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The Making of a UX Designer

Dramatic Impact

Theater and the creative process of design

A column by Traci Lepore
November 17, 2014

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”—Lao Tzu

My background is in graphic design, and I’m an artist by nature. I learned the basics of user experience on the ground, in the early days. While those experiences gave me the fundamental skills that I needed to do my work, they didn’t make me the empathetic and insightful designer I am today. I firmly believe that it is my training in acting and theater that has given me the ability to be, not just a good UX designer, but also a successful one.

What Theater Has Taught Me

The most successful UX professionals aren’t just good at the basic skills that their profession requires. They are well-rounded, self-aware, empathetic, problem-solving beings. Mastery of these soft skills sets a person apart and makes the difference between being employable and being exceptional.

The thing is: many people haven’t really received training to master these skills. There aren’t that many classes that can teach you these skills. But any person who has trained in theater knows that everything you do in theater helps to foster the development of the whole person. And this is how theater has been the making of me as a UX Designer.

Communication Skills

The biggest lessons I’ve learned about effective communication have centered on making sure that I could always be heard, understood, and as articulate as possible. This has meant learning to modulate my voice and use my breath, as well as how to project and be vocally articulate, so people can hear me properly. I came to theater with a fairly heavy, bad Massachusetts accent, and it’s taken extensive work to fix that issue. Much of my early work in theater focused on listening to my vocal habits so I could change them. Extensive journal writing has taught me how to express and capture my thoughts and feelings.

Today, I work with distributed, global teams on a daily basis. Being able to speak in a voice that is clear and free of a strong accent helps me to make myself understood—regardless of poor phone or virtual-meeting connections or language barriers. Being able to articulate my ideas, thoughts, and designs has helped in gaining buy-in and building strong team dynamics, which are critical to moving the vision of my work forward.

Presentation Skills

Performing has taught me to be comfortable in front of a crowd and how to engage with an audience. I think these are two of the biggest assets that you can have as a presenter. Add the fact that my oratory skills have helped me to work on cutting out the ums and other nervous verbal ticks, and I have a solid foundation for presenting to audiences of all sizes. 

This means that, whether speaking informally in front of my team or to a large group, I can readily explain and present my work. People walk out of my presentations remembering something—and as a presenter, that is the ultimate goal.

Self-esteem

It is important to tell you that, as a child and young adult, I struggled with self-esteem issues and with recognizing my true value. Doing theater has taught me that I have more strength and courage than I had ever realized before. This has made me willing to take risks and put myself out there—even in situations where I feel vulnerable. Successes—and failures, too—in various endeavors have taught me that I do have value and that my ideas should be heard.

In a professional world that seeks the Holy Grail called innovation, having self-esteem is absolutely necessary. Without risk, there is no reward. A willingness to think outside the box and stand up for your ideas are key components of actually being able to realize the goal of innovation that we seek.

Empathy

Being a good actor requires interpersonal and intrapersonal awareness. Many acting exercises and character development techniques focus on these skills. You must know how to read yourself and others with whom you are working to make magic happen on stage. Being aware of your mental, physical, and emotional states and reactions helps you to connect with characters and bring them to life. Being able to read others helps you to feel what they are feeling and understand what they are thinking. Empathy helps you to understand people and communicate with them effectively, as well as to deal with situations in the moment.

User research is a staple in my bag of UX tricks. Empathy is the most valuable tool that I have and lets me engage with users in a way that yields rich and deep data. It also makes the analysis and outcomes of my research insightful and drives my team toward truly user-centered design.

How to Be a Team Player

Unless you are doing a one-man show, all acting requires collaboration with other actors, directors, stagehands, and crew members. You have to be able to work together to create a cohesive product. Working in theater has taught me how to develop an ensemble—a group of people who can move forward toward a shared goal as a unified force.

UX design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes many people from many disciplines to create the end product. An ability to work successfully with the different disciplines of product development enhances the strength of the end product.

Discipline, Work Ethic, and Commitment

Anyone who has ever done theater will tell you how much work goes into it. You commit to many hours, over days and weeks, to put together a production. And the team is dependent on your honoring that commitment and putting in the effort. Developing characters and producing magic takes discipline and the willingness to continually iterate and refine the work. Not to mention that I learned the discipline of punctuality through theater.

The value of these skills in a professional setting is self-evident. My discipline and commitment are the core reasons why I am respected among my colleagues and by my leaders. I care about my work, and my sense of responsibility shows at all times. My teammates know that they can rely on me.

Flexibility and Creativity

I know that theater may sound like a lot of work to you, and it is. But I can also say that it’s the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything. In doing theater, you can get silly, try out ideas, and laugh when they don’t go well. You learn to let go, get with the flow in the moment, and follow your impulses. You learn how to be creative with minimal resources.

On the other hand, you also learn how to keep calm under pressure, how to stay focused, and how to prevent yourself from getting distracted. When something doesn’t go according to plan, you figure it out—and usually, without any time to really think about it. Of course, these skills are very valuable in a professional setting.

Know Thyself

These soft skills are much harder to learn than the basics of how to execute your job. I don’t think anyone would deny that. Continually improving your soft skills requires constant awareness and hard work. And most important, they require you to truly know yourself, so you can assess where you currently are in developing these skills relative to where you want to be. So don’t be afraid. Give theater a try. It may be the making of you, too!

“To know a species, look at its fears. To know yourself, look at your fears. Fear in itself is not important, but fear stands there and points you in the direction of things that are important. Don’t be afraid of your fears, they’re not there to scare you; they’re there to let you know that something is worth it.”—C. JoyBell C. 

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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