Improv for UX

Utilizing improv techniques to accelerate the Wayfair product team’s ability to ideate and problem solve.

Skills

  • Workshop facilitation
  • Ideation & prototyping
  • Communication and persuasion
  • Team building

Background

Improv theater techniques can strengthen all stages of the design thinking process, from building user empathy to creating product prototypes. Having run numerous workshops in my career, I've seen this value firsthand.

The challenge

Oftentimes people roll their eyes at the thought of icebreakers or improv to start an important meeting. Typically people will start a workshop or meeting with an improv activity that has no actual bearing on what follows and attendees leave the meeting finding the improv to be an uncomfortable waste of precious time.

The key to harnessing the value these techniques provide is understanding what the meeting objective and activities are and selecting an appropriate activity that ladders directly into the meeting activities.

The right tools for the job

There are numerous workshop types and objectives, I've broken down some of my favorite improv activities into a handful of groups based on what you might be looking to do. If you found these helpful, I'd love to hear about it! Let's chat.

Pro tips

Here are a few tips that apply to any of these activities and will set you up for success:

Go first

This first tip might sound terrifying to some, but follow my other tips and you'll be fine. You're likely leading the workshop and participants are looking to you for direction. If you do an example round before everyone else goes, it'll help loosen things up as people can laugh with(at) you and see that it wasn't as challenging as they may have initially thought.

Practice makes perfect

If you've never ran a particular improv activity, it helps to run through it a few times with some friendly faces before the big show. Even if you've run it before, it's still helpful to work out the kinks or familiarize your inside person/people with the activity.

It's an inside job

If you can, connect with a few people prior to the workshop and give them the scoop on the activity you're planning. There may be moments that you need someone to bail you out e.g. asking for volunteers or if you break out into groups for the activity, having someone who knows how the activity is supposed to be run helps these groups from looking at each other wondering what to do since they didn't pay attention to instructions.

Easing people into design thinking

These activities are great for working with a group who may be unfamiliar with one another or folks who might take a little bit to come out of their shell. These helps loosen everyone up and give them a confidence boost to put their thoughts on the table.

8-Count Shake Out

  • Everyone stands up and gets in a circle.
  • Count 1 to 8 whilst shaking your left hand, then right, then left foot, then right.
    • E.g. Left hand shake—”1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8”
    • Right hand shake—”1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8”
    • Then left foot and right foot
  • Follow this sequence again except counting up to 7.
  • Repeat this while decreasing the count by 1 every round until you’re down to zero.

Benefits

  • Shake off nerves—You literally shake out any nerves you have. Similar to power posing.
  • Builds trust—By acting a little silly, it can ease any awkward tension or unfamiliarity with others in the group.

8-Count Shake Out is useful for quickly warming up a group before any workshop.

Business Pitch

  • A group of 5-6 people stand in a line in front of the broader group.
  • The broader group steps forward and asks one question at a time about the team’s business.
    (Tip: Keep these simple. No need to be clever or complicated)
  • One person from the team steps forward to answer. Don’t hesitate! If you have an answer, go for it.
  • Once the question has been answered, the rest of the team very enthusiastically cheers and claps in support.
  • Continue until everyone has answered one question.
  • Run this for a few rounds until most people in the room have had a chance to participate.

Here are a few tips that apply to any of these activities and will set you up for success:

Benefits

  • Taking initiative—By encouraging participants to say the first thing that comes to mind, the notion of having confidence in your ideas is reinforced. This is helpful for people who may normally get drowned out by the bigger voices in the room. The more ideas that are put forth, the greater likelihood of arriving at the strongest idea.
  • Support your team—After every statement, the “audience” and team is encouraged to clap and cheer. This further supports teammates to having confidence in sharing their ideas. If people feel like their ideas will have support, and not be disregarded from the get-go, they will be more likely to give feedback and ideas.
  • Listening—In order to create the best business pitch in this activity, it’s important to listen to what your teammates have already said. This reinforces the importance of listening during meetings and the yes-and mentality. Building on one idea to maximize its potential can be a great exercise.
  • Understanding your role in a team—The exercise limits each teammate to answering only once. This is to help people become aware of the importance of giving others and opportunity to contribute. Be cautious of dominating a conversation, give others an opportunity to build on ideas.

Business Pitch is useful for team building or creative workshops with folks who aren’t typically asked to design things.

Operating in ambiguity & thinking beyond the obvious

These activities are great for warming the brain up when you may need to generate a range of ideas or pushing your thinking beyond the obvious is needed.

5 Things

  • Everyone stands in a circle.
  • One person initiates by pointing at another and asking them to say 5 things as fast as they can based on a category of their choosing: “Five songs you like.”
  • As that person names off each one, the rest of the group will count along, cheering when five have been said.
  • The person who just named off five things will then point to another person and name a new category.

Benefits

  • Rapid idea generation—Encourage speed over cleverness for this activity. Get people warmed up to coming up with lots of ideas in a short period of time.
  • Team building/comfortability—You get to learn a little bit about others in the group and gain some familiarity.
  • Thinking fast—You don’t know when it will be your turn, or what your category will be. Helps practice rolling with the punches, and incorporating new information into ideas.

5 Things is great for workshops that require coming up with a number of ideas or concepts in a short amount of time.

Alternate Uses

  • The point of the game is to see how many different ways someone might use an ordinary item.
  • Get into groups. Each group selects a random, everyday item. If in person, grab blindly from a bag of items. If remote, choose from a list of items provided by the facilitator. Items may include a highlighter, stapler, water bottle, etc.
  • The facilitator will start a timer and each group tries to come up with as many alternative uses for that item as possible. These don’t necessarily have to be super realistic, for example you might use the highlighter as a back-scratcher.
  • One person in the group should write down each idea as it comes up.
  • The goal is to be the group that comes up with the greatest number of ideas.
  • After 3–5 minutes, the facilitator will end the round and bring all the groups back together.
  • Each group will share the total number of ideas they came up with and they have to act out their favorite idea. The group with the greatest number of ideas wins.

Benefits

  • Rapid idea generation—Encourage speed over cleverness for this activity. Get people warmed up to coming up with lots of ideas in a short period of time.
  • Thinking beyond the obvious—The deeper into the round you get, the more you have to stretch your brain to come up with another valid idea. This comes in handy when your workshop benefits from pushing the envelope with your thinking.
  • Team introductions—This activity forces the group to jump in immediately given the time constraint. This “trial by fire” begins building familiarity and camaraderie immediately.

Alternate Uses is great for getting people to start working together quickly and pushing groups to think beyond the obvious solution. This can be great when working with groups who often stick to the first idea that comes to mind and have trouble moving beyond that.

Empathy & alignment

These activities are great when you may be pouring over data or stories about your users. These help warm people up to the notion of putting themselves in others' shoes and thinking user-centered.

1813

  • Get into pairs.
  • In each pair, Person A is from the year 1813 and has no idea about today’s world. Person B is just him/herself.
  • The facilitator chooses a product (or, in more general, a service, or concept) that didn’t exist in the 1800s (e.g. smartphone or car insurance). Person B attempts to explain it to their partner in 3 minutes.
  • Change roles and a new product is chosen. I like to start with something easy like an airplane, then go challenging with something like Twitter. The curveball of Twitter usually generates some laughs.

Benefits

  • Empathy—Forces you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and meet them where they are.
  • Presentation—Challenges you to explain something complex in a succinct manner.

1813 is useful for workshops or activities where there is heavy consideration about a user or persona. Workshops where it’s important to consider specific perspectives.

Lateral thinking & collaborative ideation

These activities are great when the day calls for collaboration on an idea or would benefit from pulling inspiration from unlikely or non-obvious sources.

Hybrid

  • Get into groups of at least 3.
  • 2 people within the group throw out the first word that comes to mind (one word per person). For example "banana" and "rollerskates".
  • The 3rd person then uses those words to come up with a business or product that they pitch to their group members. This idea doesn’t have to be grounded in reality, the idea is to make it up as you go.
  • The words can be used in any order, so banana roller skates, or roller skates banana. Up to the person coming up with idea.
  • This person explains their idea for a few minutes during which their group makes can ask probing questions about the business (e.g. who is your target audience, how will you market this, are there safety regulations to consider, etc.)
  • After a few minutes, switch roles, and use new words.
  • Once a few rounds have been completed, gather back together as the entire group and share favorite/funniest ideas from the activity.

Benefits

  • Don’t let obstacles hamper your ideas—Sometimes when we ideate, we discount an idea because a technology or resource doesn’t exist yet to make it happen. This gives us the freedom to bend reality to what our business needs to thrive.
  • Yes And—We take the two words as a gift and a springboard for an idea. We are “yes and”ing what our group members give us and turn it into a tangible idea.

Hybrid is great for workshops that require collaborative ideation.