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The theatre will help you become a better UX Designer

A question: What do the Twitter CEO, the wealthiest 500 Fortune companies and the Saviour Square in Warsaw have in common? The answer is Improv (improvisational theatre) which has recently been gaining popularity on Polish comedy stages.  And, as it turns out, not only there.  Nowadays it seems that Polish companies tend to use improv workshops for business purposes increasingly often, because it helps their employees become better designers or better developers, and – even though it may sound a bit pretentious – turns them into better people altogether.

Everyone improvises now and then. Sometimes we are forced to act even though we know we are groping in the dark, other times we are caught unawares and need to respond to our client’s question about the project on the spot. Here however, we are referring to a different kind of improvisation.  Improv theatre was first used for commercial purposes in the U.S. when cities like Boston or New York were deluged with immigrants looking for a new and better life.  At the time, various cooperative games based on listening to a person and giving unconditional consent to their ideas were aimed to help immigrant children adapt to the new reality. A lot has changed since then. The art of improvisation is now practised by adults, it is applied in business and it constitutes the cornerstone of the best comedy shows, such as Whose line is it anyway or Saturday Night Live which will soon premiere in Poland.

Even though improv theatre has undergone a major transformation, its principles remain unchanged:  it still aims to improve and build on the basic skills, such as attention, listening or spontaneity.  It develops emotional intelligence, sensitivity, empathy as well as interpersonal and communication-related capabilities.  The rules underlying improv are very simple, but their strength rests with that simplicity.

Yes, and… – a rule of thumb that makes cooperation  possible and strengthens creativity.
The Yes, and… technique consists of two components: the first one, namely “Yes”, implies acceptance of the contribution made by the other participant.  This acceptance translates into our belief in the premise, the idea suggested by another person, and in its success. It confirms our full support.  The “and” portion reflects our impact on the development of that idea.  If we are to engage in a collaborative process just like actors on stage, we need to learn how to go about it.

How can the practising of the improv approach make me a better designer?

This question has been answered by  Colleen Murray and Mark Sutton who conducted a simple exercise in creativity during one of their business improv workshops. For the needs of the experiment, they divided their workshop participants into groups of three. One person of the group was to find a solution to a specific problem under three scenarios: when two other group members kept criticizing the idea proposed, when they kept saying “yes, but…”, meaning that they agreed with the concept but simultaneously indicated a potential obstacle, and when they said “yes, and…” which showed that they accepted the idea and wanted to expand it further.  The outcome clearly confirmed that criticism and pointing out obstacles had a stifling effect on creativity, whereas belief and support, even for the wildest of concepts, triggered an avalanche of other ideas and sent a rush of positive energy through the team.

Obviously, when off stage, we need to confront the idea with our reality and capabilities, but it is best to do it as a separate step under which we will select a solution based on business or other criteria (the price or development time).

Follow your fear

You can be anybody in an improv comedy. You and several other individuals take part in an hour-long performance with neither script nor guidance.  This gives you unlimited freedom, but also inspires fear.  Players strive to follow that fear and sometimes they are even able to tame it (at least when on stage).

This is one of the ways in which improv may teach you how to be open and accept a high degree of uncertainty, the uncertainly which – as a rule – hinders us. A unique talent ensures clarity even in stressful situations. Unexpected, last-minute meeting with a client, public speaking or a project crisis – they all require acting on a hunch, with no plan. The value of spontaneity and freedom in such circumstances cannot be overemphasized.

Show don’t tell

Improv performances are made with no props, no costumes and no set. The theatre magic is created by players only – their gestures, posture, tone of voice, and what they are doing on the stage.  One moment we are in the office, and the next, we may as well be transferred to the Amazonian jungle. Even if such skills are not strictly necessary in business projects, the ability to engage the listeners emotionally through the right metaphors, gestures, and awareness of the body language – definitely should be.

That is why improv workshops are definitely worth your time. They will help you hone your communication skills.  Active listening will enable you to penetrate and absorb more from your daily conversations.  And, on top of that, you will improve your storytelling, learn what elements people respond to, what they find naturally engaging, and how to use your voice to make them listen.

Summary

Improv training is among very few if not the only form of activity which simultaneously develops the skills of active listening and storytelling, courage to face the unknown, self-confidence, emotional intelligence, trust and creativity.  And all that in an informal workshop style.

This might well be the reason why the latest publications devoted to UX issues more often than not contain chapters discussing the use of Improv in our daily work (click). This also explains why the largest Fortune 500 companies invest in organizing improvisation workshops for their employees (click). Improv is also growing in popularity at American universities (click) and MBA programmes (click). Dick Costolo, CEO, Twitter, is more than willing to talk about how improv has helped him achieve his professional success (click).

Improv comedy performances can be seen in the majority of Polish cities – in Warsaw, the places to go are Klub Komediowy at the Saviour Square and Resort located at the Theatre Square.  Business improv workshops also seem to be catching in Poland.

At Deloitte Digital we are now beginning to use improv techniques in standard training courses offered to our people. If you yourself would like to take part in an improv workshop, you can – improv training sessions will be arranged very soon, during the World Usability Day Trójmiasto.

 

Bartosz Jurkowski
User Experience Senior Consultant

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