-dramatize situations
- Feel confident
- Have fun
When analyzing the purpose of the exercise, we decided that “pure improv” wasn’t the best way to do it: we had to coach people to make them play dedicated situations. A mix and match between roleplay and improv was THE solution.
From fun to professional
In 2017 and 2018, we mostly tested improv inside our team. Of course, our first workshop wasn’t perfect. As in the UX process, we began by a MVP. Our main idea was to train the team to face situations and we were focused on the content and staging. Feedback from our team mates was quite good, which led us to conduct even more workshops. Step by step we added more features and fun widgets to our workshops.
Finally, three years later, we went from workshop for fun to a professional one. Last summer, we began showcasing our workshops in big events, mostly specialized in UX, such as Future London Academy in August 2019, Societe Generale’s internal Digital Seminar in October 2019 and UX Live in November 2019.
Thanks for reading!
What about you? Do you practice improv within you design team? If so, let us know: it could be great to share good practices.
If you want to further discuss improv workshops, contact us via our Design website.