How I apply acting to my research practice.

It’s a Monday evening and my first day of acting class at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Jack, our instructor, starts our class off with a couple improv games and then goes over our schedule for the next 10 weeks. We don’t touch a play until Week 6. I am confused. I thought you became an actor by running lines, so that eventually you would become convincing. I am all wrong. Jack shares Sanford Meisner’s definition of acting, which is to “live truthfully in imaginary circumstances.” I write it down in my notebook.

The next day I am at my job at frog design. My team is working on an international research plan for a client looking to create a brand new visual communication tool for children. We’re working out ways to observe interactions where they actually happen. We want to see how kids communicate with one another, instead of just asking them, because often what people say they do is different than what they actually do. In our plan, we outline our methods for street intercepts, shadowing, creating a game, and contextual interviews to better understand how young people share with their friends.

Example In Field Interview Materials

We want to understand their lived experience so well that we can truly embody it in our design. Foundational* research sounds a lot like what Jack is teaching in acting class.

*For folks who are still learning about the types of design research (distinguishing foundational design from usability testing), here is a handy chart from Jan Chipchase’s The Field Study Handbook:

Snapshot of various research types from “The Field Study Handbook”

Over the course of 10 weeks, I learn what acting is about. And through the exercises we do, I pick up reminders and lessons for my user research practice.

Fundamentally, acting and user research share the same inputs and outputs. Inputs include user (or character) motivations and pain points (or antagonistic forces / inciting incidents); outputs include bold decisions and emotionally resonant experiences.

User (Character) Motivation

One of the most important lessons I learned was that acting has very little to do with dialogue. In one class, Jack asked us to truncate a 10-minute scene into 5 minutes, 2 minutes, and 30 seconds. As the time allowances shrunk, we had to get better at identifying the guts of the scene. As you would imagine, words were the first to get cut, and we had to do whatever we needed to do to get our scene partner to react in the way the scene asked for.

It seems obvious to me now, but acting is about action. Character 1 does something to Character 2, because they are motivated to make Character 2 react in a certain way. But why? What makes Character 1’s action unique to them? What causes Character 2 to react in their way? need to suss out their character’s motivations from the script so that they can take the actions that feel most true to their character.

As William Esper and Damon DiMarco outline in their book An Actor’s Art and Craft,

“every good actor must be intimately acquainted with the specific reasons that would motivate him or her into a specific action.”

Acting is about listening. You have to be paying very close attention to what your fellow actors are giving you to respond to. Instead of waiting for your turn to do your line, you have to respond as the character would (almost without thinking.) How do you summon this character within yourself? You know what’s motivating you, what you want to get. In this way, you become the character. You’re really (re)acting (as they would, in this imaginary circumstance), rather than reciting lines convincingly.

This is also true in user research. As , our primary job is to listen and look for clues — what is motivating this user, within this context and more broadly? What actions were taken (or not taken) in a given situation? Why? What makes this user different from the other users I’ve spent time with? This is the fuel for creating behavioral archetypes. Behavioral archetypes describe how a group of people might act and what motivates them. Designers use these archetypes to create products that feel most natural to those users. Esper and DiMarco’s advice can be directly adapted to design, to read: every good [designer] must be intimately acquainted with the specific reasons that would motivate [a user] into a specific action.

Example Behavioral Archetype

In research, our character study is often done in the field with real people. We create research plans with methodologies, hypotheses, and questions to ask our participants. Usually, it means asking “Why?” and “Can you show me?” over and over in our interviews. Sometimes, it means developing a closer relationship with research participants and spending more than 90 minutes with them in an interview.

In one instance, for the same visual communication tool project, we were interviewing a college freshman in a cafe in Seoul, South Korea. She explained to us that she was finally exploring who she was in college, and using visual communication tools as a means of expressing her new identity. She had dyed her hair blonde, was wearing edgier clothes, and most importantly — she was singing. She felt safe among her new friends in college to go against her parent’s strict ideal of what success and beauty looked like. When the interview was over, we asked our participant where to get some chimaek (or fried chicken and beer), a popular Friday activity in Seoul. She mentioned that she was about to eat that very thing with her friends. Would we like to come along? Absolutely yes. As researchers, this gave us a chance to observe how our participant behaved in real life (outside of our interview), particularly around how she used her phone and camera in a natural setting.

In this way, researchers can use research guides like actors use a script: as a starting point. Guides and scripts set a context and align a team around goals and outcomes. But, if as you work through character study, if you find yourself in a moment where you’re really embodying the character but it’s a bit off script, jump on it and explore it.

Pain Points or Antagonistic Forces

In Story Robert McKee explains that a good screenplay blasts its main character with antagonistic forces so that you learn about them and what they value. These inciting incidents lead up to a climax, which keeps an audience engaged. Drama is important.

Jack had us experience this first hand in class when we played a game called “Hunter / Hunted.” The class was divided into two teams, on opposite sides of the room. One member from each team would go into the center of the room, blindfolded, in search of a rolled up newspaper. The first person to find the newspaper became the “Hunter,” and had to tap the other blindfolded person (the “Hunted”) before they made it to the other side of the room. Still blindfolded, the “Hunter” was motivated to find the “Hunted” quickly and the “Hunted” was motivated to get to the Hunter’s home base before they did. After a few rounds, team-members got savvy on how to win and started tagging the “Hunted” faster. Although the teams were racking up points, it became boring to watch. When the antagonistic forces lessened, and the players didn’t have to work that hard for the objective, the experience fell flat. The only thing we learned about those players is that they liked to win.

Antagonistic forces are also important to user researchers. We can learn about what a user values based on how they deal with pain points. Does the participant avoid a certain feature because it’s inconvenient or do they muscle through because they absolutely need to take that action? Pain points teach us about participants and the product simultaneously. We are on the lookout for these “antagonistic forces” (either with the product we’re working on or with competitor’s products) because we want to a) discover what’s wrong and b) understand any workarounds users invented to explore potential new solutions.

Just like a screenwriter invents antagonistic forces to reveal a character’s values, researchers also have to create situations that help us learn about a user’s preferences.

Card sorting is one such method. You can ask a research participant to choose one element over another to understand priorities. My favorite ways to use card sorting exercises are to

  1. ask a participant to select cards to create their own product and
  2. do an analog conjoint analysis between features. Conjoint analysis is typically done in surveys to measure trade-offs between elements.

In my analog version, I make a deck of cards with the features or attributes I’m considering. I put 3 cards out at a time, and ask the participant to choose the most important card (to them) of that set. I repeat this exercise until every card has been played at least once. Then, I try a few different pairings where the user has to continuously choose between cards they’ve already selected to understand prioritization between the two. All the while, my research partner is taking notes and identifying any patterns they’re seeing. Is the user consistently choosing one card against all others? By asking your research participant to make a decision among their favorite cards, you are (in a gentle way) introducing an antagonistic force (“what’ll it be if you could only have one?”). This helps you understand your participant better.

In both films and in user research, antagonist forces reveal what characters value. Try introducing (gentle) antagonistic forces into your methodology to see how your research participants make decisions on the spot.

Example of a card sort activity

Bold Decisions

An actor’s job is to consistently make bold decisions. This is why we started our classes with weeks of improv exercises before jumping into scenes — we needed to stop making intellectual choices and start making intuitive decisions right away.

We started every class with an improv activity, because tapping into your intuition is a practice and it takes time to cultivate. The first few rounds of improv games always left me stuttering or pausing (because I wanted to be right!) In improv, there is no way to be right as long as you keep the action going.

Design is also about intuition. I don’t say the word “intuition” in my client meetings because I think the concept of intuition scares people (especially in a professional context.) Most clients I work with pride themselves on being data-driven. It’d be nice to have stone-cold facts to support future decisions and guarantee success. The truth is, there are no stone-cold facts when you’re designing something for the first time — just patterns. We do enough research to feel like we really understand the folks we’re designing for and then we work through the design process, which includes tons of discussion, brainstorming sessions, and concept creation.

At this point, we don’t consider whether the concepts can actually be done or how much money they will make. We use business and technical analyses later to figure out how to make concepts real. These analyses are used to iterate on designs — they show us where we may need to create some constraints down the road. We trust in the team’s ingenuity; if we believe a concept is good because it’s aligned with users’ motivations, we will figure out a way to make it viable.

For example, I worked with a client who built and developed malls. They wanted to explore what the retail experience of the future could be. As we began working together, we asked our client to shed the instinct to immediately calculate value (as real estate developers are trained to do.) Only after we did contextual research, created draft experience principles, and sketched low fidelity concepts did we introduce business models into our approach.

Understanding constraints and realities is an important part of the process but we never let the current business model get in the way of creating concepts. Concepts count on bold, intuitive decisions.

As both an actor and researcher, it is important to tap into your intuition regularly. Try exercises or workshops that help you step away from your intellectual side and allow you to shoot from the hip for a refreshed perspective.

Reaction / Resonance

At the end of the day, both actors and product teams are looking to orchestrate a positive emotional response from their audience.

Actors must embody this emotion and have it come across in their performance. As an actor, one exercise that really helped me bring emotion to the forefront was simply saying it out loud. In one class my scene partner and I were acting out a scene in a courtroom; I was her mother and she was my child, but we were estranged at the moment. Even though we were both angry in the scene, at the core of it, we really loved each other. This was not coming across at first. Jack had us say “I love you” after every single line. Our performance changed almost instantly.

Designers, too, have to embody emotion and have it come across in the product. Creating experience principles is one method that both researchers and designers use to do this. These principles create a foundational understanding of what the product or service should feel like. These are the attributes that must come across in the product — they are a product’s personality.

By creating these guidelines, we are saying this emotion out loud. What if we took it one step further? What if we embodied these experience principles more fully while we were working on the product? For example, you might imagine that In-N-Out experience principles might include words like “friendly” — could your team create a ritual to log moments they experienced someone friendly throughout a day? As the design team works on bringing a new product or service to life, consider little rituals the team can create to embody the experience principles you’ve outlined for that product.

These guidelines outline what “living truthfully” means in the reality you are creating — whether it’s a film or new product — and the more you embody them, the better your outcomes will be.


For easy reference, here are the resources I mentioned above:

The Field Study Handbook by Jan Chipchase

The Actor’s Art and Craft by William Esper and Damon DiMarco

Story by Robert McKee

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