Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Columbia College Project- Scenarios+Theatre

The Columbia College Project – using theatre/improve to visualize, and empathize with users prior to scenario development
Byron Stewart, Raphael D’Amico, Kevin Henry

Theatre and improvisation techniques have been used at various stages of the design process with much success (Sato and Salvador 1999) (Howard and Carroll 2002). Research has shown that theatre and improv help to create better, more evocative models of the world, which leads to a better foundation for idea generation. Instead of just coldly describing, designers can step into the shoes of – to embody – the user. Many idea generation techniques suffer from two problems: they aren’t connected to research; the ideas are vague and not concrete enough to build off/evaluate. Using theatre/improv techniques can address these two issues. Ideas become more connected to research because designers spend time embodying the user before they begin idea generation, which grounds them in the user’s reality. This is more fun and perhaps more natural than more structured techniques. For example, imagine making a grid where each row is a persona and each column is an ‘insight’ from research, and grinding out ideas for each interaction. You end up with pretty huge matrices when you do that, which can suck the energy out of the room. Instead of being the drudgery of filling out matrices, the process becomes the joy of discovery. Ideas become more concrete because you are forced to act them out. Prototyping doesn’t get quicker and cheaper than that. In design, there is a core cycle of generate ideas> evaluate ideas> generate more ideas etc...

Acting out makes that cycle richer because ideas go from abstract to more concrete.

DD+D’s goal for the Columbia College Project was to bring theatre/improv techniques to a Digital Presentation class of 11 second and third year product design students. We wanted to show that using theatre/improv techniques in the development of scenarios would help students empathize with and visualize potential users. That it would help to bring their research to life and allow the students to step into the shoes of key stakeholders they were designing for. Building on the past experiences of Howard and Carroll and others, we developed a theatre-based curriculum for a four hour pilot class.

The students were given a fictional design brief. Their assignment was to produce a final video presentation based on the needs of their fictional client.

The students were to use the theatre-based class as a problem finding session rather than a problem solving session. Students were to work collaboratively to define parameters, brainstorm, act out, develop specific user profiles, situations or scenarios, and work through potential problems as a discovery process. The first round of the assigned scenarios would be developed out of this process and then progressively refined over the remainder of the semester. Our focus would be on the students creating a very detailed and compelling (but short – 3-5 minute) video/scenario by the end of the semester that might encompass the problem and solution or focus only on the solution(s). DD+D was commissioned to facilitate one four-hour class for this project However, DD+D and its partner would attend and participate in the majority of classes during the project.

DD+D partnered with a Master of Design student from the Institute of Design IIT (ID/IIT) to create the curriculum for the class and to co-facilitate the class with DD+D and the class instructor. DD+D has a history of applying theatre in various disciples including design. DD+D wanted to bring in a partner with a background primarily in design and with a passion for theatre to combine both sets of knowledge to create the curriculum for this class. We wanted to show students that these techniques work and that designers have used them successfully.

This paper reviews the curriculum and outcomes of the class project.

The student’s design brief stated:
The age at which younger users acquire their first mobile devices continues to drop for a variety of reasons- many of which are connected. Tweens are asking for devices sooner because they see their older siblings and parents using them all the time. Parents also increasingly see advantages to having their children be ‘connected’ especially in urban environments. Parents see the technology as a kind of introduction- a rite of passage. They personally want to introduce it to their children as a learning and trust building opportunity while seeing the direct benefits for helping them navigate complex urban lives. The reality is that some tweens will be ready and many will not be, resulting in lost phones, high bills, and irresponsibility.

The Schaumburg-based company Motorola is interested in exploring this emerging market niche to develop use-scenarios that would help steer them in the right direction should they decide to develop a possible ‘tween’ phone. The company is interested in the perspective of all the potential stakeholders (child, parent, teacher, care provider) and finds it challenging to envision the rich opportunities of such a device. For this reason the design managers at Motorola are seeking creative ideas (scenarios) to help visualize (envision) existing problems (problem finding) related to all stakeholders as well as the potential opportunities (problem solving) for this potentially rich market. What they need for their team of designers, engineers, and programmers is compelling visualizations that help define the various personas, problems, and opportunities specifically in diverse urban markets.

The Curriculum
The Project Introduction Class

The students were given an overview of their final assignment for the semester, not including the design brief, by their instructor. They were shown a video example of a similar project produced by Allen Cooper of Cooper’s Product Design and Strategy Inc., their Stratus Air project. There was then an introduction to DD+D and how we’ve used theatre to help designers visualize, ideate around, and empathize with users, and that we would be working with them on this project. They were also shown a portion of a Bodystorming video that DD+D facilitated for a corporate client.

This introduction to the project was 20mins. in length and happened a week prior to the four hour class. What follows is a description of the four hour class.

PART ONE: Re-introductions and Context

At the top of the class. the design student from ID/IIT shared his background as a designer who discovered the benefits of improv in his work. DD+D’s focus in the Intro class was from a theatre to design perceptive. The ID student’s intro was from a design to theatre perspective, representing the point of view of students in the class. After the ID student’s intro we reviewed the agenda for the class. We then showed the final video from the Chicago Service Jam, in which both the facilitators and the class instructor had participated. The service design Jam brought together various types of designers to work on a service design solution based on a global theme. The designers, at the Jam, had 48hrs. to complete this task. Theatre/improv exercises were used to prepare teams for brainstorming (Gerber 2009) and as a prototyping method during the Jam. We wanted to show the students that theatre/improv can be an effective tool when time is a constraint. And to reinforce that professional designers use the techniques. The students had the two months remaining in the semester to complete this class assignment.
Next, we introduced a theatre+design timeline with examples of how these techniques have been used over the years by designers, clients and users to achieve deeper understanding of design problems and solutions. We wanted to show the history of this work, to place it in the historical context of the design field, and to encourage students to do follow-up reading on the research of the past. Different key examples were pointed out from the timeline. (One of the examples given was Patricia Moore’s work in immersion.) We also covered the changes in the design field of late, looking at the trend from product to interaction to service and how this trend requires new prototyping methods including theatre.

PART TWO: Getting In Touch with People (and Problems)

In preparation for the class students were given the above design brief, broken into teams and asked to do primary and secondary research on the stakeholders described in the brief. They were to bring in their research in the form of personas. In class, each team had five minutes to report back their findings and present their personas. The goal was to develop an initial sense of key stakeholders, identify high level insights and problem areas. The students were coached by the facilitators and their instructor to flesh-out their persona’s motivations, biographical details and context as they reported. As the teams reported back, the main insights from their data were captured on whiteboards. Their insights were depicted through drawings, sketches, and words allowing students to visualize all their findings as a group. Patterns in the findings were discussed and highlighted through the drawings.

PART THREE: Stepping Into Their Shoes

We then rearranged the classroom to allow space for movement and acting. The goal of this section of the class was to help the students start to embody and empathize with key stakeholders, and to lower their inhibitions. Students were taken through a series of warm-up exercises that actors use to prepare their minds and bodies for acting. We then moved to theatre–based embodiment exercises to help the students to put the emotion of their personas in their bodies in prep for the scene work to come. The first scenes that were performed revolved around problem situations similar to the ones identified in their research. They were also coached during the scenes; asked about their character’s behavior, motivations, and feelings in the moment, all in an attempt to establish a deeper empathy and understanding of the characters and the context.

PART FOUR: The Scene

Students were then broken into two groups to brainstorm and write a day in the life scenario that they would then play back in a five minute scene. The goal was to use the perspectives of their personas to write a scene that captured the communication breakdowns and opportunities that Motorola could address. Once an idea was chosen, each student was to pick a key stakeholder to embody during the scene development process. Facilitators were to help students pick and stick with these choices. One student would be the narrator, to help glue the scene together and tell the story.

PART FIVE: Curtain Up!

Students performed their scenarios, and critique/class discussion followed including next steps. Students were asked to reflect on the experience as they worked on their assigned scenarios for the next class.


Will be coming sooon!