Category Archives: culture

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. 

Breastfeeding, Technology and the Symbolism of Progress

Stanford University – Science, Tech & Society Program Commencement – Student Address – June 13th, 2010

A couple of people have asked me to post the address I made at Stanford’s Science, Technology & Society Program commencement ceremony. I do this with some hesitation. Things were incredibly hectic in the days leading up to graduation and I ended up writing the speech, rather hung over, an hour or so before delivering it. That is to say, it’s not my most elegant or elaborated work, but it gets a point or two across I hope.

I’d like to begin by addressing a question to my fellow graduates: By show of hands, who knew coming in to Stanford that they would be an STS major? [only one hand is raised] Obviously, we who knew coming into Stanford that we would study Science, Technology & Society are rather atypical among STS majors.

We are far more typical in the sense that STS represented a disciplinary framework that allowed us, and indeed, required us, to reconcile interests in science and engineering with pursuits in public policy and business and the humanities. In my case, Stanford topped my list of schools precisely because such an interdisciplinary course of study existed.

There was more to it than that, though. I followed in the footsteps of an older brother and sister, who brought the things they’d learned in the their STS courses back to our dinner table in DC. The discussions were lively, colorful and ranged from trivial speculation on the latest gadgets or Internet startups to ruminations on the role of mobile infrastructure in international development and the implications of failures in STEM education to the future of minority communities.

This is to say, even before I came to Stanford, my engagement with STS as a discipline was stimulating, horizon expanding and eminently relevant to people and places I care about. It is no surprise then, that during my time here at Stanford, STS has been more than just an academic discipline, more than just an ivory tower pursuit. It has been personal.

Professor McGinn and many others have encouraged and empowered us not only to understand theories and frameworks in the abstract, but also to engage in a personal sort of inquiry. We were encouraged certainly, to think about lofty questions such as what values are embedded in and engendered by technologies.

But we were also invited to think about the fabric and fibre of our own lives and to be rigorous, deliberate and experimental in deciding which technologies we will use and which we will not, which add richness and variety to our lives, and which have unacceptable costs.

For me, STS has provided principles and insights that will actually inform the way I live my life. It has grown my ethical mind and my ability to recognize nuance and complexity, perspectives and stakeholders. It has taught me to balance exuberance with healthy skepticism and to be lucid about convenient equivalencies – to understand that an email is not a letter, nor an ereader a book nor the human mind a computer.

It has taught me that technology cannot be the chief barometer of human progress, lest we sucomb to the tragic ironies embodied in the fact that food production and prep technologies have created for us the problem of obesity, without solving the problem of hunger; embodied in the fact that technology has increased the variety and abundance of food we can eat, but in many cases degraded its nutritional value.

In our time, the symbolism of progress has become deeply intertwined with science and technology, but we we must not confuse the symbols of progress, for actual progress.

As we go out into the world we must understand that technology will play some part in the way we solve entrenched global problems. But let’s not forget the place of sweat and labor and paradigm change; let’s not forget that the most important endeavors facing us are not technical ones, but rather have to do with expanding and re-drawing our circles of empathy to be ever more inclusive.

As practitioners, if you will, of Science, Technology & Society in the world we must subscribe, in the words of one great public intellectual, to “a sort of blues inflicted hope rather than a cheap American optimism”.

That is to say, we must live the Sensheimer-Baltimore debate – tempering an optimism around technology based in the faith that somehow technology will solve the very problems that it engenders and perpetuates, with an understanding that we and our world are actually delicate and impermanent, that we are constantly threatened by our own genius.

These are some of the things that STS has taught me. But to return to the idea of how STS has not just been lofty and abstract, but also personal – let me share with you in closing, a story that is both deeply personal to me and quintessentially STS.

I am one of eight breastfed children. Bear with me here, I know the mention of breasts discomforts the puritan in every American. You see, in our times, this is a highly unusual occurrence. For over 30 years my mother has counseled mothers and families on the challenges of maternal and early childhood health. Much of her work has been in teaching poor, minority women about the benefits and practices of breastfeeding.

This is pretty bizarre in the sense that, only a generation or so ago, breastfeeding was the primary nutrition for infants. Today, breastfeeding has to be taught and advocated for, even among experts such as pediatric doctors. What happened over the course of one generation that disrupted the transmission of a vital practice which had gone uninterrupted for millennia? The answer, is manufactured infant formula and its lobby.

At a time in American history where the ability to consume manufactured industrial goods became the ultimate measure of upward mobility, nutrient dense and far superior human breast milk was replaced with expensive, manufactured, dairy-derived products. This is a perfect case study for the STS discipline. In this instance a food technology, infant formula, taken as a symbol of progress, won out over actual progress with deep cultural and health repercussions.

And with that story, I leave you. To my fellow graduates, I wish you joy and abundance. To the STS department professors, lecturers and staff, thank you, thank you and thank you. To our parents, families and mentors, thank you, thank you and thank you.

How to blog about social media, gen-y and other buzzwords – a satire

There are certain essential elements which anyone who writes about social media, web 2.0, gen-y, personal branding, careers or closely related subjects should be aware of. They form a canon, a sort of tao, if you will.

Let's begin at the beginning. Well, before the beginning really. Mark Twain once wrote,"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." Start by putting on your clothes. Before you write you must establish your ethos.

This means settling on a good head-shot, coming up with a compelling story around why you're unemployed (referencing "The 4-hour Workweek", of course), deciding what niche you'll be a self-proclaimed expert in and creating a profile on every social media site. With your ethos firmly established, now you may begin to write.

Titles are what really draw people in, so use one or all of the following conventions around title writing. The best is generally "X ways to do Y" (e.g. "5 ways to be inane on twitter while gaining followers"), but sometimes the urgent  call to action like "X things you/your business needs to know in order to do/avoid Y", is a better option (e.g. "5 social media tools every business should use to avoid bringing about the twit-pocalypse").

gen-yAlso, if you are afraid your title is a little too vanilla, throw in a buzz word or two -"social media" or "web 2.0" will usually do just fine. If there is a new mobile media device coming out soon, like an iphone, ipad or netbook, you can use that too, even if it doesn't have much to do with the content of the post (e.g. "5 ways the ipad will revolutionize your love life"). Also, consider adding "2.0" to any noun or verb to make it somehow new, exciting and hip (e.g. "Detroit 2.0" or "Gutter Cleaning 2.0"). 

Then there is the somewhat more trivial matter of content. Try these out as rules of thumb. It's rarely a good idea to write anything longer than 300 words – it makes people's heads hurt, especially if you use big words, like "rigorous". Begin, or end, your post with a common quote or truism like "we all know how important it is to be yourself" or "we can do anything we want if we stick to it long enough" – anything you've seen re-tweeted or on a refrigerator magnet will do. Also, consider a selection from any number of self-help books.

Next, create a list – numbers are better, but bold sub-headings will do. This breaks the post up into chunks telling your readers, "this is a blog and narrative flow has no place here". If you don't have anything to say, that's fine – interview a pseudo celebrity or self-proclaimed expert.

Alternately, share a story or experience about how motivated and smart you are – remember to add in some buzz words (I suggest "personal brand" or "Millennials") to make it topical. Also, add an inspirational take-way or call to action, like "What would you do if you were as beautiful and talented as me?" at the end so as not to seem self-centered.

If you are writing about careers, talk about "passion" and "loving what you do". Be careful not to define concepts too clearly. Also talk about the importance of developing a unique brand and putting yourself out there with social media tools – it's been said before, but you must be brazen enough to say it again.

For posts on the value and potentials of social media, either be exuberant or damning. Do not be nuanced – it might be confused for a lack of an opinionated stance. Alternatively, be completely ambiguous.

The same is true about writing about Gen-y; make broad generalizations about either how unrealistic, un-disciplined or illiterate we are or pine about how digitally enlightened and natively skilled we are. Also, consider writing about how to manage or market to Millennials – they do not speak English but rather English 2.0.

Never forget to note the "fundamental differences" between Gen-Y's approach to anything, and every one else's. If Baby Boomers shaved with straight razors, Gen-y will buck that and do it using the power of the social web.

Your audience is the most important element, so keep in mind that, for the most part, you are preaching to the choir – most of your readers are other bloggers who write about the same things you do. Do not critically analyze anything – by doing so you risk being critically analyzed yourself.

To appeal to your audience, raise your credibility and as a killer starting (or ending) point for a post on just about any topic, quote Penelope Trunk, Dan Schawbel, Chris Brogan or Seth Godin. Finally, fluff is the stuff that fills your stuffed animals and your pillows – it is comforting and it is good! 

What do you think are the essential elements for blogging about social media, careers, gen-y and personal branding?

– – –

Over the past several months I've read dozens of blogs and hundreds of posts, many of them around topics like personal branding, careers, social media and gen-y/millennials. In this piece I share some observations I've taken away about how to write on these topics. I make this entry into the public record in the tradition of "How to write about Africa" and "How to write about poor people", hoping it is received in the playful (if somewhat satirical) spirit in which it was conceived. I am guilty of most of the things I satirize.


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