UX is a lot like theatre. Here’s why.

People often ask me how I made the unfathomable leap from being a theatre major (minor in gender studies!) to the tech industry. I always laugh when I get this question. It plays into that old stereotype about theatre being frivolous and just-for-fun. Sure, theatre can be all those things, but it’s also about design.

Theatre directors need eyes and ears for rhythm, fashion, movement, and visual composition. You need an exacting nature, strong vision, and the ability to communicate it well. It’s not easy.

So, how does this translate to UX (if it’s not obvious already)? We’ll start with the low-hanging fruit.

We use stories.

Developers and designers write user stories all the time. UX designers use storyframes to narrate the user experience. They do this before designing a single screen to keep the focus on the user and their essential task.

In place of a user story, plays have a dramatic question. Everything centers on that question, and resolving it (or not) in a compelling way.

Great theatre practitioners know how to cut through the crap.

We hone in on the dramatic question and give it laser focus. Everything else can go to hell. A confusing, muddled UX is akin to a show with 2 intermissions and 12 prominent themes. There’s no reason to do that to a person.

We start with a blank page.

There’s a frightening amount of freedom in both a blank webpage and an empty theatre. The ability to create anything within a given space would be paralyzing for most people. But we know how to make it work.

We set constraints for ourselves so creativity can flourish.

A show’s visual aesthetic might be drawn from a painting or a piece of architecture. Great design needs constraints, and a defined visual language – in theatre and in UX.

Not enough resources.

You probably play with “Good, Better, Best” solutions all the time. Developer time is precious, so strategic compromise is often the name of the game. Sometimes you’ll discover that the cleverest solutions live in the “Good” space.

In theatre the same rule applies. When your entire production budget is $500, it’s time to get creative. You might find that 2 very nice props works better than a fully-functional rotating box set. (Please don’t try that for $500, someone will get hurt.)

Truly creative people know how to make it work on a budget.

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We only have hard launch dates.

Deadlines. Did that scare you?

If so, you’re clearly not a theatre person. STEM trembles at our ability to work on schedule. Sorry, I said it, not taking it back.

Theatre spaces are reserved months in advance. Once you book it, your show is happening. People are paying good money to see it, and it is your ass on the line if it sucks.

Hard deadlines breed scrappiness.

You make do with what you have, because this shit’s going down. Not going to get the perfect prop in time for opening night? Tough cookies. Get creative. Nobody cares.

With all these parallels, I want you to do me a favor. Next time a resume lands on your desk that says “theatre major”, don’t ask questions, don’t snicker. Hire them.

Trust me on this. You’ll be glad you did.

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