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Stanislavski and the Reluctant Stakeholder

by Tracy Brown
7 min read
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Tools employed by a mighty Russian acting coach can also can also be used to ease clients into an empathetic state.

I often reach a point in large project where I wonder why nobody sat the decision makers down at the beginning of the process and really questioned their ability to make empathetic decisions.

By this stage, selective user evidence has been disregarded, mostly because the client cannot relate to the outcomes or the sample of users. These stakeholders have assumed that the advice a team of experts can offer is irrelevant when compared to their own, singular perspective, and the design team is left rolling their eyes and tutting at the basic mistakes being forced through.

This lack of empathy, for both the users and the design team, can create a merely good enough solution where there was potential for a great one—or worse, can kill a project. So before work on a solution with information architects, interaction designers, and content strategists begins—before the iterative user testing phases are planned and the technical solution is discussed—why not try a series of preparatory exercises with your stakeholders?

Enter Stanislavski

There are, or course, many exercises you can use to train a non-empathetic mind, but I’m going to refer back to my major in theatre studies and my old copy of An Actor Prepares. Written by Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and director who focused heavily on the concept of emotional memory, the book was a very influential guide for actors in the 1930s.

Stanislavski felt that actors could only offer a great performance if they really understood the inner emotional life of the characters they were trying to represent. He developed something known as “The System” to help actors get to this point of evolved empathetic insight. I am far from the first UX practitioner to discuss the connection between The System and what we do, and I doubt I’ll be the last.

For example, Traci Lepore has written a number of articles on how Stanislavskian methods can be used to build personas and guide the creative process. Mike Gualtieri recommends using An Actor Prepares in a number of his research papers as well.

I believe Stanislavski’s exercises are also great for demonstrating the value of empathetic understanding to stakeholders, as well as improving our own creative methods.

The Importance of Imagination

Stanislavski often spoke to his actors about the difference between fantasy and imagination. Fantasy, he argued, is about inventing things that will never exist, and imagination is about creating things that can. When his actors tried to decipher the emotional lives of their characters—much like we do when thinking about the experience of our users—they needed to use imagination to answer the when, where, why, and how in a particular scenario.

Luckily, we can create more reliable stories for our personas from data and research, but imagination can still play an important role in developing empathy for users from the outset.

There’s a particular technique he used to make the imagination more constructive called “The Magic If.” Simply put, use “if” to change the circumstance of the when, where, why, and how of a scenario.

Sample exercise:

Start with an example persona and scenario: a young entrepreneur who is accessing a banking site at 7am from her laptop at home before leaving for a client meeting. She wants to check if an invoice has been settled.

Change the “where” by asking, “What if she’s on a bus, accessing the site from a mobile device and reception isn’t very good?” She might still have to navigate through an interstitial advertisement and end up struggling to find the transaction because searching by date isn’t intuitively designed for mobile?

Change the “why” by asking, “What if she needs to print her statement or send it as a PDF to a future investor?” How easy would it be to do that? You can continue along these lines until you have fleshed out as many scenarios as needed, constantly asking, “but what if?”

By taking reluctant stakeholders through this exercise, they will begin to understand the complexity of the task at hand and, hopefully, be less inclined to request changes without thinking them through first.

Stimulate Emotional Memory

Stanislavski encouraged his actors to draw from memories in their own lives when playing out a scene. It wasn’t enough for them to run through a series of actions without relating to how their character would feel in the midst of them. Some of the emotions he gave as examples were hope, doubt, apprehension, panic, and delight. He expected his actors to exhibit these emotions on stage to the level of sincerity they did when experiencing them for real in their past.

Sample exercise:

The best way to achieve a similar response with stakeholders is not to turn this into a therapy session, but to ask them for examples of digital or service experiences they feel something for. Encouraging them to talk about experiences that have inspired positive and negative—as well as mild and dramatic—emotive responses allows them to relive those reactions.

It’s valuable to invite as diverse a group of stakeholders as you can manage into the feedback session, as there is additional value in exposing the reluctant client to a range of opinions in order to illustrate how varied customer perspectives can be.

Break the Experience Down

Something that many clients are consistently shocked by is how task-focused users can be. If a customer arrives at a site to find or do something specific, they are unlikely to be distracted by something unrelated, like a banner promoting a wholly disconnected experience from their task at-hand. To make this clearer we can break a customer’s journey down for stakeholders, using Stanislavski’s units and super objectives exercises.

He created these techniques to help actors to stay close to the characters main (super) objective throughout the performance, while getting them to focus on one unit or mini-objective at a time. The character might have one main objective (getting someone to fall in love with them), but they have to accomplish a number of smaller ones along the way to achieve it (finding out who their rivals are).

Sample exercise:

Determine the main user objective of an experience, such as buying a pair of shoes. What would the units need to be to get the user there? In an online shopping situation, browsing from the homepage would be one unit, so the navigation needs to clearly show how to search for shoes. If a search field is used, the next unit is getting from a page of search results to the right pair of shoes, perhaps with the use of effective filters or a clean layout of results. Do the units distract from the main objective? Do they help the user get to their main objective? Can you get the client to empathize with the customer who is clearly focused on a main objective?

Create “The Unbroken Line”

Stanislavski reminded his actors that the characters they portrayed would have had an unbroken line of events that happed to them before the story began and many events that would continue to happen after it ends—unless the character is killed off! It’s our job to understand this unbroken line of events when we create user stories—something not fully considered by clients when they have their own sales objectives in mind.

Sample exercise:

Ask your clients to choose a brand they have been using for a number of years that they feel particularly attached to. It could be a car, a clothing label, or even a type of mustard. Ask them these kinds of questions:

  • Why did you choose the brand?
  • When was the first time you used it?
  • Who else do you know who likes this brand?
  • Have you discussed it with them or anyone else?
  • Were you influenced by what they had to say?
  • Have you ever investigated other brands?
  • If so, why are you sticking with this one?
  • What advertisements or other media do you remember that promoted this brand?
  • What do you think about their customer service?
  • What do you think of their stores?

What this aims to flesh out is the fact that customers often have emotional connections to brands or experiences based on a number of events outside the control of the client. Unless your clients have adopted a service design methodology, they may have never analyzed this kind of data, making it difficult for them to empathize with their customers as people who exist in a real world.

Return to Evidence

The techniques mentioned above are examples of how Stanislavskian methods can support our UX processes by instilling empathy for the user in the stakeholder at the beginning of a project. They are collaborative exercises with the potential to stimulate thought, and shouldn’t be confused with solid academic analysis or put in place of well-constructed user input sessions.

To date, I have seen that nothing as effective as sharing strong user data with stakeholders when trying to convince them to take one direction or another. A deeper empathetic understanding of user issues often only emerges in full when clients actually watch a session with a real customer giving real opinions. Without sufficient client preparation all that wonderful insight might never materialize or receive the appreciation it deserves.

By opening their minds to the breadth of potential user scenarios from the outset, clients are far more likely to be open to research. With this in mind, fight for more research, choose your research partners carefully, and bring your clients along for the ride.

Image of cheery stakeholder courtesy Shutterstock

post authorTracy Brown

Tracy Brown, Tracy started as a digital designer in London during the late 90's. "It was a great time to start because you had to do so much: graphic design, front end development, content development, Information Architecture etc. The methodologies weren't formalised, and mostly we just had to take chances and figure stuff out as we went. Good old trial and error!" Since then she has worked within agencies, corporate institutions, charities and with small business owners, picking up rich information about users and stakeholders, the creative process and the not so creative process. Her relatively diverse background in creative direction, visual design and front end development makes her a (proud) generalist. "Sometimes I get to work with specialists, working to create intuitive, elegant interfaces and experiences that a business can be proud of and that their customers can enjoy. I help enterprises of all varieties to think about how to create experiences that are useful to their customers before they attempt to make them usable. I am always looking for different tools and methods, with the main aim of helping people to get to the crux."


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