“Taking Improv From The Stage To The Workplace”

Hi Everyone! It’s been a little while but we’re back for another article review. For this week’s blog post I’m reviewing the article:

“Taking Improv From The Stage To The Workplace”

by April Dudash – @AprilDudash for @WorkingAtDuke

As always the articles we review may or may not directly talk about User Experience and that’s OK. What Jim and I will do with our article reviews is pull out the main improvisational themes being talked about. Then we’ll give our perspective/take on those themes and how they relate to and support User Experience.


Article Summary:

The article mentions:

  • Confidence
  • Agreement
  • Attentive Listening
  • Authenticity
  • Adaptability
  • Specifics

The article is short but talks about Improv being used in the Duke Fuqua School of Business, the School of Medicine, and finally the Pratt School of Engineering (where I hope they also teach…Pratt Falls <rim-shot>). I’d call that a pretty wide spectrum of educational areas that all believe that Improv can help their students to be better in their eventual fields of expertise wouldn’t you?

From the list of skills above the article is broken into 3 sections:

  • Specifics are best
  • Be accepting of new ideas
  • Be resilient in the face of ‘No’

The School of Medicine talks about how specifics can help with the diagnosis of patients and bring issues into sharp focus. In the School of Business acceptance and agreement help with keeping an open mind to ideas being presented. And finally for the School of Engineering resilience and agility help to deal with when you hear “no” because not all ideas in real life and business are unconditionally accepted like they are in improv (unfortunately!).


How it relates to Improv:

I believe that some of the things mentioned in the article are a result of Improv’s training (empathy, confidence, resilience and authenticity) while others are skills that Improv specifically teaches (listening, agreement, specifics).


At the start of a scene the improvisers have only a suggestion from the audience (sometimes not even that). The improvisers really have no choice but to agree to the suggestion, it is what it is. However, the suggestion can inspire anything in either improviser. Both improvisers have the chance to get their idea out first. If an improviser doesn’t deliver their opening line first they need to agree to the facts the other improviser puts out there.

It is easier to agree to what is offered when there are specifics given (IMHO).

The line:

“Thank you Tim for getting the Manhattan consumer statistics that showed they’re spending less money so far this Christmas shopping season.”

Is easier to agree to and move forward with than the line:

“Thank you for getting me the numbers.”

The specifics of the first line give the Improviser listening to it a ton of details to work with as opposed to the second line. The ambiguity of the second line opens up the possibility of the second improviser responding in a way the first improviser wasn’t expecting. And then we have miscommunication and possible panic and denial.

Improvisers need to be agile if they don’t get the response they were expecting because miscommunication does happen. Agreement helps with being agile and allows an improviser to pivot in case they need to because they get some unexpected information or idea thrown at them.

Listening is being done throughout the entire process above. And listening is part of it but it’s also paying attention to the body language of your scene partner. How are they standing and saying what they’re saying? Also the improvisers are listening to understand not to respond. Letting a scene partner get their entire line out before responding allows the improviser to fully understand and process what their scene partner is trying to communicate.


How it relates to UX:

Crossing over into UX I’ll start with specifics. Specifics are going to first help and support user research and personas. Trying to build the user personas with specifics will be much more valuable because the different users you’re trying to connect to will be more fully fleshed out. User personas built on really good specifics will let the designers, programmers, business analysts etc. be able to better understand and predict how they’ll interact with an interface. The specifics of the personas would also allow the team to target and bring in actual users that fit the personas so the team can validate their designs through actual testing. And if details and specifics are missing they can update the personas.

Authenticity can come into play when the team interfaces with users. If the team is authentic and empathetic with the users the users are going to be more likely to open up and give honest, valuable feedback. The users will feel valued and appreciated.

Resiliency comes into play because with the Agile and LeanUX processes becoming commonplace there are going to be a lot of revisions to designs. Designers, programmers and the rest of the team are going to have to get used to testing, getting feedback and updating more often. Sometimes that may cause the team’s morale to go down (if they seem to keep missing the mark with their designs).

Improv also teaches improvisers to trust in the process, being OK with not knowing where things are headed. This can translate to the team understanding that the problem is solved when the user can accomplish their task easily and with delight. Until that point is reached the team needs to understand that it’s not about them it’s about the user and they need to keep communicating with them and uncovering what works best. Support their other team members, support the user and eventually by being open and working together the solution will be found.

That’s all for this week!


Yes and,

Mike and Jim

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