What acting exercises can teach UX designers about user centred problem framing

Theatre and digital product design

In a previous life, I spent countless hours watching, making and learning about theatre. I also now take acting classes as a hobby (and in Spanish). Before starting out in design, I never thought any of this knowledge would be useful in digital product design. Theatre and the digital world are inherently different mediums. Yet, their aim is the same - to create an experience for its audience (users). People are at the core of both. Without users, digital products aren’t needed. Without an audience, theatre doesn’t exist.

Empathy and a deep understanding of people and their motivations is needed to create successful experiences on stage and digitally. Bad design is often due to a lack of empathy for who you’re designing for. Good problem framing is at the very start of exploring and defining the who you’re designing for.

You’re probably asking, what do theatre and acting methods have to do with problem framing in digital product design?

Problem framing methods = tools for getting to the core of users’ and businesses’ needs and problems.

Acting methods = tools for understanding and recreating a character’s needs in a clear way for an audience.

Good problem framing helps to define boundaries and give focus to a product. It helps you make better decisio

Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”

Does this mean that the core problem was that horses are slow? Not quite, the core problem (for people) was that they needed a way to get from A to B, faster. Ford wouldn’t have reached this conclusion, or his inventions, without people at the core of his process.

What is problem framing?

Digital product problem framing is about creating a shared understanding of the root problem you’re trying to solve and who you’re solving it for. In a nutshell, understanding your users. Not unlike theatre, which aims to create a shared understanding of a character and story (or experience) between performers and an audience. It’s also about reframing what is already known about the problem or experience to help uncover the gaps to explore further. It ensures you’re trying to solve the right problem.

Discover and observe

Where do you start? Start with empathy. Learn about your problem. Observe and listen to your users. Konstantin Stanislavksi, arguably the father of modern (realist) acting, in one of his exercises, would ask his actors to answer 7 questions about their characters to help them into their character’s shoes.

How can you put yourself in your user’s shoes? Find out their motivations and what their environment is like and you’re a little bit closer to finding out.

Start by answering the “5 W’s”: Who? What? When? Where? Why?

What can you learn about the problem you’re solving? Why is it a problem in the first place? Who is it a problem for? Does it occur in a specific place or time?

In digital product design you can start with user interviews and surveys. Or go as far as observing your users in the real-world context of the problem you’re trying to solve. Do some competitive research and analysis to understand what’s already in the market - is there a trend that you need to follow (or not follow)?

An important exercise is to go through the assumptions you’re making. In theatre, you can use Stanislavski's Given Circumstances - an exercise that helps actors go through what they can deduce or know for a fact from the text they’re working from.

Take for example Romeo and Juliet. We know for certain that Romeo is a Montague and Juliet a Capulet and that their families are enemies. These facts inform an actor’s work in relation to how characters interact with each other.

In digital product design, what are the assumptions you’re making about your users, your business and technology? List them out so that you can research and test them.

In theatre, you’d get up and try out that scene or that particular line with those assumptions in mind. In digital product design, you do exactly the same: sketch out ideas, test them by showing them to users. Rehearse and iterate on those ideas.

Why not try improv’s Yes and… rule to dig a little deeper? For example:

“Our users are freelance parents. Yes and….they live in Manchester. Yes and… they often work from home. Yes and...they like to have a quiet place to hold meetings…”

You get the idea! All this helps you to listen, observe and collate all the information you’re gathering about your users.

Reflect and align

With a clearer idea of your character and user in mind, map out your user’s journey to understand the wider context.

In theatre, you’d start to map out the character’s individual and overarching scene and overall play aims. Stanislavski asks you to look at your character’s journey by uncovering the Objective and Superobjective. An objective is the goal a character wants to achieve. A Superobjective is the overarching goal of the play. Romeo’s Superobjective may be ‘to find someone to give himself to: his soul mate’. His Objective when meeting Juliet under her balcony may be ‘to impress her’.

In design - you can build a user persona and go into detail about their journey by creating an experience map. Anything that helps you gain a better understanding of your users and their environment, needs and goals.

Clarify and define

You’ve gathered and sorted through everything you know and don’t know about your users and characters. The next step is to clarify and define your user’s problem.

In theatre, you’d just start to define your character’s movements, block out where you as an actor move and what you as your character do onstage.

In design, one of the final stages of problem-framing is to have something defined and written down that everyone can see. Again, this is part of creating that shared understanding.

One of the ways of doing this is to write down problem statements. There are a multitude of ways to phrase these. Here are a few that we’ve found useful:

  • I am (persona) trying to (verb) but (barrier) because (cause) which makes me feel (emotional reaction).
  • (Persona) needs a way to (user’s need) because (insight).
  • Our (who) has the problem that (what) when (where). Our solution should deliver (why).

Write them out, print them out, slack them to everyone - whatever you do just make sure you circulate them! They’ll only be useful if they’re used by everyone.

Another exercise we’ve found useful to do with early-stage startups is to craft a mission statement. Do this together with all the stakeholders involved. It’s a great way to align everyone in just a few sentences. MoMa’s (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) is a great example:

“To collect, preserve, study, exhibit and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards.”

Remind me again, why problem framing?

Problem framing is such an important part of any design process. Look for alternative inspiration like I did with theatre!

Theatre-making or ritual is one of the oldest forms of collective experience making and collective problem solving (or ‘design thinking’). From a way to keep records of stories and experiences alive to Greek theatre and the birth of democracy, and to contemporary performance, at its core, theatre goes through similar design stages to any artform.

Like theatre, in digital design there are many different methods for problem framing or exploring a particular experience. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. If you remember the main aim, which is to understand and solve your users’ problems, then you can’t go too wrong with whatever exploration method you choose. Problem framing isn’t only an exercise for the design team - everyone involved in a product should be feeding into it. The results of problem framing should feed back into the strategy and overall mission of the product.

Want to create great products? Take the time to frame your product’s real-world problem. Designing products for people should be the start of any design process.

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