Theater and usability Matt 18 Jul 2005

12 comments Latest by alex

Adaptive Path’s Peter Merholz recently interviewed UIE’s Jared Spool about user research. Jared discusses why he likes working with people who have a background in theater:

Theater, particularly live theater, as opposed to film for example, is a process where you iterate, you see what works, you try it in rehearsal, and then you make changes, and then you try it again. So theater people inherently understand vast iterations, and moving toward an objective.

Related: Ryan recently discussed the value of taking a “zeroing-in” iterative approach in his post on all the Backpacks that weren’t.

Here’s more from Jared on why he likes theater types:

Theater is also very much about an experience, so quality theater people understand the experience design in that regard, and they understand elements of the user design, such as the illusion, and subtlety, and the back-channel communication sort of stuff. Theater people all know how to work on a deadline because the curtain goes up at eight, and so you either have everything in place when the curtain goes up or you just make stuff up, but the curtain is going to go up. Theater people also understand the difference between on stage and backstage, which in a consulting practice or a research business is actually very important.

12 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Ed 18 Jul 05

Jared makes some great points about theater people. What he neglects is that much of theater comes together at the last minute, something that can be very frustrating for a project manager looking to have each iteration due on its set date. While they understand the ultimate deadline, they may view milestones as flexible.

ek 18 Jul 05

Maybe I just got up on the wrong side of bed, but this seems really, really stupid.

So theatre people are the only people who get deadlines? And the only people who understand the difference between front of the house and back of the house? And the only people who understand iterative development (as if in film there’s no such thing as editing?)?

Pardon my bluntness, but this seems to me to be just another dumb oversimplification from the Web cognoscente, which, I must admit, seems really good at coming up with dumb oversimplifications for a group that hasn’t been around all that long.

There are smart theater people and dumb theater people (having sat through music theory classes with quite a few musical theater students while in college, I can assure you that there are many dumb theater people), just like there are smart accountants and dumb accountants, smart marketers and dumb marketers, smart Web designers and dumb Web designers.

To single out “theater people” as a class as being particularly well-suited to “user design” (whatever that is) is one of the more idiotic things I’ve heard in a little while.

Art Wells 18 Jul 05

It seems to me that performance artists in general would have these virtues. Improvisational artist (like blues musicians, who use iteration as exercise, but do more adaptation to immediate changes, needs, and others’ performance) may be better suited for some challenges.

JohnO 18 Jul 05

In regards to “theatre people”, perhaps the poster should have prefixed “professional” to the group. Like you said, you’ve met stupid theatre *students*. But I bet anyone who runs a full-time theatre company on or off-Broadway wasn’t one of those stupid theatre students.

While this community might make over-generalisations, the attempt is to find a principle, an over-arching theme. Not a hard, fast, rule (which, not consequently, the majority like to have). The only hard and fast rule is: there are no rules.

The poster is simply stating that this profession is aptly positioned to *teach* us all something.

As a side note: theatre has one caveat over film. A films practice iterations are recorded so the best may be chosen. In light of a future change, they do pickups where the process is repeated. However, in theatre, the practices are just that, you have to perform, live, with no (or very few) screw-ups.

Anonymous Coward 18 Jul 05

And theater people throw good parties.

MH 18 Jul 05

“So theatre people are the only people who get deadlines? And the only people who understand the difference between front of the house and back of the house? And the only people who understand iterative development (as if in film thereďż˝s no such thing as editing?)?”

I can’t find the “only” you keep referring to.

Brady Joslin 18 Jul 05

Brenda Laurel wrote a book, Computers as Theatre, about 15 years ago. She had a a background in theatre and moved on to creating computer applications, transferring much of her experience towards improving user experiences. I’ve only skimmed the premise, but found it quite intriguing.

Stuart Willis 19 Jul 05

As someone who works in the film industry I can tell you that the whole filmmaking process is iterative - its just different parts of the process are iterative in different ways.

In the writing stage, you have drafts.

In pre-production, you have the various levels of concept development, as well as more advanced iterations like storyboards and animatics.

In production, your whole shoot is structured around an iterative process: block throughs, technical rehearsals, acting rehearsals, then you shoot takes… at leeast a few teakes… or if you’re insane, like kubrick, close to a hundred takes. Each of those steps is about seeing what works, changing it, adding to it, building to it.

In post, you have the highly structured editorial process of assemble, rough cuts, and fine cuts. You also have the VFX process of sometimes 100 versions of shots before they’re approved. You have the same thing with sound design and mixes… Then you have the DI process!

Sorry to pick up on a minor issue, but it makes me question the validity of his belief. If you’ve ever worked on a film set then you’ll understand the comparisons between film crews and the army.

Stuart Willis 19 Jul 05

Oh yeah, there are even stages BEFORE writing, which are synopsis and treatments… each with their own level of iterations.

Film production is one of the most highly iterative creative processes I know.

Gene 20 Jul 05

I think if you really read what Jared is saying he’s not particularly talking about the iterative aspects of “builing” a movie or a stage performace, but rather the iterative aspect of “performing” the stage act over a series of nights. In movies you do all this iterative work to produce a piece that will be seen by thousands of people in the same manner in theatre you produce a piece that will be seen by thousands of people with many different levels of performance. As much as in theatre you can adapt the performance to what the viewers (ie. visitors) are seeing you can adapt your website based on user input…

Jared Spool 01 Aug 05

I know I’m coming into this a little late, but I think I have some insight into the comments… :)

I said “theatre people” because I was trained as a theatre person. I’ve never made a film nor do I play an instrument. So, I really have no idea how either of those things are done. I apparently misspoke about film and I apologize about that. Ya learn somethin’ new every day.

Gene is correct that I was thinking about the iteration that happens over multiple performances, unlike film, where once it’s cut, it pretty much stays the same, or so I’m told.

I don’t believe I ever said that theatre people are the only people who understand deadlines. I just said that I like theatre people because they understand deadlines, as do many others. (But lots of people I’ve worked with don’t — they fall into the “hey, we have time to do one more thing, right?” trap.)

What’s interesting is that this was a sort-of throw away comment that I made during a 90-minute interview. I was interested to see that Peter & co. apparently found it more interesting than the other things I said, which as a member of the Web cognoscente, I reserve the right to oversimplify. :)