HCI: Humans, Computers, and Improv

HCI: Humans, Computers, and Improv

How could pretending to be at a funeral as a scuba diver with the last spartan* make for better user experience design?


The last few months I’ve been taking improv classes at End Games Improv. I really really love it even though (or especially because) I’m not that good at it (yet). But really, what’s not to love about playing make believe other adults for 3 hours every week? This is a great (sort of long) video about improv as described by one of my favorite teams, Upright Citizen’s Brigade:

The first minute probably explains a lot about why I’m particularly drawn to it. Describing improvisors, they use the words: nerds, not the loudest, asocial or socially awkward, adult children, collaborative people, good listeners, nice, hyper intellectual, goofy, and comedy nerds.

That’s pretty much me though I wouldn’t call myself a comedy nerd (yet). But I would call myself a collaboration nerd. For me, the fact that it’s funny is sort of the awesome end product, but I think the ultimate draw is in this bit at the end of the video:

You make something much better with the group mind that you could never create on your own and I think that’s what you’re always chasing, that high… that magic moment when it happens, it’s very satisfying.

Improv Off-Stage

A lot of people talk about the connection between improv and collaborative group work and that sort of thing. You know, sitting around a table with post it notes and whiteboards doing the “Brainstorming Design Thinking” stuff. Or coming up with story ideas at Pixar. Because obviously it’s helpful if co-workers aren’t always shooting down each other’s ideas and suggestions.

But for me, the fun part is seeing this connection between improv and interaction design. But what is the connection beyond the “yes, and” rule? As I’ve been learning these past few months a good scene involves A LOT MORE than just saying yes to everything, so how can we use these other elements of improv as a frame for creating new experiences?

In this video from 2010, Liz Danzico-Frames: Notes on Improvisation and Design, Liz makes some connections at a kind of higher level. She compares closed systems like classical music and traditional design to emergent systems like jazz and interaction design. Going from closed systems to emergent ones moves from designing artifacts to designing behaviors, from something predetermined to something that exists within the present. But it feels pretty surface level, not really getting too deep on how to actually do it well.

Humans, Computers, and Improv

Let’s look at it in the very specific context of creating a tech product and what might happen if we look at it through the lens of an improv scene. Aside from accepting all offers here are some other tips I try to (but often forget to) remember when I’m in a scene:

  • Be specific & stick to it: What kind of details are in this imaginary space? What makes it unique?
  • Focus on the relationship: How does this other person on stage make me feel? Why do I feel that way about them? What are we doing together?
  • Make your teammates look good: How can I justify their choices? How can I play to their strengths?
  • Make strong character choices: Who am I? What am I motivated by? What am I bringing to the table? How would my character act in a different setting?
  • Find the game: The game or structure to work within gives you something to play off of. What is the pattern? How can expectations be subverted? What’s the weird thing? What happens if that weird thing gets heightened to an absurd level?

Scene 1: Let’s decide what to make and why to make it.

In the first scene we have the business person (playing as the money), the developer (playing as the algorithm), and the designer (playing as the interface) together trying to decide what to build. This is the brainstorming ideation type stuff that I feel like is already covered pretty well in the collaborative team building type of stuff. Accept offers, play nice, remember what you’re bringing to the table, come up with weird ideas.

Scene 2: Let’s design the relationship with the user.

It’s the second scene that’s interesting to me: What happens when the money gets tapped out and the user walks in, so now on stage we have an interface, an algorithm, and an interface? It’s a new experience waiting to be defined. What specific details can make this particular meeting unique? How will the user figure out the game we’ve started trying to play? What relationship will we choose to create between the interface, the algoritm, and the user? Friends? Enemies? Frienemies? How does the tone of our interaction change? As the designer on stage as the interface, how can I make the user look good? Even if they do weird unexpected things, how can I justify their choices? What are algorithms good at? How can I create an opportunity for the algorithm to shine? And what kind of interface am I? What are my motivations? How can I set up this scene so that the next one has something to work with?

Scene 3: Let’s see how people actually play with it.

For social, collaborative, & networked products we need more than one user. So in the third scene the interface disappears and we have a user, an algorithm, and another user. Ideally at this point there’s been enough structure set up by the previous two that the third group understands how to play (and subvert) the game to create something interesting on together. But it’s still important to think about things like how the algorithm can make the users look good and what kind of relationship we want the users to have to each other.

Choose something

I know it’s not a perfect analogy but I’m choosing to start with it. I’m still trying to figure out how these pieces all go together, but I really feel like there’s something in there connecting this way of looking at interaction, whether it’s on stage or on the screen. I’m sure I’ll revisit the idea the more I learn about both improv and interaction design.

Make the interesting choice. Improv is all about choices: you can be anyone, anywhere, anytime. What you shouldn’t be is boring. Go ahead and make choices that are unusual, that are fresh and exciting, that we haven’t seen before. You’ll need conflict, so make a choice with possibilities for strong goals and action. You’ll want to make use of physical comedy, so choose a situation that lets you move around.

-Advice to the players

*yes, this is one of the scenes I was in.

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