Saturday, November 13, 2004

Done any good improv lately?

Last weekend, I attended a performance by the outstanding BATS Improv company in San Francisco. It is always a delight to watch the members of this company get inside the heads and the experience of multiple characters so quickly, and to interact meaningfully and fluidly in those roles with others, without benefit of either script or rehearsal.

Have you seen any good improv lately?

Have you DONE any good improv lately?

I'm sure you have tried to put yourself into the "shoes" or heads of potential users or customers, in an attempt to figure out what they want, what they think, how they might react, what they might experience, etc. But few people fully employ improv in this effort, though role playing has been advocated and effectively used in this context for many years.

For example, IDEO has asked all sorts of people engage in role playing as part of "experience prototyping" (see Buchenau & Fulton Suri, 2000), and employ it from the earliest stages of design and throughout the entire design process (see Simsarian, 2003). They use it to help teams develop a shared understanding of existing experiences and use contexts, explore and evaluate design ideas, and communicate ideas to others.

Last month, Steve Portigal had a CHIFOO (Computer-Human Interaction Forum Of Oregon) audience in Portland engage in improv and drew important parallels between the rules of improv and the rules of good ethnographic research.

And there is much about the rules of improv that can be applied to facilitating collaboration in the workplace. As described on the website of Progettoratto Compagnia di Improvvisazione Teatrale (based in Rome), the rules of improv are about creating a solid work group -- requiring the application of knowledge, attention, listening, not prevailing on others, never saying "no," and accepting.

Have you done any good improv lately?

Improv classes are offered by lots of improv companies, community colleges, university extension programs, etc. Some improv companies are willing to teach their classes in your business or can come to engage in or facilitate role playing at different points during your product conceptualization and design process.

Readings (all but Portigal available in ACM's Digital Library):
  1. Buchenau, M. & Fulton Suri, J. Experience prototyping. DIS 2000 Proceedings, pp. 424-433.
  2. Portigal, S. Whose line is it anyway: Innovation, ethnography, and improv. CHIFOO (Portland, Oregon), October 2004.
  3. Sato, S. & Salvador, T. Playacting and focus troupe: Theater techniques for creating quick, intense, immersive, and engaging focus group sessions. interactions, September-October 1999, pp. 35-41.
  4. Simsarian, K. T. Take it to the next stage: The roles of role playing in the design process. CHI 2003 Adjunct Proceedings, pp. 1012-1013.
  5. Svanaes, D. & Seland, G. Putting the users center stage: Role playing and low-fi prototyping enable end users to design mobile systems. CHI 2004 Proceedings, pp. 479-486.

Saturday, November 06, 2004


A couple weeks ago, Julie Delpy appeared at the Rafael Film Center to answer questions from the audience after a special screening of her fabulous movie, "Before Sunset." That movie consists largely of a single, wonderful conversation between Celine (played by Julie) and Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) as they walk about Paris -- a resumption of a conversation begun 9 years earlier when they first met in the prequel "Before Sunrise." In that prequel, the two instantly connected, and their resulting walk around Vienna consisted largely of a wonderful, intimate, revealing conversation, akin to the followup in "Before Sunset."

Have you participated in those kinds of conversations -- conversations where a strong connection is established quickly -- a connection that enables the participants to be unusually open and to readily reveal much of importance?

I had had a conversation not long before that special screening that seemed to me to be of the nature of the conversation depicted in the two movies. The conversation began on our initial meeting immediately following my on-stage conversation with Don Norman (see earlier postings), resumed over dinner 4 evenings later, continued through coffee in a late night cafe, and then extended through rainfall -- mostly unnoticed by the two of us -- as we strolled along a San Francisco street into the wee hours of the morning. It was wonderful. It was unexpected. It was rare.

But I've had many conversations of a related nature -- conversations I've initiated and that emerge from the very quick establishment of a connection which facilitates participant openness and substantive revelation -- conversations with colleagues or with people who have reported to me in a workplace, or with potential users of a product or service as yet to be conceived or in some stage of design, or with experts in business, design, or the like on stage before an audience at an event -- all conversations essential to "changing the role user experience plays in business."

I had several such conversations with potential users of a product earlier this week. And they, too, were wonderful. No, not as wonderful as my conversation in the rain, or the conversation between Celine and Jesse. But they left all participants happy they had established such a connection, and they revealed much of great importance to the design of the product.

According to Julie Delpy, the conversation in the two movies, which was so real, had been entirely scripted. But it had emerged from a collaboration among Julie, Ethan, and director Richard Linklater, all committed to developing a rich, real experience -- just as my partly-scripted portions of my conversations with potential users emerged from a collaboration among designers, engineers, other potential users, and business personnel committed to developing the best user experience possible.

How well does your business connect with users or potential users of its products and services? Are those essential connections unexpected and rare? Or are they initiated frequently, and conducted in such a way that they contribute greatly to developing the best user experience possible?