What Product Design Teams Can Learn From Stand Up Comedians

George Carlin on stage in New York City, 1992

The beautiful (and terrifying) thing about the art of stand up comedy is the instant feedback. A comic gets on stage with a microphone, tells a joke, and — if it’s funny — they get a laugh. The performer can tell how well they’re doing their job in real time by the audience’s reaction to their jokes.

Any designer or product owner who has sat through a usability test of a product that they’ve designed can kind of relate to a stand up comedian’s experience (although, in comedy you can’t blame the development team). Similar to telling a joke that bombs, I’ve spent time in usability labs literally cringing while watching the complete befuddlement of usability test participants’ trying to use an interface I’d designed. While it is insightful, it’s not fun.

The Iterative Process of Creating Stand Up Comedy

The well-documented process that most successful stand up comedians use to prepare for a performance relies on a combination of trial & error and instant feedback. Comics start by writing a bunch of jokes (alone or with a team of writers). The comic thinks that the jokes they’ve written are worth including in their act, but they don’t know for sure until they test out the material. When developing a new stand up tour or special, big name comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle take their new material into small comedy clubs — often to the surprise & delight of club patrons who weren’t expecting to hear new material from a comedy superstar. The comedians often announce that they’re testing new material, and ask the audience to respect the process by not recording & sharing the performance (audience members don’t always cooperate).

Some of the new jokes get a laugh; some get a chuckle. Some jokes are met with silence or even anger. The feedback provided by the audience allows the comic to fine tune their act — rewriting or adjusting the timing of certain jokes, or eliminating some material altogether. Night-after-night, over a period of several months, a comic can visit small venues and get on stage for a few minutes to test the refinements they’ve made to the material with new audiences.

“I can’t just create this in my bedroom. I have to get out there on stage, and it has to be a constant process... If I’m trying to develop material, I want to do as many shows as I can.”

Comedian, Anthony Jeselnik

Eventually, the jokes get better, and the set gets longer. For the most successful stand ups there comes a point where their act graduates from open mic nights in small clubs to large theaters, arenas, or television specials.

A lot like creating & launching digital products — where technology and trends evolve at a breakneck pace — stand up comics feel pressure to constantly create new, edgier, funnier material. By the time a comedian’s stand up special airs on HBO, they’re probably already taking new jokes into clubs to prepare for their next special. Similarly, digital products like Instagram, Uber, Gmail, or Apple’s Messages app are constantly exploring (and testing) new features to grow and maintain their user base.

As a designer or product owner, you can compare the stand up comic’s jokes to individual features that should be tested by your target audience as soon and as often as possible. Features are tested, refined, and incorporated into the broader application over time; and the cycle will continue for as long as you maintain the product.

Two ways to get user feedback on new features before rolling them out more broadly — similar to the safe, small club experience of the stand up comic—include usability testing or providing limited access to a group of beta or pilot users. Usability testing (either formally in a lab setting, or guerilla testing with people in a cafe) can offer insights into how well a feature works usually with a very small sample size (less than 10 users). Creating a pilot group requires additional effort, but it allows users to interact with the product on their terms rather than the false setting of a usability study. Make sure your pilot group knows that they’re testing new functionality, and they’re expected to provide candid feedback on the experience.

Approach your product backlog like a comedian with frequent and candid feedback from your audience, and you’ll be certain to deliver something that your users will value. If you’re not testing & iterating with a small audience, the risk of bombing in front of a large audience increases.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store