Improvisation: a creation spoken or written or composed extemporaneously (without prior preparation)
Last year, I started attending a weekly informal group of improv enthusiasts. We’d spend a few hours in a living room practicing various improv exercises. Occasionally, we’d bring in instructors to help us improve our craft and give us more specific pointers.
As unstructured as improv is by definition, there are a great deal of guidelines and rules that help improv artists. As I learned these rules, I began to think about how many of these would be useful to keep in mind when building and designing a product.
Yes, and …
One of the first “rules” of improv one learns is to always try to stay positive. They call this, “Yes, and” as opposed to, “No, but”. The idea is that it’s easy in an improv scene to take a negative slant to a story and find yourself quickly killing any momentum or flow that the story might have been able to develop. Turning that around is very difficult. Conversely, by staying positive and building up a story, one can introduce conflict and negative energy fairly easily when the time is right. For example, let’s say your improv partner is building up a scene:
Partner: “Would you like a glass of wine?”
You: “I don’t drink wine.”
Partner: “This is our finest from Napa Valley.”
You: “No, thanks.”
You: “I’m not really thirsty.”
“Yes,” confirms another’s statement or at least confirms recognition of it. “And,” offers to build on top of another’s statements. “No,” not only blocks the progress of a discussion, it negates a statement.
It’s not a stretch to see how this applies to design brainstorms or when you are giving or receiving feedback on designs. I often forget this when it comes to design critiques and move too quickly to the “No but” instead of first recognizing the hard work involved, pointing out the positive aspects of a design and building on top of those aspects.
Lesson: Be positive. Build on top of others’ ideas instead of blocking them.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to learn in improv is to allow yourself to lose control. Unless you are extremely talented and experienced, the best way to build a successful scene in improv is to not have anything specific in mind you want to get to. One improv site described everyone’s role well:
You are all supporting actors.
Companies often have a “vision” they want to get to. I’ve certainly been guilty of being so focused on reaching that vision that I lose opportunities to adapt and evolve a design. If you treat yourself as a supporting actor in a large ecosystem rather than the director or lead, you open up yourself to seeing changes and adapting to them. The same can be applied to products – the popular photo sharing site Flickr started as Game Neverending but evolved based on the market and usage.
Lesson: Be willing to throw away your own ideas and adapt to changes from the market, the users, the designers and the technical landscape.
In some improv games when you “lose” you’re required to lose in as dramatic a fashion as possible. The purpose of that exercise is to emphasize the importance of accepting and embracing failure. If you stay safe all the time and don’t step outside of your comfort zone, it will be unlikely that you’ll succeed at improv, nor are you guaranteed to be free of failure.
With improv, it seems that the more you are willing to step from your boundaries, the more chances you have of succeeding. The chances of failure also increase, but not by the same proportion. Most importantly, when you do fail, you embrace it and turn it around to work for you. By doing so, there is no such thing as failure in improv.
To continue to use Flickr as an example, when their site was unexpectedly down due to some storage issues, they made their downtime page a colouring contest which not only displayed their sense of humour but also reinforced their brand.
Lesson: Take risks in the product. Celebrate the failures and learn from them.
Trying Too Hard
The biggest rookie mistake in improv is to try to be funny or clever. Often, the most obvious statements or actions to you are viewed as strokes of genius by others. When you try to be funny or clever, that means you’re not being true to yourself and not doing what comes naturally to you.
While this might seem to contradict the previous point about stepping outside the comfort zone, it actually doesn’t. You can step outside your comfort zone and try different things (like going to improv classes) and still be true to yourself. Companies need to recognize this as well. In an article on Yves Béhar, designer of the Jawbone headset:
Executives often appear at Béhar’s door saying, “We want to be the Apple of our industry.” His response: “Do you have the guts?”
It’s ok for a company not to be an Apple and succeed on elements other than design. Companies that know who they are and what their strengths are fare the best over time.
Lesson: Remember who you and your company are and don’t try to be too clever.
Straight to the Point
Improv scenes are often quite short. Thus it’s important to get straight to the interesting parts of a story when building a scene. From Dan Goldstein’s “How to be a Better Improviser”:
Why have a scene that goes:
“What’s your name?”
“Jim. And what’s yours?”
“Mike. How are you?”
“I’ve got one month to live.”
When you can have a scene that goes:
“Jim, I’ve got one month to live.”
“Let me get you a drink.”
“No, my treat.”
In a presentation about Content Best Practices which I wrote about recently, Luke Wroblewski discussed how providing context was important to any given page because most traffic came from search engines, rather than internally from other pages on the site. To help users orient themselves, it’s important to quickly define “this is the site you’re on”, “here’s what you’re reading”, “here’s some related content.”
Lesson: Get to the point and cut the crap. Why is your user here?
In order to build on top of what others say or do, you have to pay attention. Say your line then shut up and listen—that’s a basic principle of improv. It’s not just about listening though; it’s about observing. What is the person’s body language? What is their intonation? How are they responding? What offers are they giving to advance the scene? Are they saying key words that you can use to build on the story?
The parallel here is simple and well-documented: listen to your peers, your stakeholders and your users. “Yeah, yeah, solicit user feedback, and watch the metrics,” you might say. But are you truly listening? Are you truly paying attention when a person is responding to your product idea? Often, I find myself assuming I know what an audience is going to say before they even say it and later discover that there were subtle yet important distinctions that I completely missed.
This concept applies even at a basic social level. Oftentimes, I’m told that I seem to remember names quite well. Though I still fail to remember many names, I do find that I’ve become much better at it. I attribute this to a conscious effort I made a few years ago to really listen when a person introduces themselves. I think to myself, “Jim. This person’s name is Jim.” The process is silent and takes a few seconds but that few seconds is the difference between paying attention and having it in one ear and out the other.
Lesson: Pay attention. Really, really pay attention. Shut up. Listen. Observe.
… And Scene
Many of these points given are in the “duh” category. However, they’re also in the category of, “easier said than done.” What surprises me is how so many aspects of building a successful product or company are expressed in the art of improv. For this reason, I truly believe that trying out improv on a regular basis and actively thinking about how these skills apply to your role can help you act on these principles. Here’s a few resources I’ve found regarding improv:
- Impro, a book by Keith Johnstone as much about teaching as it is about improv
- Improv Encyclopedia has glossary, exercises and resources
- How to be a Better Improviser by Dan Goldstein
- Learnimprov.com has warm ups, exercises and more
- Improve Training Can Improve Your Trial Skills
- Oprah has the rules of improv explained to her
- Pan Theater’s Rules of Improv Part One and Two