Book Review: Computers as Theatre

February 18, 2019

Cover: Computers as TheatreMuch of the literature relating to User Experience focuses on one of just a few key topics: task engineering, users, research, information, or the design or usability of user interfaces. Many portray the experience the user has with a product or service as the outcome of design decisions relating to a user interface—as a metric that we can measure in negative or positive terms. This is somewhat incongruent given both the name of our field and the common mantra: people don’t buy products; they buy experiences.

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Book Specifications

Title: Computers as Theatre

Author: Brenda Laurel

Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Publisher: Addison-Wesley Professional

Published: 2013, Second edition

Pages: 272

ISBN-10: 0321918622

ISBN-13: 978-0321918628

A Novel Approach

Frequently, the most insightful perspectives come from people outside a field. The typical UX book in my collection was written by someone in one of a limited number of professional roles. Authors might have a background in information science or product management. They might be an enlightened engineer or developer. Their experience might be heavy in visual design. They might have transitioned to a UX role, or they might simply have worked in User Experience for most of their career.

Although Brenda Laurel has been active in User Experience for decades, her education and perspective are unique in my collection, and her impact on the field of interaction design has been significant. With a PhD in theatre from Ohio State University and experience with stage performance, Laurel has served in faculty positions at a variety of colleges and universities. Plus, she worked at Atari in the early 1980s, as well as for a variety of technology and video-game development firms. Thus, she has a very rich background in video-game design. When one considers the interaction models and incentives for video games in relation to theatre, the connection seems obvious. This gives Laurel’s book Computers as Theatre its unique perspective.

I mentioned that people buy experiences, not products. This is perhaps most true of theatrical productions and video games. When we attend a performance, we are literally purchasing an experience that takes place over a period of time. The depth and mode of interaction can change, and a certain amount of improvisation is inherent in both theatrical performances and games.

Theatre includes concepts such as dynamic structure, a path that all stories typically take, including exposition, climax, and catharsis. However, we don’t usually discuss such things in experience design. There is also the idea of surprise—again, something UX designers don’t really talk about. Although the idea of delighting the user could come from surprise.

A particularly useful technique for understanding the satisfaction the user takes from an experience is Freytag’s triangle, a method of diagramming the dynamic structure of a story. In User Experience, we discuss user journeys, but I can imagine the use of Freytag’s triangle as a starting point for mapping out user experiences.

Art and Engineering

Often, there is a gap between the ways designers and engineers think about bringing an experience to market. But in a theatrical setting, technology and the artistic performance must be well aligned to produce an engaging experience for an audience. Still, the technology should be invisible to the audience. The performance is front and center.

Throughout her book, Laurel discusses the roles that artists and engineers play. While engineering minds are indispensable in the creation of technology, it is frequently the applications that artists dream up that end up being killer applications for technology companies. While typical engineering approaches are often overly practical, artists see the potential to create what could be. Laurel presents several humorous examples of ill-conceived software ideas that were born from practicality. In contrast, while motion-picture technology was certainly transformative, it was its use in conveying drama and performance that made it attractive to a wide population.

People with an artistic bent embrace intuition so may perceive potential technological developments well ahead of established scientists and engineers. Laurel cites a fascinating example, describing Jackson Pollock’s exploration of fractals before their wider recognition in the 1970s.

Immersive Experiences

Much of our thinking around human interactions is fairly simple—even when an interaction comprises multiple steps. Users have a need. They interact with a tool, and they get a result. However, the reader takes a different understanding from this book. How do we interact in an immersive environment, where the user interface surrounds the user?

The obvious components of theatre are the actors, the producer and director, support staff, technology, and sound. But much as with software and product design, the audience is a critical component of the experience. In theatre, the audience is not passive. The audience’s responses and demeanor have tangible effects on the performances of the actors, as well as other audience members’ perception of the experience. Imagine the performance of a comedy if the audience does not laugh. The audience’s reactions affect the actors—who feel a need to understand why the audience is behaving in a way that is unexpected. Laurel provides a very insightful anecdote that illustrates this point. Some of the best comedy shows I’ve seen are the ones in which a comic deals with a heckler artfully—in the best cases, incorporating the heckler’s gibes in the show.

Laurel’s first edition of this book was released in 1993, when the World Wide Web was about to take off and companies would soon introduce the precursors of virtual reality (VR) online. We are now at a point at which quality VR is affordable, so this updated edition is timely.

Although the obvious application of much of the book’s content is virtual reality—the most theatrical form of user experience—the book is about much more. Its ideas are applicable to voice user interfaces and interactive assistants, or chatbots. I can also see them being useful in service design. Supporting the user’s needs requires resilience and improvisation.


One of the strengths of User Experience as a field is the diversity among the voices of UX professionals and the backgrounds of its practitioners—all of whom practice empathy in their craft. Computers as Theatre brings a unique perspective to the world of User Experience that new UX professionals will find encouraging to and that will be eye-opening to seasoned veterans of the profession. 

Big thanks to Nick Dauchot (@nickuxd) for telling me about this book.

Owner and Principal Consultant at Covalent Studio LLC

Akron, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.  Read More

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