When I first started doing UX research, I was fascinated to see the similarities between persona development in the UX space and character development in the theatre world. I found that the questions you ask yourself in each context are geared toward understanding the same things. In both contexts, you want:
- To find the individual’s goals and motivations.
- To find the reasons behind particular actions and behavior.
- To understand how context influences the individual’s mindset and behavior.
As an actor in a scene, you must constantly ask yourself:
- “Who is my character? What is my character’s background story? What does my character like and dislike?”
- “What is my character’s motivation?”
- “What is my character’s intention behind what they are saying and how they are moving?”
- “What is keeping my character from getting what he/she wants?”
- “What does he/she want in this scene?”
- “Why is he/she saying this line?”
- “How is the outside world affecting the character’s experience?”
- “Why is he/she moving across the room?”
As a designer creating a persona and user flow, you want to ask yourself:
- “Who is my user/persona?”
- “What is my persona’s/user’s background story? What does my persona/user like and dislike?”
- “What is the user’s motivation for using this product/app/website?”
- “Why is the user’s motivated to tap/click this button or go to this page?”
- “What are the challenges the user is facing when trying to achieve his or her goals?”
- “What is the context of use? What around the user is influencing his or her mindset and decisions?”
- “What does the user want? What are the user’s goals and motivations”
Despite the use of different language, you can see that both designers and dramatists work to understand the same elements of a character or person: Context, Motivation, Goals, Intention and Challenges.
Empathy in Design and Theatre
These questions help the actor and designer be empathetic, meaning they help you put yourself in the shoes of the character or user in a general sense, as well as in a particular moment of existence. For acting, this might seem obvious because you are trying to become that character in order to create an authentic experience for your audience. As a designer you are also trying to create an authentic experience for your users. Therefore, it can be very helpful to try and become your user so you can experience your product through the eyes of the user.
Theatre as an Analogous Experience
To UX design, I believe theatre (and film for that matter) can be thought of as an analogous experience. An analogy is an associative process that allows you to transfer meaning from one subject to another. In this case, character work and persona/user characterization and generation have different overall purposes in mind, but share similar goals, challenges, and methods of exploration.
For example, a good persona is not just a list of data points that pertain to your product, but includes pieces that make up a real person, such as a backstory and specifics about the persona’s life. For example, you might include whether or not the persona has pets and the activities the persona likes to do in his or her spare time. These details help bring your persona to life in order to help you design for real people. The same goes for character work. In a film or play, you must look at your character as if they have a life outside of what is going on in the performance. Making up a backstory, exploring their physicality (how they walk, talk and move), as well as other other aspects of their personality helps you as an actor make your performance more convincing and your character more life-like. Doing so creates a more authentic experience for your audience.
Theatre is the Exploration of the Human Experience
Theatre is art. Art is about understanding and shaping the human experience and user experience design is about shaping the experience of a user. The dramatist in particular focuses on understanding the psychological and physical aspects of the human experience. Therefore, designers can learn a lot from the dramatist about shaping the human experience.
Analogous experiences can help shed light on our own processes, frameworks and understandings. How can we learn from the long developed techniques and frameworks from the theatre world and apply them to our design processes? For example, we as designers must create a distinct world for our users and dramatists do that very well. What do the best dramatists do to teleport you into another world and frame of mind?
Talk to an actor or director. Read about character development. Choose a monologue and create a backstory and personality for your character. See how it helps you ‘get into character’ and see how it changes your world-view.