Moving Beyond the Design

Dramatic Impact

Theater and the creative process of design

A column by Traci Lepore
March 25, 2014

How do you take user experience to the next level? Simple. Forget about the design! Stop tweaking those wireframes, editing those annotations, and pushing those pixels, because, if you don’t, you’ll never figure out how to move beyond the details and see the bigger picture.

Five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined saying that my role included facilitating and storytelling. And if you’d asked me what my role was, I’d likely have said that the core of my work was creating wireframes and documentation.

These days, the core of my role as a UX professional is much different. Today, my role is to be the design storyteller and the vision facilitator—not just the wireframe maker. And it’s my foundation in theatre that gives me the confidence that this move was the right one.

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Three critical insights from theatre drive my quest to move beyond the design:

  1. First, I believe that the role of director is critical in successfully executing the vision.
  2. Second, knowing your audience saves time that you would otherwise waste dispelling confusion over jargon and meaning.
  3. Finally, communicating the story in an engaging manner engenders trust and enthusiasm.

Let’s take look at each of these insights, then discuss ways you can apply them to your projects.

Quiet on the Set!

As the bridge between all the different sides on a project, UX designers are familiar with the concept of wearing many hats. Designers usually have the delightful and challenging task of being the lone soul who talks to all sides, whether they are business owners, marketing, development, product management, or the users. This is a huge responsibility.

Directors also need to coordinate various groups of people such as the cast, crew, and technical operators. They are also responsible for interpreting the script and story. Plus, directors manage the administrative aspects of shows like schedule and budget. Sound familiar?

A key success factor for both UX designers and directors lies in their ability to be facilitators of the vision. They need to create a well-articulated picture of the theme, the personal perspective, and the moral of the story—their vision. The designer’s or director’s level of success in building and executing the vision is only as strong as their skill at facilitating.

Thankfully, facilitation is a skill and, like any skill, it becomes well honed through practice. The first step in becoming a skilled facilitator is deciding what kind of leader you will be. If you want to be a leader and have influence, you need to be perceived as an expert and authority—not because of arrogance, because of credibility.

Critical to your developing that perception in your audience is setting the rules of engagement—what I like to call the interaction style. While there are many interaction styles that you could take on, the trick is to find the balance between the two that I find most conducive to creating a collaborative environment: the creative artist who can conceive the vision while still accepting input from the ensemble sharing in the creative process and the negotiator who works democratically to build a shared vision with the group. Learning how and when to shift the balance between these interaction styles will enable you to keep the process working and help to minimize personal conflict.

The next part of directing is focusing on the execution plan—and you can determine that through a strategy path. Understanding the business needs and capabilities and the technical and resource constraints lets you determine the optimal strategy path. Do the up-front work, combining stakeholder interviews and user-research methods such as contextual inquiry, requirements definition, technical investigation, and resource allocation and budgeting. You’ll then know where you want to be on the strategic spectrum—whether you want to take the rough, minimum-viable-product route and get something out there quickly or, at the other end of the spectrum, spend the effort to develop a holy-grail product.

The final piece in the directing puzzle is the need to ensure the vision stays on track throughout the process. The journey can be long, and it is easy to get off track, causing all of your good work to be for naught. But don’t worry, there is a way that theatre can help here, too!

The outline for a rehearsal process provides clear direction for managing the process:

  1. researching and exploring the script
  2. understanding budget, space, and timing
  3. auditions and casting
  4. doing a read-through that sets the stage for a shared understanding of the vision
  5. rough blocking of the movement
  6. finessing details and the interpretation of lines and motivations
  7. doing run-throughs to get a sense of the whole
  8. tech and production—lights, sets, and costumes
  9. doing a performance run

By following this outline, you can set some structure that will help you to keep in constant touch with your vision and ensure its progression through

  1. research—including heuristics and competitive analysis—and requirements gathering with stakeholders and users
  2. defining the appropriate team members to work on particular areas
  3. holding a kickoff meeting to get everyone on board
  4. sketching and creating concept drawings of all initial ideas
  5. wireframing the ideas you want to move forward with
  6. creating low-to-medium fidelity prototypes
  7. doing usability testing to validate and refine the proposed ideas
  8. creating a high-fidelity prototype, demo, or beta that pulls all of the visual and technical pieces together
  9. releasing your product

Know Your Audience

One of the biggest challenges of being a facilitator and storyteller—whether in user experience or theatre—is that you have to deal with multiple audiences on a daily basis, both internally and externally. And the same story is not likely to work on all of them. But the great thing about storytelling is that it is an innate gift that we all have. Telling stories is something that we are driven to do, and the more we do it and pay attention to how we’re doing it, the better we get at storytelling.

Targeting your audience and smoothing communication can still be a frustrating challenge for many people, but there are things that you can do with your internal team and your external customers to help you to understand them as your audience and, therefore, to communicate in a way that is empathetic and positive.

  • Know the domain and subject matter.
  • Play games—including role-playing game—not only with customers, but with stakeholders.
  • Observe customers in their own environment to understand the full picture.
  • Use personas and scenarios to capture and share emotional memories about customers.
  • Make sure that you know who will be in the conversation ahead of time, so you can understand the context and adjust your story appropriately.
  • Remember that your team members and colleagues are your audience, too, and work on building an ensemble together.
  • Be present in the moment, and pay attention to what is happening right now.
  • Practice, practice, and practice some more.

Once you know your audience, the next step is learning to manage your interaction style in dealing with them. Your interaction style may vary across different audiences or even while telling the story to one audience. For example, my theatre mentor in college was very much a dictator when it came to his definition of being on time, and the consequences for being late were harsh. We were college students, still learning self-discipline, so this made sense. But once we got into rehearsal, he was a creative artist working with us. He was truly a master of moderating interaction style based on the audience and the context.

If all else fails, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard or followed, when it comes to dealing with people, is that reflecting others’ interaction or personality style works the best in getting them to trust you and engage with you. People respond well to sameness. This makes them feel relaxed, which helps them to open up. Showing that you understand and empathize with their situation by restating your understanding of what they’ve said and what you’ve seen will ensure that you can communicate well with each other.

Putting my knowledge of the audience to work, my deliverables have changed over time, as I came to understand my current team. For instance, I know our developers like to see interactions, so for complicated flows, a clickable PDF works better for them than static wireframes with annotations. In contrast, the business analysts love it when we document our designs by creating static wireframes and annotations. The product managers, however, prefer high-level details, so creating quick screenshots and pointing out some highlights works for them. And customers just want to see what you have. Contrary to common belief, customers can handle rough ideas and partially working prototypes, and they’ll be excited if they feel that they’re getting a sneak peak.

Give each audience what they need and watch how fast the conversation moves forward. The extra time that you spend on different variations of your deliverables is nothing in comparison to the time you’ll save by avoiding churning because you’ve left too many things unclear for the audience. And, when everyone has the same shared understanding, this ensures that you’ll keep your vision intact!

Tell a Story

Did you know that the original versions of many fairy tales were more like horror stories? They certainly didn’t end with “and they all lived happily ever after.” Fairy tales were intended to teach a lesson about some moral or expected behavioral norm in a culture. They had to grab the audience in a way that got the point across and that they wouldn’t forget.

A story that communicates at that level is emotional and visceral. It grabs you in a way that effects change from the status quo. That should be the ultimate goal of any story that is worth telling. To achieve this, a story must fully comprehend the necessary building blocks of a story: the context, spine, and structure.

The context sets the tone for the entire story. This is where we explain our theme or setting, set a mood that includes rhythm and pace, and reflect our audience appropriately. In essence, it is the emotional and sensorial aspects of the story that people respond to. Sadly, this is what UX professionals sometimes spend the least time on up front, during our process, and this is where we differ too much from directors.

The spine is just what it sounds like—the backbone of the story—and includes the plot or who, what, and where; the character details; and climaxes or high points. These are the basics and lay the foundation upon which all else gets built. They need to be specific, articulate, and individual. If the spine is solid, your story is free to move around fluidly and flex its muscles.

Finally, structure comes from our supporting materials, including patterns for things like page types, components, or even sounds that help you maintain consistency, provide technical infrastructure, and establish the through-line or the story goals and resolutions. We may never see these things in the story or the design, but without them, we could never successfully tell our stories.

By defining and fulfilling the key components of each block, you ensure that your story is compelling. When you do this, you gain buy-in because people feel like they’re connected and understand the story and vision. You also create a sense of enthusiasm that draws people in and helps the story to spread virally.

If you want real-world proof that a compelling story is the strongest motivator, here it is: I’ve gotten significantly better response to the findings of usability testing now that I make their presentation visual—or even somewhat humorous. I take key points and find engaging imagery to explain them. This works well for product management. Then, I use screenshots to point out the particulars about what worked and what didn’t work. This works well for Development and QA. Now, I’m no longer the only one who cares about making changes based on this feedback, because my stories compel others to care, too.

Moving Your Focus Beyond the Design

I’m not saying that I don’t create wireframes anymore—I do. What I’ve learned, though, is that wireframes are not the be all and end all. They are just a tool—and only one of many tools that help us to successfully facilitate and tell the design story.

When I focus on the roles of the design storyteller and the vision facilitator, my designs turn out better in the end because they communicate the vision articulately, are relevant to users, and the organization buys into them. When you forget about the design as the end product and focus on Design, the process, the pieces fall into place for a truly sensational user experience design. 

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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