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Dramatic Impact

Theater and the creative process of design

A column by Traci Lepore
November 16, 2009

Working together in a group to produce a creative outcome is difficult—don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. Let me share a memory with you—from my Performance Theatre and Community class. There I was with one other person, trying to get our group improvisational piece started—a performance that would serve as our final for the class. It was not going well. We were standing there, looking at each other a little dumbstricken—despite the fact we had previously, as a class, talked about what we intended to do with this final. With the adrenaline rush of improvisation, it’s always a little scary getting started. The agonizing few seconds at the beginning felt like hours as we stood there, not knowing what to do. Then another person jumped in, grabbing my leg and yelling something I can’t quite remember—though the words themselves don’t matter for this memory—jolting me into action. We were off and running, because somebody else jumped in with a potential solution to a problem the two of us who were already up there couldn’t solve. This is how good brainstorming should always work—brainstorming is always a negotiation.

A time or two, I’ve had that same feeling of being dumbstricken when participating in various forms of UX design brainstorming sessions. I’ve also seen clients who are expected to participate in such sessions looking like the proverbial deer in the headlights as they grapple with the often unfamiliar experience of brainstorming.

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In our company, not everyone who participates in brainstorming sessions is a creative type. Everyone from product managers to executives to IT and development folks works with us. In fact, working with a multidisciplinary team is the way most UX design gets done. The domain knowledge and buy-in of all stakeholders is essential to conceiving and delivering a successful UX design solution. Everyone wants to participate and come up with a good solution, yet many struggle to find a way into the mind exercises that help the creative group to develop a conceptual framework of ideas.

I’ve also seen conversations about design ideas either quickly disintegrate into petty and foolish arguments over whose idea is “right” or drag on interminably, because the participants don’t realize they are actually talking about the same thing—that is, are in violent agreement with one another. The reality is that about half the time both sides are talking about the same thing, but don’t realize they are when they are just talking—using words alone. Some people just can’t articulate their creative ideas strongly enough, and sometimes people just use different semantics—especially people working in different disciplines. Whatever the cause, such conversations have unproductive outcomes and leave everyone with a bad feeling. You’ve all experienced this kind of frustration, right?

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how we can successfully bring these various folks together—finding a way for everyone to participate, so the entire group’s knowledge and insights get incorporated into the results? In his blog post on greatness and uniqueness, the writer Howard Mann says, “Greatness exists in us all. And a person who doesn’t believe that shouldn’t be in business.” We want to take advantage of the greatness in each and every member of our multidisciplinary teams to come up with innovative and relevant designs that solve some problem for users.

Easing Participants in—Without the High Stakes

We can’t all be in-the-moment actors like my friend who grabbed my leg in our final improv piece. Over the years, I’ve found people within corporate environments are even less likely to be so creatively fearless. Because of this, starting by getting participants warmed up should be a routine part of the brainstorming process. For example, engaging in a simple group storytelling exercise can help people begin to understand the process of brainstorming and get them comfortable with the process, without their having to jump into the high-stakes situation of a real brainstorming session, in which they must come up with actual ideas and concepts. In an article on the uses of Forum Theatre in business, Nigel Higgs asked, “Was it Confucius who said, ‘I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand’?”

What kind of warmup you should try can depend on the group you are working with and the vibe you are getting from them. It’s always good to have a couple of different ideas in your back pocket you could try. A combination of storytelling and physical movement seems to work well with most groups, getting them stimulated and their minds moving in the right direction. The simple game of telling a story, one word at a time, while passing an imaginary energy ball, can be an effective way of loosening people up.

Always make sure you try to get a read on your group first. Groups that seem lethargic or disconnected may need a more energetic approach. Groups that express fear, reluctance, and confusion over what to expect may need more help understanding what’s going to happen. For a very lethargic group, I once tried an exercise that focused too much on energy, but also required a good amount of storytelling. While the participants became more engaged, which was fantastic to see and helped, they were still hesitant about participating in the actual brainstorming activity.

So, now that you’ve eased your participants into the brainstorming experience, what can you do to make your actual brainstorming session a more productive, useful, and enjoyable experience—one in which everyone feels like they have actively participated and contributed? Lately, I’ve been toying with the notion that the foundations of Forum Theatre might provide some insights into new ways of thinking about the brainstorming process.

Forum Theatre

Theorist Augusto Boal developed Forum Theatre as a theatrical exercise that is a small part of his methodology called Theatre of the Oppressed. He intended both actors and non-actors to use the overall process of the Theater of the Oppressed and the Forum Theatre exercise. Boal strongly believed, as I do, that everyone is inherently an actor and capable of acting. One of his books is even titled Games for Actors and Non-Actors.

In Forum Theatre, a group of actors enacts a situation, representing a real and true problem one of the actors is trying to solve. First, they describe a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story’s characters include a protagonist—the person whose story it is—an antagonist, and allies. A small group of actors embodies the story through an improvisation, running through the scene for the larger group. Then the actors run through the scene again, and the audience members—or spect-actors, as Boal calls them, because they are not merely a passive audience—can stop the action by yelling Stop! and jump in with whatever ideas they have for potentially solving the problem or changing its outcome. The spect-actor then gets to replace a character and finish out the scene. The group continues running through the scene as long as there are spect-actors who want to jump in and work through their ideas.

The point of Forum Theatre is not to tell the actor trying to solve a problem what to do, but to provide a broad range of ideas or suggestions he can use as part of a solution. Since every story has a protagonist and an antagonist, it also allows the collective group mind to consider the opposing sides of an argument and come to a conclusion together. The group can collaboratively develop concepts—possible ways of addressing the problem.

Forum Design?

While Boal strongly disbelieves the corporate environment is the proper place for his methodology, I have to disagree. I see many ways in which the tactics of Forum Theatre could help us when we are having frustrating design conversations and brainstorming sessions. At the core of both situations—either using Forum Theatre to tackle oppression or brainstorming to solve a design issue—there is a problem that needs to be solved. And, in both cases, we are trying to appeal to the minds of the group to help find potential solutions.

So, how about using the basic principles of Forum Theatre in a design brainstorming session? This approach would involve

  • having a small subgroup of people define and improvise the embodiment of a specific problem or issue someone needs to address
  • presenting the embodied issues to a larger group
  • making the presentation a participatory experience by letting members of the larger group jump in with their variations on the story
  • deferring evaluation of the possible solutions until the process has revealed everyone’s concepts and ideas

My instincts tell me this proposal has value. Forum Theatre could help provide a structure that would help move conversations forward in a productive manner. Plus, it allows everyone involved to use their instincts to the best of their ability. As Mann said in his blog post, “When people act according to instinct, their energy is almost inexhaustible—like water running downhill. But, when people are forced to act against their instinct, their energy is rapidly depleted—like water being pumped uphill.”

What would it mean to use these principles in practice? Well, I see it progressing something like this:

  1. Start by having the core members of your group—the people with the best knowledge of the particular problem the story would address—work on the definition and improvisation of a specific problem or story.

I encourage you to do a physical enactment, as well as communicating your story visually by capturing your scenario in sketches. If you’ve created personas, this would be the perfect opportunity to embody them, as I described in my UXmatters column “What’s My Persona? Developing a Deep and Dimensioned Character.” Defining the specific problem you’re addressing, then enacting your story provide the scaffolding your more hesitant participants need to become engaged and find a clear way to contributing when you present your story to the larger group. It is much less scary to start from this shared experience than from scratch. Coming up with multiple scenarios may require a few different groups to tackle different issues, but they can work in parallel.

  1. At this point, the remaining members of the larger group can become spect-designers and jump in with their own ideas and potential solutions.

Whether they participate through physical enactment or by adding to the sketches, they can help fill in the gaps or provide a wider range of perspectives that inform potential solutions. It is my belief that the concepts the group develops would be richer and more diverse, because of everyone’s contributions.

  1. Finally, evaluate the concepts as potential solutions.

The point of brainstorming is to pull out the broadest sweep of potential solutions from participants, so save evaluation for this explicit step. Nothing hinders creativity more than the fear of looking or sounding silly, so reserve judgment till you’ve gathered everyone’s ideas. Then, if you truly want to understand which concepts are the right ones, test them with actual users.

Making Group Creativity More Productive

Easing into the activities of brainstorming and design conversations, introducing the embodiment of stories that represent the issues you are trying to solve, and providing this preliminary scaffolding for the larger group are just some small ways in which we can make the work of group creativity more productive. Taking this approach may also help relieve some of the stress and frustration for all involved. Even though we are all capable of being creative, it takes a little more warmup time for some people. Then it doesn’t have to be such a scary prospect.

Well, thanks to my friend’s grabbing the reins during that improvisation—that is, grabbing my legs—our final improv piece went from a rough start to an amazing 45 minutes of group work that amazed us all throughout its ups and downs and smooth transitions. Everyone played an important part in its creation, and we successfully moved back and forth between moments of individual creation and synchronization with the larger group’s creative effort. Because of everyone’s hard work, that improv was a beautiful experience I’m not likely to forget. As I said at the beginning, don’t let anyone tell you group creation isn’t hard, but don’t let them tell you it’s impossible either. 

References

Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 2002.

—— Theatre of the Oppressed. 3rd edition. London: Pluto, 2000.

Higgs, Nigel. “The Uses of Role-Play and Forum Theatre in Business.PDF Actors Mean Business, 2006. Retrieved October 30, 2007.

Mann, Howard. “Greatness and Uniqueness Are Symbiotic.” UX Magazine, April 10, 2007. Retrieved October 27, 2009.

Senior User Experience Designer at Bridgeline Digital

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Traci LeporeAt Avid, Traci is responsible for helping to define the customer experience for the Web. While working as a consultant at InContext Enterprises, she worked on both enterprise and consumer projects across a variety of industries and domains. With over ten years of experience as an interaction designer, with a focus on user-centered design methods, Traci has experienced a broad range of work practices. Through her UXmatters column, Dramatic Impact, Traci hopes to infuse aspects of theatrical theory and practice into her design practice and bring a more empathetic and user-centered focus to her work. Traci holds an M.A. in Theater Education from Emerson and a B.S. in Communications Media from Fitchburg State College. She is a member of the Boston chapters of UPA and IxDA.  Read More

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