Theatre and Tech in conversation: Stanislavski and UX Design

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for months. I was inspired to finish it today when I stumbled upon a interview with Jon Wiley (below), a Lead Designer at Google. Wiley, once a professional improv comedy actor, articulates the relationship between Theatre and UX design that I've been toying with. 

I’ve had the privilege of working with and learning from some brilliant UX designers at AKQA over the past few months. There is an ethos at play among the best minds in the UX discipline that reminds me of my adventures in the Theatre. 

Jim Zidar, one of the most talented thespians and directors I’ve had the privilege of learning from, introduced me to 'Stanislavski’s system'. This acting methodology is comprised of set of techniques codified by its namesake, the great 19th century Russian actor and director, Constantin Stanislavski

The system has three elements at its core: (1) 'The Magic if', (2) Motivation and (3) Objective. These are analogous to the process of discovery that a UX designer undertakes.

The “Magic If”

The "magic if" is a line of questioning that allows an actor to escape the reality they are living and insert themselves into another. It is an exercise in imagination which answers questions along the lines of, “What if you found yourself in this situation? How would you behave? How would you feel?” 

The UX designer faces a similar task. As one UX designer on my team put it, 'You are an architect, sitting in one building, while designing another. You must design a building with many of the amenities of the one you are sitting in while avoiding the temptation to replicate the one you're sitting in. The client needs a better building, but the light switches need to stay by the door.' 

In re-designing an existing system for instance, a designer might think, "I am not attached to how the system currently works. But what if I'd been using the system for years? What metaphors and mechanisms do I expect? Which ones must be replicated to create continuity of experience? The current system allows a user to accomplish this objective this way, but what if we re-order the steps in the task or automate them?"


Motivation refers to the practice of analyzing the underpinnings of every action and line of dialogue. The actor must look beyond a given movement or articulation and construct a picture of the inner life of the character. This is accomplished by searching out clues in past actions of a character and putting together a narrative of self, a presiding emotional logic that is consistent across actions.

This is an exercise that parallels the approach of the empathetic designer. To get to the motivations of a user, a UX designer looks beyond a given user action to develop a useful theory of motivation that allows them to guess at how a user might behave in a new interface. This often involves sitting with a user and observing how they work generally, and how they complete the sorts of task your solution will need to accommodate. It can also be done through eye tracking and other more analytical tools.

Great UX designers understand that interacting with an interface is an emotional experience. Users are motivated by curiosity, frustration, time pressure, familiarity, comfort, esthetic pleasure, accomplishment, uncertainty etc…

This crystallized for me while working on a call center interface recently for a major apparel manufacturer and retailer. Sitting six inches from the agent, I could see when they clenched their jaws, when they cursed under their breath, when they banged on the keyboard because something just didn’t work as expected, even when it did work as designed. 

It takes very little interaction for a human being to start to ascribe human-like characteristics to a technological object or interface. The question, then, is, “If my application is a person, what kind of person is it? Is it stubborn or cooperative? Honest or deceitful? Is my application an ass?” A user forms a relationship with an interface and every action becomes emotionally charged, reflecting the state of that relationship and a user's emotional disposition towards the world more broadly.


The objective refers to a goal that a character wants to achieve. The actor must ask, “What does my character want?” Objectives, in contrast to motivations, are action oriented and externally facing. Stanislavski conceives of different orders of objective dubbed “units”, “bits” and “beats”. 

An actor discovers the character’s objective in any given scene. This objective, the “unit”, could be something like “to reach the front of the buffet line”. The bits and beats are smaller goals that support the overarching “unit” of the scene. The super-objective represents a character’s ultimate goal through the entire play, say “besting an enemy”, and is the connective tissues between “units”.

In capturing and building to user stories, the UX designer creates interfaces that accommodate the user’s objectives. He or she asks the question, “What does the user want?” “Units”, “beats” and “bits” are analogous to steps within a user flow while the super-objective ties it all together. 

The super-objective might be, “the user wants to purchase a pair of shoes.” The “units” could be pages in a user flow. On the first page a user searches for a product, on the next they view the products details, on the third they buy the product etc… The “bits” are the actions that a user must take, like inputting fields or selecting from a set of options, to accomplish the goal of one page in a flow and advance to the next. 

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