My first experience in improvisational comedy was in 1989. I was a freshman at Texas A&M University. Some of the students in the theater department decided to get an improv troupe started and somehow talked me into joining them.
In the beginning, I was petrified to perform without a script. Looking back now, I can see just how much improv has taught me and how it informs the decisions I make when working with a project team to create a cohesive user experience.
There are a multitude of “rules” to improv. The one most people are familiar with is the rule of “Yes – and.” The principle behind “Yes – and” is that for a story to be successfully crafted, all players involved must agree on the premise. So if a fellow actor points at you and says “your face is green,” you accept that and move the scene forward with a green face.
What we don’t often hear about are all of the other rules of improv that can be pulled into daily work as an experience designer. What happens after you’ve said yes? What comes after the “and”?
I’ve combed through my books and through various improv websites to pull out rules I started taking for granted about 20 years ago and was surprised at just how much the regular practice of these rules has shaped my perspective when creating designs with a team or client.
Add new information
The follow on rule to “Yes – and” is add new information. Have a plan when you say “and.” You can’t move the scene forward without it. And there will be times that saying yes is very difficult. What the team or client wants is not always what you will feel is the best aesthetic, so delicately phrasing your yes’s is important.
So, if a stakeholder is telling you they want a monochromatic blue palette for their website, you answer “That sounds great – and we can use complementary color accents, like yellows or oranges, to highlight important calls to action.”
Don’t negate or deny
The opposite of “Yes – and” is “No – but.” When a project kicks off, don’t start with what the system limitations are, don’t start with the baggage of knowing that the experience needed will break corporate standard rules.
Negating is also referred to as blocking. Take time to think when your first reaction is to deny, negate, or block someone else’s ideas.
If your product owner says “we want to add social media buttons to this,” don’t tell her that’s a dumb idea. That’s a knee jerk reaction, with the operative word being jerk. Explore the idea. Think about what benefits social sharing may bring to the customer and the business.
Always check your impulses
Checking your impulses isn’t limited to cases where you want to negate or deny something. You also have to check your impulses to see if what you’re thinking aligns with the product goals. If you have design principles set out for your project, measure your impulse against them to see if it aligns with those principles.
You may have a fantastic idea, but if it’s not part of the goals of the project and doesn’t align with scenarios, personas or design principles, table that thought. Write it down for a future project where it may be a great asset.
Look beyond the words
If you’re designing experiences, you have either become or are becoming a keen observer of human interactions. Look at physical cues of people you’re meeting with. Is someone uncomfortable or unusually silent? Maybe they aren’t good at speaking out in a group setting, but if you chat with them afterwards they may offer you a wealth of insight you would have otherwise missed out on.
The same goes with usability testing. Don’t just look at how easily or efficiently the participant is getting through your flow, look at their body language. Look at their forehead – is the brow furrowed? Are the eyebrows raised? Are they tapping their feet nervously? Or are their shoulders relaxed?
Aside from just the physical, there may be underlying motivations for the way people are behaving. Try to get to the heart of the meaning behind their words and actions.
Never underestimate or condescend to your audience
Underestimating your audience is a diva move to make. That doesn’t mean you should throw around words like “affordance,” or refer to “Fitt’s law” with people who aren’t design professionals, but it does mean that you need to be careful not to talk down to them. Talking down to someone tells them that you think you’re better than they are. And guess what? You’re not.
We all have roles to play in our daily work, and one is not necessarily more important or more clever than the other. Give your “audience” respect, and you will get respect in return.
Work to the top of your intelligence
This is the flip side of not underestimating your audience. Don’t underestimate yourself. Working to the top of your intelligence means not taking the easy way out. If someone says “but that’s how we’ve always done it,” challenge the status quo.
Push yourself every day to do something better, to learn. Keep up with the blogs and articles about UX practice and theory. Engage your colleagues in meaningful, actionable discussions about the work you’re doing.
Trust your partners
Every project you work on comes with partners: front end developers, project managers, stakeholders, information architects. Trust them to do their jobs. They got where they are for a reason.
In return, you should expect them to trust you to do your job. If they don’t, then that’s an important conversation to have with your partners. Help them understand why they need to trust you.
And most important of all, trust yourself. Your experience and your expertise led you to where you are today. You need to trust in your own talent and skill. Because if you don’t trust in yourself, you can’t possibly expect others to trust you.
Do try this at home (or work)
With every new venture you have to start somewhere. I was petrified as a teenager trying improv for the first time. I can remember it very clearly. But now improv is second nature to me. Public speaking is not an issue. I was never a shy or quiet person, and improv has given me more confidence and tools to work with.
That didn’t happen over night. It happened with repeated practice. Take these rules and try putting them into practice in your daily routine. Three months from now, see what changes this has brought to your projects, clients and project teams. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.