"Yes, and" the Improv of UX
Long before I was a UX nerd at The Nerdery, I was a theater nerd. Acting was the only activity that stuck with me when I was a kid, and I acted all the way through high school and college, where I became a theater major. After college, I returned to my old high school and directed productions there for five years. Shortly after that, I transitioned into graphic design, which ultimately led to my current career in UX design.
As I learned more about UX design, I quickly realized how much of my theater training carried over. In the same way that I studied people and characters to prepare for roles, I’ve learned to study users as a UX designer. I discovered that my stage training could even help me better prepare for presenting in workshops and facilitating great interpersonal communication with stakeholders.
ACT I: The Possibilities of Yes
When thinking about the similarities between theater and UX, I remembered the training I had in improv—a form of theater in which the action is created in the moment, as the scene unfolds. The actors don’t use a prewritten script but instead work together to build the story line and the characters. Improv requires actors to be adaptable and flexible and to trust each other fully.
The fundamental tenet of improv is a concept known as “Yes, and”—meaning an actor accepts whatever is given to her by her fellow actor, at face value, without changing it, negating it, or disagreeing with it. She then turns around and adds something of value to what she was given. In an improv scene, this is how an actor creates stimulating action. If an actor were to enter a scene using her hands to emulate holding a gun saying “Stick ‘em up!" and her scene partner said, “You’re not holding a gun, those are just your hands,” then the action of the scene has come to a halt. The first actor doesn’t know where to go from that point. But when actors employ this technique successfully, it means anything goes. The possibilities of the scene are endless. The actors have complete freedom to create, explore, and allow themselves to be surprised by the moment.
ACT II: The Move to Action
This principle of “Yes, and” has a lot of value for what we do as UX designers. Since theater is about action, I want to use four action words to explain the benefits of applying this concept to UX design.
As UX designers, we don’t always know what we are going to be given, and we aren’t always in control of the situations we face. We might find the constraints of a project have changed, the client makes a request we weren’t expecting, or we have to anticipate what the user will think when they use our product. Whatever the situation may be, we have to be able to adapt to the circumstance, which often requires quick reaction and decision-making. During an improv scene, an actor may anticipate her fellow actor will say one thing, when in fact that actor does another. The first actor has to be ready to react and go with whatever her scene partner gives her. This idea is similar to a game of catch. You have to be prepared to catch whatever kind of ball comes your direction; otherwise there’s a chance you could get hit in the face. Saying “Yes, and” in difficult and unexpected circumstances allows us to remain flexible and ready to catch anything that may be thrown our way.
Just as active listening is crucial to the success of an improv scene, it is crucial that UX designers listen to their users, their clients, and each other. Truly listening to what someone else has to say means that we aren’t talking. We are forced to be silent and allow the unique perceptions of our teammates, users, or clients be heard. This is often easier said than done! We may have preconceived notions about what someone is going to say. “Yes, and” requires us to listen to the contributions of others, which in turn forces us to let go of what we think we know and accept whatever is brought to us. This leaves us open to the opportunity for surprise.
Actors must also trust one another if they are to create meaningful action in a scene. UX designers must trust both one another and the client to create a meaningful product for their users. Collaboration builds trust and facilitates a meaningful sharing of ideas in a safe environment. It’s a natural human desire to want our opinions and ideas to be heard and given weight, but sometimes we force our opinions and ideas to be the only ones that are heard. Using “Yes, and” as a collaborative tool allows us to let go of our own egos, perspectives, and ideas and allows us to accept the unique contributions of others on our team. When members of the team feel their ideas are valued and respected, they begin to openly contribute in more productive and valuable ways. “Yes, and” allows every idea to be a possibility.
The idea behind improv is that the actors suspend their judgment to create something of value for themselves and for the audience with whom they share the scene. “Yes, and” gives actors the freedom to do this. If we say “Yes, and” to ideas as they are given to us, we establish an environment where those around us are not afraid of failure. We have opened up the opportunity for full creative potential. The creation and ideation process becomes one where ideas flow uninhibited without the fear of being turned away or judged. Every idea is collected and becomes an option and a starting point, with filtering of ideas coming at a later time. It allows us to suspend judgment and be surprised at the offers we may receive during this process.
All this is well and good, you may say, but what if I am given a bad idea, or an idea that I just don’t like or don’t want to say “yes” to? Surely, “Yes, and” doesn’t work in these types of situations. On the contrary, I believe this kind of situation presents a great opportunity. You can affirm someone’s offer without necessarily agreeing with what was said but add value by taking a different approach or by building on what you were given. Using “Yes, and” does not extinguish the creative spark someone might have, but rather it promotes continual creative thinking.
ACT III: The Challenge
Whether you are a UX designer or not, I’d like to leave you with a two-part challenge of practical action steps that can help you apply the “Yes, and” principle to situations in your life.
Look for opportunities to say yes
Saying “No” is so often a knee-jerk reaction for us. We say “no” because we don’t have time, we don’t like others’ ideas, or we have our own agendas. We often have to make a conscious decision to say “yes.” But if you try saying “yes” in a situation where you might ordinarily have said “no,” you allow yourself to be receptive to possibility. Any possibility. You allow yourself to be surprised by that moment. And, you will find that people are more likely to say “yes” back to you. Look for situations in your personal and work lives where you can turn your quick “no” into a moment of possibility.
How can I add value?
Each of us has a unique set of skills and perspectives to offer. Discover what drives you and what you are passionate about. Saying “yes” to yourself may open up opportunities for adding value that you didn’t expect, tasks you didn’t think you could accomplish, or skills that you didn’t think you had. Don’t just say “yes,” bring your unique contributions to the table and add value in a way that only you can.
ACT IV: The Conclusion
I realize now that the very reason I am in UX design is because I said “yes” to myself. When I first heard about the UX apprenticeship here at The Nerdery, I had a lot of questions. Could I really change my career like this after I was already established? Would I like UX? Would I even be good at it? I’m so glad that I took the chance and said “yes” to myself. I have surprised myself at many points along this journey and have found ways to intersect my passions and past experience with UX design.
While “Yes, and” is the foundation for improv and I primarily discussed how it relates to UX design, I believe this concept can be valuable in many walks of life. If you are reading this, I encourage you to find ways you can apply it to your own life. Challenge yourself to say “Yes, and” and see what kinds of possibilities open up for you, both professionally and personally.
… and scene.
Image of actors courtesy Igor Bulgarin/Shuttershock