Practice: whiteboard

XII.2 March + April 2005
Page: 55
Digital Citation

Designing theatre, designing user experience

Whitney Quesenbery

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User experience design can take lessons from theatre-lighting design. You may wonder what connects these fields. Both shape how someone reacts to an event, and both must create virtual realities for their audience.

But I think it all boils down to this: An interactive product, like a play, comes alive only with an audience, and each audience subtly changes the experience. Whether for software or theatre, you as designer must care about people and their experience to do good work.

User experience borrows from many disciplines-psychology, market research, industrial design, to name just a few—bringing together different perspectives and viewpoints. As we broaden our design scope to include a wider range of expertise, we can learn a lot from theatre about designing engaging experiences and assembling a team to create them.

The theatre-lighting designer helps the audience know where to direct their attention on stage and how to react emotionally to the scene, using the tools of the intensity, color, and angle of the lights, and how they change over time. The interface serves the same purpose for software, by establishing the visuals, rhythm, and structure for the interaction.

Theatre lighting first attracted me because it happens live, as part of the show. In retrospect, I don't find it surprising that I ended up working on user interfaces, continuing to design the relationship between the audience and the event. But now I address the audience through a tiny frame, the proscenium arch we call a computer screen.

back to top  The Play's the Thing

Cast your browser into the blogosphere, and you will find posts regarding the proper labels for user experience specialties and long discussions on the proper relationships among them. The theatre world does not escape these debates, but it does not place them at the top of the charts. Instead, it takes a more pragmatic approach. For example, a touring ballet company travels with just two people to fill four roles: lighting designer, production manager, technical director, and stage manager. Any distribution of roles can work, depending on the people involved. The company manager cares only that all four roles are filled and that the two people collaborate effectively.

Each member of the design team has to remember one thing above all: The audience comes to see a play, not the individual parts. They should not leave "humming the scenery," but with an experience of a coherent production. Audiences may not throw rotten vegetables (as they did in Shakespeare's day), but they still provide direct user feedback through applause, reviews, and box-office sales. Even when putting heart and soul into a project, designers must keep in mind that their work contributes to something larger than their own efforts.

This principle hit home for me when I worked with choreographer-director Jean Erdman. As I explained all the tricky ways the lights could help make her dance come alive, Jean stopped me. All she wanted was simple, uncluttered lighting. "You create complexity," she said, "by layering simplicity."

For a designer, one challenge looms larger than any other: seeing the work from the audience's point of view. All of our user-centered design techniques serve this purpose and help us tell the user's story in our designs.

back to top  You Can Observe a Lot Just by Watching

For a designer, one challenge looms larger than any other: seeing the work from the audience's point of view. All of our user-centered design techniques serve this purpose and help us tell the user's story in our designs. One night sitting over a few beers after rehearsal, the actor playing a small part in Romeo's gang explained to me, in all seriousness, how the entire plot of Romeo and Juliet turned on his character. Although this sounds ridiculous at first, each of us sees every story, play, or Web site from his or her own unique perspective. We are each the center of our own world.

The trick is, how do you bring together all those individual viewpoints—a play's characters or a product's stakeholders—in a satisfying way? Even the most fast-paced theatre schedule assumes that the show has to be refined on stage, that it will need adjustments to make all of the elements come together. No producer would risk exposing a new show to the audience (and critics) without staged readings, open rehearsals, and other tryouts. (And no sane software vendor would risk releasing an interactive product without having conducted user-centered design.)

A lot of theatre work happens during long hours of rehearsals. As though observing a usability test, the designers watch for the tiniest details of the interaction between their work and the rest of the play. The thousands of hours I've spent taking notes in a large, dark theatre while watching the action on stage differ very little from the time I've spent carefully observing users at work. In both cases, applying observations is the key to improving the design. "Did that scene take too long? Was the lighting too bright or too dark for the mood of the scene? Did I see any technical glitches?" You review mistakes and mismatches after rehearsal and consider new ideas before trying it all again. It's iterative design at its best.

back to top  From the Dark into the Light

We may not adapt as easily as a chameleon, but people do adjust to their environment. For a lighting designer, sitting in the dark is an occupational hazard. You become used to it and, immersed in the comfortable cocoon of the rehearsal, forget about the world outside. To combat this, lighting designers leave the theatre for a few minutes every hour or so. Our work with users, from participatory design sessions to the usability lab, takes interaction designers back into the light, helping us see our work as others see it.

back to top  Author

Whitney Quesenbery is a user interface/interaction designer and usability professional with a passion for clear communication. She is president of UPA and manages the STC Usability SIG Web site. Before being seduced by a little beige computer, Whitney was a theatrical lighting designer on and off Broadway. The work of Ted Nelson, Bruce Tognazzini, and Brenda Laurel convinced her that there really are lessons for user experience to be learned in the theatre. You can find her online at

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