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Why the Work Doesn’t Stop When the Lights Go Down

Dramatic Impact

Theater and the creative process of design

A column by Traci Lepore
July 20, 2015

Rehearsals are over. You have survived tech week. The dress rehearsal has happened.  Now its opening night: the lights go down, the audience quiets, and the show begins. But that doesn’t mean the work is over. In fact, it is only beginning.

While this may sound a little strange to you, it’s true. There are many factors that go into a live performance that can be difficult to manage or anticipate ahead of time. Biggest of all is the unpredictability of human beings—who can and will make mistakes. The energy of a particular audience can drive or deplete your supply of adrenaline. Technical or wardrobe malfunctions could occur. A lot of stars have to align to ensure that you deliver an amazing performance.

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All of these things mean that, every time you take the stage, a new experience unfolds, with new opportunities to collaborate, innovate, and expand upon that experience for yourself and the audience. So, in essence, the story begins anew with each and every interaction you engage in when on stage—and the same is true in UX design.

Performance CPR

Hopefully, you’ve done the work to ensure that you understand and have accounted for all of the factors that you can control before your user experience gets released to the world. You may have done field research, developed prototypes, tested them, and validated that they’re good concepts. You may have done competitive analysis to make sure your concept has value above and beyond what the rest of the market offers. You may have the best marketing campaign imaginable. If so, you are definitely ahead of the game.

But all of these things can take you only so far. Once you deliver your user experience to the world, how can you continue to ensure that it is engaging to users and that you’re communicating appropriately and adjusting the experience as necessary as you see how things play out in the real world?

You do this with a strategy I like to call Performance CPR, which means:

  • Connect—Ask what’s wrong, or how are you? Take the pulse of the situation.
  • Process—Take users’ input and understand what it means. Triage the situation.
  • React—Plan your course of action accordingly. Respond with appropriate emergency and long-term care solutions.

Take the Pulse

In the theater world, this particular piece of the process can be very subtle. You have to feel the energy of the audience. Are they a high-energy crowd? Are they getting sucked into the story? How crowded is the theater? How many tickets are you selling? All of these things can tell you whether things are going well—or not so well. These are the immediate indicators that can alert you to a potentially threatening situation.

Thankfully, in the UX world, we can achieve this goal of taking the temperature of the situation using some more direct and tangible methods—rather than relying on feel alone. And we are lucky enough to have a variety of ways to start taking the pulse of things. Here are just a few of the methods that can be effective in taking the pulse:

  • surveys—You can email these or initiate them directly on your Web site.
  • usability testing—Watch actual users as they attempt tasks.
  • quantitative usage data and metrics—These should be analytics that you capture directly from the user experience.
  • reviews—These may occur internally or externally.
  • customer-support data—From things like call volume and common issues, you can understand how stuck users are getting and where the problems are.
  • social-media data and interactions—Take the emotional temperature of your audience.

In an ideal world, we would like to be able to do all of these things and gather robust data. But we all know that is not likely to be the case. So, instead, focus on finding the best balance of methods that time, money, and resources will allow. This approach will serve you best. The information that you gather is the key to getting those immediate indicators of whether there is a situation brewing.

Triage the Situation

Once you’ve taken the pulse, triage the situation. The most important advice I can offer when it comes to triaging the situation is, first and foremost, don’t get defensive. If something has gone wrong, do not take it as a personal attack or feel that you have done something bad. Getting defensive will only put barricades in the way of truly understanding the problem, then being able to fix it.

Instead, take this as an opportunity to meet a challenge head on. Absorb and immerse yourself in the data that you’ve gathered. Debrief and brainstorm with your team to discover how you might address any issues. At this stage, don’t be afraid to think big. You don’t have to commit to anything yet.

But be fast. Don’t take too much time because you’re hiding from the issues or think they can’t be tackled. You might lose out on the critical window of time when you’d have a chance to make a major difference. Like any emergency situation, it’s those first few minutes that make all the difference in the world.

Define Care Plans

Sometimes when performing in a show, you have to go with the moment and make an immediate adjustment on stage. You may have no choice but to take the cues and make critical changes to ensure that there is no break in the story. Sometimes you might even make more long-term changes such as adjusting blocking, costumes, props, or even technical details.

When it comes to user experience CPR, we need to do the same. Ultimately, we need to define the care plans. What must we do or can we do now to immediately address the situation? How then can we put in place longer-term plans to continue to make the necessary changes?

We need to make some hard decisions, but doing so is easiest when you categorize your care plans, as follows:

  • hot fixes—These are critical updates that you must push now because there is an emergency situation that needs addressing. Perhaps something is truly broken, or there is a security issue.
  • short-term bug fixes—These are low-hanging fruit—fixes that you can address in a fairly short timeframe. For example, you may need to fix confusing or difficult tasks or enhance an interaction or flow.
  • roadmap issues—These are bigger issues that need further requirements definition and design. While these changes will take more time, putting a care plan in place ensures that the story continues to move forward.

Keeping the Breath of Life in Your Story

While the run of a theatrical performance will likely end at some point, our experiences in the UX world may continue for a long time. The lights may perpetually go up and down. So it is important to continually train and remain proficient in our CPR strategy. In this way, we can ensure that the breath of life continues strong and hearty for our story, design, and user experience. 

Principal User Experience Designer at Oracle

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Traci LeporeWith over fifteen years of experience as an interaction designer and user researcher, focusing on user-centered design methods, Traci has experienced a broad range of work practices. After ten years of consulting, Traci transitioned to working on staff with product teams at companies such as Avid and Oracle. Through her UXmatters column, Dramatic Impact, Traci shares how she infuses aspects of theatrical theory and practice into her design practice to bring a more empathetic, 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 UXPA and IxDA and has spoken at conferences such as the IA Summit and Big Design. She is also a nominee for the 2016 New Hampshire Theatre Awards in the best supporting actress category.  Read More

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