“[It’s] really about life. It’s learning about human behavior, human conflicts, human interrelationships, which you have to have some understanding of if you’re going to be up there portraying other human beings.” 

Uta Hagen

While design research may seem wildly disconnected from the performing arts on the surface, they are both at their core an art driven by curiosity and empathy; a place where storytelling brings deeper exploration and understanding of the human condition. 

With every new project or design challenge that presents itself, I grow my research toolkit with fresh approaches to better understand our user. Routinely, I find myself frequenting back to my acting education from my previous life as a professional actor. I still marvel that the performing techniques I labored in for years in an effort to bring richer characters to life on stage and screen consistently parallel and help to guide my approach to human-centered design research. 

One particular acting method that has been on my mind quite a bit lately is the work of Uta Hagen. Working through Hagen’s book Challenge for the Actor was one of more stand-out and impactful experiences of my acting journey, and now years later has actually shown to be an incredible – if unlikely – playbook for design.

Hagen developed many useful views and exercises that we should unpack together. Today, let’s explore two:

·      Her approach to personal identity.

·      How her approach can help uncover richer discoveries in your work.

1. The Parallel Between Realism in Acting and Empathy in Design

In acting, there are two basic camps – Formalism (Representational) and Realism (Presentational.) Formalism is an acting approach where a performer executes predetermined character actions and focuses on their “form” where they imitate a character’s behavior, embrace their physicality or do things “like their character would.” These actors are often regarded for their theatricality or general charisma. You see this style everywhere, but maybe most characteristically on an opera stage or an episode of SNL.

In Realism on the other hand, an actor works to relate their own selves and experiences to the character in order to discover their actions and emotions. As Hagen put it, “the actor puts [their] own psyche to use in finding identification with the role…and trusts a form will result.” In other words, as actors connect their emotions with that of their role, they will naturally encounter their character and their actions. Hagen believed that all acting should be that of Realism and developed her approach to shake off the theatrical conventions of Formalism and instead expose truthful human behaviors. Realism is especially enjoying this new golden age of television where richly conceived and portrayed humans are brought to life in performances that rivet us with the compelling “honesty” or “realness” of their character’s experience – even in inconceivable circumstances.

Human-centered research requires this type of empathetic association; to approach research by seeking not to define and capture user insights, but instead to discover and relate to their experiences. This approach requires going beyond interviewing and observing people (although these things remain important). Researchers must also incorporate tasks and activities that allow participants to provide real-time feedback through their natural actions in addition to their words.  It requires you as the researcher to further draw out stories, feelings and needs and – most impactfully – immerse firsthand into user experiences to understand their viewpoint and relate directly.

2. Digging Deep into Identity

Closely related, Hagen’s views on Identity challenge an actor to veer away from characterizing the role they’re approaching and to not use blanket descriptors to define people or characters. 

It’s easy to assign personality adjectives to people (she’s tough, they’re a class clown, he’s thoughtful) but the fact is, anyone can be anything depending on their situation, mood or company. I may be generally outgoing, but if you put me in a room of investment bankers, I go very quiet. We can all be mature and childish, brilliant and clueless, generous and entitled, etc. An actor must embrace their own humanity to develop a full scope of their character’s complexity or else risk only indicating one part of them, abandoning authenticity and playing an unrelatable personality stereotype. 

When researchers or design teams use blanket adjectives or survey data alone to define their users, they reveal only surface-level depictions and general ideas. When we develop user personas around standard demographics, we uncover no specificity of those users. We must instead seek to relate to our user’s behavior, their core motivations and the context around them that drive their complex views. We must immerse ourselves in their world and empathize – not just sympathize – with their experience so we can glean new insights on how to truly improve their lives. 

It can be easy to fall into the trap of cutting research short to rush solutions or “quick readouts” of findings for clients before substantial synthesis has taken place. And, it can be tempting to create blanket personas from quantitative data collection under stakeholder pressure or budget restrictions. But let’s take a cue from Uta Hagen and allow ourselves the opportunity to invest ourselves and identify more deeply with our users. Let’s resist assuming preconceived notions and sweeping descriptors. Instead, let’s explore personal experiences firsthand in order to arrive at truly differentiated insights. Doing so will allow us to uncover richer, more compelling stories that bring more empathetic and impactful products to the people they’re made for.

(Design sprints can be fabulous tool to quickly iterate on and test an idea, infusing a project with a more empathetic view and uncover a more connected and nuanced understanding of your customer’s needs in a swift and powerful way. You can read more on Moonshot Design Sprints here.)