A scene from backstage

All the World’s a Stage: A UX Designer’s Guide to Understanding your Audience through Theatre

All UX designers should have an active interest and appreciation for theatre. No other artform is more supportive of our craft, both in honing our skills and stirring our creativity. Out of all forms of entertainment, a UX designer who is active on the theatre scene will have many advantages over other designers.

I have loved theatre my entire life. I routinely find that my theatre education and experience influencing my design work. One of the best ways theatre supports a UX designer skills is the in depth understanding of how audiences interact with visual design.

Suspension of Disbelief

The key to a successful production is not something created on the stage; it is something the audience brings into the theatre. Every audience member, from the seasoned thespian to the cynical philistine, willfully suspends their disbelief in the content of the production. Any rational person knows that 17th century Hamlet Prince of Denmark is not actually in front of them, but visual storytelling works because the audience already participates by suspending disbelief.

All aspects of theatre builds on the willful participation of the audience. Every visual aspect from costumes, props, sound effects, and set designs should support the acting and script in keeping the audience willfully immersed in the production. The slightest mistake or design failure can create confusion and cynicism.

UX Designers can learn from the unity of all design aspects from a theatrical production. The primary focus is creating and implementing a design that helps the user navigate through necessary information. The user experience when first interacting with your website is similar to an audience member at the beginning of a play.

From the moment a user clicks on your link, s/he has chosen to willfully engage with your website. At the beginning of this process, there is hopeful optimism and determination that your content will be the answer to a current need. This optimism guides how they scan for evidence that your website is the solution.

Presented with a clean, consistent design with relevant information, a user will embrace the experience. If a page is hard to navigate, vague in purpose, scarce on relevant information, uninteresting to look at, and inconsistent in the website features, a user will become frustrated and leave. Just as an audience should not struggle to understand the visual content of a play, a user should not struggle through your design.

Essential Information

As the curtain rises, the audience immediately begins searching for essential information. Even with a plot synopsis, people cannot help but absorb verbal and visual communication. If the information is not provided at an appropriate time, an audience will grow frustrated and confused. Mystery can be an intentional plot device, but it has no business in sloppy design.

Let’s imagine an all black set. Five actors wearing black enter the stage. All look the same and there are no identifying characteristics about any of them.

How can you tell your audience that one of the men is a King? The other actors could address the man as “Your Majesty” and bow, but the audience would have to wait for the dialogue and body language to decipher which man is the monarch. If the King wears a crown, the audience will understand which of the five men is the King before any lines are delivered.

If it is not essential for the King’s identity to remain a secret, do not distract your audience with a pointless search; however, if the plot revolves around the intentional mystery of which actor is King, do not give away the information too soon.

A UX designer must be aware of when and how to give the user important information. Very often in web design, information is only important when the timing is right. Determining the correct scenario or predicament your user is currently facing will help guide the design to delivering information when it is needed and how the information should be delivered.

Confusion in the Audience

A confused user will not spend long attempting to figure out a poorly designed website before moving on. With analytical data and surveying, a designer can see which designs are effective and which need improving. But if you want to see what it is like to lose an audience firsthand, a stage production is your best bet. If you find yourself confused and struggling to keep up with a poorly executed production, take a look around and observe the others in the audience.

Do you see fidgeting? Can you spot a neighbor struggling to stay awake? During a very poorly staged production of an Agatha Christie play, I witnessed one of the most tragic things one could see in a theatre: two audience members had resorted to a quiet game of tic-tac-toe.

One would think during a live production that audience members would be more invested. The most devoted theatre patrons might sneak a look at their phones, resorting to old faithful Google to better understand what is happening on the stage (with the most polite doing so during intermission).

But more likely, a confused and frustrated audience member might walk out and demand their money back from the ticketbooth. It is always possible for a few unsatisfied members to walk out of a magnificent play that did everything right, just as a user might leave your impressively stunning website for no significant reason. It is when the majority of the audience struggles with the delivery.

As previously discussed, an audience member arrives to the theatre willing fully engage with the content.

With a committed audience in the beginning of the production, how does the performance lose interest so spectacularly?

Consider Shakespeare. The language is outdated, with even clever puns lost due to the evolution of the English language. How do the plays of the Bard still remain popular to a modern audience with dialogue that is not easily understood?

The design of a production can make a four hundred year old play relevant and timeless. A 2017 performance of “Julius Caesar” in caused great controversy because of the modern design’s visual comparison to present day politicians. The script had not changed, but the powerful and intelligent design brought a new interpretation to a modern audience.

A UX designer can understand why a theatre production fails while another succeeds: Solid content can be empowered or destroyed by design.

Empathy

The ability to empathize is a necessary job skill of any UX Designer. While vital, it is not a skill that one can learn the same way we learn Sketch or Adobe XD. Imagining what a person thinks or feels can support a designer’s efforts in bringing easily accessible content to the user. But developing your own ability to empathize is only part of the importance. It is also vital to understand how to engage with your audience’s empathy

A successfully staged production can give the audience the opportunity to feel what a character is feeling. It is different than reading a book because it is a sensory experience. You can see a character’s body language and hear the tone of voice. If a production keeps you fully engaged in the content, it should create an emotional reaction in the audience.

Do you hear gasps when a surprising truth is revealed? Do you hear crying as something tragic happens to a beloved character? Does a well-delivered joke get a laugh?

There should be audience participation in a powerful performance. If there is dead silence from start to finish, what went wrong?

Appropriate engagement from your audience is empathy in action. When the audience becomes immersed collectively, it will encourage greater action than just one member alone. This is why laugh tracks are routinely added to televised staged shows: To elevate and encourage the audience to empathize with characters.

Incorporating your user’s empathy into your designs can make your work memorable. How can you invoke emotion from your design? How would you visually incorporate emotions you want your user to feel about a service or product? Getting your audience to empathize visually will motivate engagement with your content.


Kaitlyn S.
Kaitlyn S.

Kaitlyn is a writer, photographer, and media manager in the New Orleans area. Blog contributor to BP Magazine and active member in her local chapter of the Junior League. She has a Master’s in Organizational Communication from Southeastern Louisiana University.

Instagram: @ClearlyKatePhotography
Email: clearlykatephotography@gmail.com

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