Lessons from Acting to practice empathy in UX Design
“The greatest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.” (Plato)
A common advice for someone embarking on Entrepreneurship is, ‘don’t solve a pain point for customers that you’ve never experienced for yourself’ — the lesson being that the lived experience will motivate you more than anything else. Entrepreneurship is hard. If you don’t have commitment and emotional investment, then you’ll find it hard to stay the course.
This lesson works well for entrepreneurs, but not so much for folks who make a living from design. Stepping into problem spaces you’re unfamiliar with, needing to learn the domain, where the context includes culture, understanding customer needs makes being efficient at quickly feeling committed or emotionally-invested, one of the core skills. As a perpetual reminder that this superpower is both a strength and a weakness, we of course adhere to the important reminder ‘you are not the user’.
But despite not being the user, there is a recurring need to internalise, or build empathy with, the people and the lessons we learn from user research. Over the course of my career, I’ve thought deeply about how to train empathy, and improve an ability to intrinsically understand people and their perspective.
Everyone in Design, especially those who advocate for Design Thinking, talk about Empathy as the foundational trait, but when attempting to understand it as a means to improve it, instructions were limited. They amounted to nothing more than “speak to users”, or “observe users” — technical instructions without consideration of what it takes to truly empathise with someone. Mechanical acts don’t necessarily summarise a framework for empathy. I wanted to go deeper, to internalise. And a framework emerged from an unexpected place.
But first a quick tangent on position as it determines perspectives.
When I was younger, my Dad would challenge my brother and I with thought-experiments¹: ‘Look at that Ant over there — do you think it experiences Time the same as us?’, or ‘it takes a snail an entire morning to cross the garden, what do you think it feels like to cross that distance compared with how we [as humans] cross that space?’.
My Dad isn’t a philosopher, he’s a Baker, ever a pragmatist but sometimes inclined to lofty thinking, to which I was introduced from an early age. These questions had always stuck with me, because overcoming my own lived experience (my position, my own senses and my own learning) has been a crucial part of learning to create artefacts to be experienced by other people. Little did I know at this point in time that I was practising what ethnographers call seeking ‘the native’s point of view’ (Geertz 1974, 26), or the ‘ethnographer’s magic’ (Stocking 1992, 12–59)². Well, I couldn’t actually experience being an Ant, but it did provide me some mental exercise — to step radically outside my own perspective. Similarly, as Brown remarked about Design Thinking,
“We build bridges of insight through empathy, the effort to see the world through the eyes of others, understand the world through their experiences, and feel the world through their emotions” (Brown 2009, 50).
“…we must empathise not simply scrutinise with the cold detachment of statisticians” (ibid, 56).
The importance of empathy is well-established in Design Thinking³, and is fundamental to both user research, UX, Service and Product Design. To truly act in service to others, it’s necessary to give up a sense of ‘self’ whilst in the process of understanding another person’s ‘self’. When it comes to the essence of what we’re talking about, I mean all the concepts behind Empathy⁴, Sympathy⁵, Compassion⁶.
Let’s deconstruct the idea, by inspecting the word. The word ‘Empathy’ has, quite surprisingly, been in the English language for only a relatively short period. It came into English in the early 20th century, via German. Originally it came from the ancient Greek empatheia (from em– ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’), and found in the German Einfühlung. When this word was adopted into English, it was used in place of a number of terms used at the time⁷.
We can see, looking purely at the etymology, that the fundamental characteristic of true empathy is that it’s felt, it’s internalised, it’s rebuilt in one body modelled upon another. When we observe this effect, we find another word: rapport. UX is about the tricky business of building rapport between a human and a computer. Actually, it’s the rapport, or an asynchronicity, between one group (the designers) and another group (the users) via the medium of a digital interface.
All experiences are subjective. And those experiences define one’s unique character. Psychologists have regularly demonstrated how even basic concepts like ‘colour’, the type of thing we take for granted, is actually inconsistent⁸. The unconscious decision of whether an experience is chemically encoded as positive or negative (the Algedonic Loop) is largely defined by my parents and their first introductions of these experiences to me as a baby. When we talk about ‘gut-feel’, and ‘intuition’, we’re talking about making an assessment based upon that unconsciously chemically-encoded data. In some cases, when I was growing up, I had no conscious control of these choices. If parents/grandparents etc screwed their faces up at the taste, I did the same. Looking for cues, I copied, adopted and internalised. Nearly 40 years later, I wonder whether the layer upon layer of determined choices were the right ones. Some of my own embodied ‘Body of Knowledge’ (what Constructivist Psychologists call ‘Schema’) was constructed by accident, without conscious thought. I now must regularly train myself to recognise my own biases, and remember that ‘common sense’ is generally just a particular set of data that I was exposed to, and adopted as my ‘default’, in my formative years.
And we are each a product of this. We construct our own character from our experience. Each of us experiences life from a 1st person perspective, the hero in a narrative of our own making. Everyone has to play a character, but not everyone chooses their character, gets to play how they’d like, or always plays it consciously.
To be empathetic means to have practised how to ‘exchange’ characters, to adopt another character’s narrative as if it were one’s own. Not just to understand them as they are now, but understand where they’ve been, what they’ve seen, and how it shaped them. Once internalised, this allows us, as Designers, to respond to a context from the character’s perspective, from their unique experiences, and schema⁹.
I believe that Empathy is the practice of consciously exchanging one’s own experience with that of others, into oneself. Or rather it’s ‘overlaid’ (because we cannot truly remove our own personal experiences from the equation). The nature of Designing for others is fundamentally to postpone oneself, and to use our skills as creators to bring the best ‘thing’ into being. Our own ‘self’ as a medium is a powerful point-of-view, but can also be a powerful distraction.
But how can we be sure about an accurate overlay? The essential starting point is to avoid assumptions about other people. We must escape from the cage of our own consciousness. A commonplace way to do this is to gather concrete and direct information via Research.
User Research can often be, as Alan Watts recalled about the nature of the Scientist compared with the Buddhist, somewhat ostensive. The Scientist and the Buddhist witness a beautiful flower. The Scientist picks the flower, seeking to understand its vital material: deconstructing it to its elements, its chemical matter and physical properties. The Buddhist, on the other hand, stands in awe of the flower, recognising that its nature of being is in its ‘is-ness’. The nature of the flower is how its existence becomes embodied within the observer, not its materiality, its physicality. Both approaches are at polar opposites of the spectrum: the Scientist breaks it down the material to understand the ‘source code’, whereas the Buddhist seeks to be present with the flower to understand it’s emergent qualities¹⁰.
Given this dichotomy, I’ve always wondered what the effect of other approaches might be to the archetypal user research, which has its origins in social science. It seeks to deconstruct outside in order to reconstruct within ourselves. We seek to embody the customer needs, and internalise them completely. But this form of genuine internalising, the true meaning of ‘empathy’, is not a genuine requirement in Design, and from my experience, far less common in practice. It takes training, it requires ‘psycho-technique’.
Understanding the world around us is always a process of discovery. In fact, both the words ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’ are from the same root word — the only difference between the two is that an experiment requires an ‘agent’. So experiment is a codified and systematic method of experiencing. User research should always be the starting point upon which all else is grounded when the object of study is other people.
User research provides the vital data needed to do this. What we do with the data is the clear difference. As demonstrated by Watts’ example, there are many ways to understand the world, and science is only one of them. An alternative, or more pragmatically, a complementary approach is to experience something first-hand.
My first contact with a deeper sense of empathy was when I studied Acting in Secondary School. A considerable part of the curriculum was the study of Stanislavski’s System of Acting.
When I consider the wide range of fields that claim to develop one’s innate sense of empathy, I haven’t found a richer and more practical example than Acting. If you think about it, can there be? Acting is a visceral and tacit experience of another person’s point of view. Not in sympathy like the caring profession, where it’s not essential to the craft of caring that one ‘feel’ the world from another’s point of view. It’s not imaginary or hypothetical. The experience of acting is fully embodied¹¹.
When we consider the words of Brown about Design Thinking, Acting is absolutely “the effort to see the world through the eyes of others, understand the world through their experiences, and feel the world through their emotions”. Not just to see, understand, and feel — but to ‘be’. To literally embody that perspective. To speak as another, to behave as another, to be perceived as someone other than the character you play in your own life — now that’s the very definition of ‘inner-feeling’, right?
Alongside numerous other studies, I have devoted about 20 years to truly understanding his approach, and will consolidate it here for others to apply the techniques in their own practice.
Konstantin Stanislavski (1863–1938) was, and still is, one of the most important figures in Theatre Arts, and in the world of Drama and Acting.
Stanislavski is better known in the US and Western Europe because of Lee Strasberg (Actors Studio) and Stella Adler, who practised his approach in New York. The approach became known as The Method, and is commonly referred to as ‘Method Acting’. Method Acting is very much embedded in Hollywood. Famous actors who follow this approach, that you’re likely already familiar with, are Christian Bale, Halle Berry, Cate Blanchett, Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Sidney Poitier — to name a few.
Stanislavski regularly revised his practice, iterating and upgrading a number of times over his career. Such updates were the cause of a number of disagreements between his students, some of whom had been taught v1.0, others v1.1, and others v2. The majority of direct students under Stanislavski all developed their own approaches, emphases, and interpretations of his teaching, leading to a number of derivative schools. Strasberg and Adler were not the only ones to use Stanislavski’s approach — Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner, Michael Chekhov all created their own derivative doctrines, which are arguably (re-)interpretations of Stanislavski’s work. More recent Acting theorists have began to critique Stanislavski, and make revisions to his approach. David Mamet, in his work True or False, established the groundwork for a newer and more specialised approach known as Practical Aesthetics, which combined Piaget’s Learning theories into Mamet’s own Constructivist approach to Acting.
But since all these approaches find their common root in The System, we should take a look at Stanislavski’s greatest achievement of pragmatic empathy-building, encapsulated in his System.
Besides the record of The System within the curricula he used to teach his students, Stanislavski also documented his approach in a book. An Actor’s Work is set in a narrative structure. The format is a fiction, and follows a group of students learning the System over 2 years, from a master-teacher Tortsov (who is a fictionalised Stanislavski). All the meaningful names for characters are lost from the original Russian language. Tortsov means ‘Creator’, and his student (considered to be Stanislavski when he was younger), is Nazvanov, which means ‘the chosen one’ (pp.xxvii).
The entire first year of training in the ‘System’ is focussed purely on ‘Experiencing’ itself. The second year then ‘Embodiment’. Think about that for a second: the entire first year is ‘experiencing’ — just becoming conscious of, and trained in, experience itself. Imagine if training to be a UX professional was the same… This, as Stanislavski claimed, was a philosophy of experiencing with intention, and becoming acutely aware of the meaning of Experience. Experiencing with intention is what we discovered earlier is the definition of ‘experiment’. Stanislavski’s experimental medium was the ‘self’.
His approach was in direct contrast to other schools of thought at the time, which Stanislavski referred to as teaching the Art of Representation, the product being amateurism and stock-in-trade acting (pp.37). Stanislavski juxtaposed his approach as a form of Creative Radicalism, to return to nature, to cast off the trappings of dogma (the Theatre with a capital T, as opposed to the more natural, less elitist, less divisive form of theatre with a lowercase T) (pp.60). The System therefore signalled a meaningful departure from the institutionalised approaches to Acting, which Stanislavski considered artificial and the product of ‘stock-in-trade’ acting. The System therefore consciously departed from all previous approaches to acting: it sought to embody emotions and motivations, ignoring synthetic representation of experience, and to return to the truth — human experience. Stanislavski’s was an Art of Experience.
There is much more to the profession of Acting than most realise. Unexpectedly, as we saw earlier with the juxtaposition of Buddhism and Science, there is something incredibly mindful about the practice of Acting. More akin to Buddhism than to something purely for entertainment. As Stanislavski observed, “Acting demands the coordination of the entire organism” (pp.115). It takes practice and openness to learn how to be more empathetic, to commit the mind to exploring the inner world of other people. “In this process we are dealing with the most subtle kind of concentration and observation, which are subconscious in origin. Our normal powers of concentration are not sensitive enough fully to search out material in other, living, human souls” (pp. 124). Such an observation might be made about generative User Research too.
As a field, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), and the concepts provided in that field, supply some great deductive reasoning around how and why people behave the way they do, and how to deconstruct a course of action. Acting also has a framework, which, when compared with concepts from UX, can be seen as an alternative perspective (based upon its origin), as well as being highly complementary to it.
Take for example the key concepts of The System, and with them I have assigned descriptions from the latest ISO definitions for those terms (ISO 9241–210:2019):
- Experiencing (Perezhivanie) — ‘User experience’ (‘person’s perceptions and responses resulting from the use and/or anticipated use of a product, system or service’¹²)
- Given Circumstances (Predlagamemye Obstoyal’stva) — ‘Context of Use’ (‘users, tasks, equipment (hardware, software and materials), and the physical and social environments in which a product is used’¹³)
- Bits/Units and Tasks (Kusok) — ‘Task’ (‘activities required to achieve a goal’¹⁴)
- Attention (Vnimanie)
- Feeling and Emotion-Memory (Emotsional’nya Pamyat’) — Empathy¹⁵, part of the ‘Elements’ that an actor has at her disposal. Fully appreciating the experience of another person via the lens of one’s own Emotion-Memory.
- Magic If (Esli B)
- Communication (Obshchenie) — also ‘Communion’, the act of being in contact with an object or in communication with another person, verbally or non-verbally.
- Action (Deistvie), Supertask (Sverkhzadacha), Through Action (Skvoznoe Deistivie) — ‘Goal’ (‘intended outcome’¹⁶)
Although the Actor is studying other people in order to bring life to a character, the UXer is studying in order to bring life to the contexts of the users studied. The Actor is studying a single narrative, often written by a single author in the form of a script. The UXer is studying multiple narratives, from an unwritten script, created by multiple authors. In Acting, the background of the narrative is well-known, the purpose of the play might also be well-defined, but in UX, the opposite is often the case. But by capturing these circumstances, the UX professional is able to leverage The System in the same way.
We shall see later how Context of Use (‘Given Circumstances’) is crucial to The System. How specifics provide the right constraints for a scene. Acting ‘in general’ is to be avoided, because the context awakens the performance. In the same way, we should seek not to Design ‘in general’, but for specifics known about the context. As Stanislavski added, “…we are trying to understand how we can learn how to do things…not in a historionic way — ‘in general’ — but in a human way — simply, with the truth of a living organism, freely, not in the way the conventions of the theatre demand, but as the laws of a living, natural organism demand” (pp.60). He makes an appeal to first-principles. We might change the term ‘conventions of the theatre’, with ‘conventions of design/UX’ to receive the same valuable message. It’s a good reminder that methodologies are simply existing means to help us, but are not more important than ‘the truth of a living organism’.
One aspect that is important to explain up-front is also the dual-perspective taken in The System. Stanislavski explained the importance of understanding the Inner and Outer task. (pp.152) This is something which User Researchers may already be familiar with, but Stanislavski provides alternative vocabulary. In The System, the Actor uses Outer tasks (doing) in order to communicate with one’s own Inner task (thinking and feeling). When the Inner task is understood, it provides intrinsic motivation for the Outer task. In effect, it becomes its own Positive Feedback Loop, each enhancing the other. Great researchers often seek to understand and inspect both the Outer and the Inner tasks to understand how and why each provides motivation for the other.
Given Circumstances and Imagination
A given circumstance cites the importance of the specific task, in the specific context, with a specific goal. In which case, it’s essentially an Actor’s equivalent to the Context of Use. Stanslavski cautioned his actors that all the actions, tasks and Supertask/through-actions are given meaning because of the Given Circumstances. What the Actor needs to avoid, like the Designer, is conducting their work ‘in general’. The specific context is where ‘meaning’ originates. Those who perform ‘in general’ risk diluting the meaning, losing connection with the narrative, with fellow team members, and finally with their audience. All action must be rooted in the Context.
In order to do this, Stanislavski used a technique called the ‘Magic If’. This was his tool for unlocking an Actor’s imagination. Our narrator in the text described how ‘If’ was explained:
“…the character should answer the question, ‘What would I do if I was in this situation?’ Also known as the ‘magic if’, this technique means that the actor puts themselves into the character’s situation. This then stimulates the motivation to enable the actor to play the role.”
Numerous times throughout the text, the ‘If’ is likened to the child’s imagination — fixated, but free at the same time. “The child’s ‘what if’ is much stronger than our magic ‘if’. Children have one quality that we should seek to copy. They know what they can believe and what they can ignore…So, once you approach acting with the truth and belief of children at play, you will then be able to become great actors.” (pp. 163).
Stanislavski further sought to make explicit how to approach the magic if, by defining 7 steps, which he introduced in his chapter on ‘Imagination’ (pp. 84–89):
- Who am I (character, ‘Inner Truth’)
- Where am I (context) ‘Given Circumstances’
- When am I
- What do I want (Goal object)
- Why do I want it (motivation)
- How will I get it (‘action’)
- What is in the way (problems)
All of these aspects are appropriate for defining an Archetype, or Persona, particularly Cooper’s ‘Goal-directed personas’. The ultimate purpose of a persona is an artefact to aid internalisation of the given user by a designer.
The ‘Magic If’ demands the actor to believe how they would act in the ‘given circumstances’. Note how the questions are in the first-person perspective. Understanding this question exhibits a common shift in perspective. If we ask questions like this throughout the Design process, then we will arrive at a more implicit, visceral and internal understanding of the customer’s needs. The practice of writing ‘User stories’ already considers a number of these aspects, but not all 7. What if we were to understand epics, stories and tasks in UX from the perspective of the 7 steps? One important aspect was the definition of the problem. As Meisner stoically observed, “That which hinders your task is your task” (Bruder, Cohn, et al., pp. 41), and often provides grounding for what makes the problem/action more interesting in the first place. In Design we might refer to these as ‘constraints’, as Charles Eames once remarked, “Design depends largely on constraints”.
Bits and Tasks
Action, comes from the Latin actio, which is the equivalent Greek word drama, both mean ‘an action being performed’ (pp.42). Action is the natural result of multiple people existing and interacting within the same Given Circumstances. In which case, Outer task, relates to Action in the physical sense.
And pure action was the antithesis of The System. The purpose of mechanical, stock-in-trade, acting is to represent action. Stanislavski believed this meant that the tasks became hollow, and empty. Purely representative action, causes a lack of human connection. Instead, Stanislavski demanded that all actions ‘must occur for some reason or other’ (pp.41). That reason must be embedded within the Inner action of the character, and fit the context.
When it comes to understanding mechanical actions, the Outer task, HCI isn’t the only approach to have a protocol either. At the beginning of Stanislavski’s chapter on ‘Bits and Tasks’, he explained ‘how a role or play can be divided into its constituent parts’ (pp141). He breaks up the narrative into distinctive and isolated pieces.
The specifics of how to identify these distinctions was a cause of confusion for the students in An Actor’s Work. Addressing the confusion about how to separate a play into bits (the students struggled with the idea that a single play could contain thousands of bits), Stanislavski used an analogy “A ship’s pilot was asked: ‘How can you remember all the twists in the banks, the shoals, the reefs on the journey?’ … ‘I don’t bother with them,’ the pilot answered, ‘I go by the fairway’” (pp. 145). Finding the right anchor point means that the number of steps are significantly reduced. In effect, we’re following recognition not recall. In ‘User Story Mapping’, we might call them the ‘backbone’ (Patton 2014, pp.23, 75). “The actor also, in his role, must go not by the small Bite which waste numberless and cannot all be remembered, but by the large, most important Bits, through which the creative path passes. These large Bits may be likened to the areas through which the fairway passes.” (pp.145) The actions that are distinct from others, because of intention, context are a Bit.
Using an analogy of a turkey, he explains how in eating it, it must be divided into smaller pieces. There is state A — ‘whole turkey on table’, and state B — ‘whole turkey in tummy’. The process of getting it there is through division (pp.146). Chunking in this way is so common that it requires very little further explanation. However, if we compare the ways in which Actors chunk the play, then we see correlations with the way Task Analysis deconstructs natural tasks and actions.
Somewhat unlike HTA, Stanislavski’s breakdown is determined to follow the end goal of the play. In HTA, we’re often not aware of an end-goal, or if it even exists in the first place. However, in focussing on that common action that leads to the end of the play, The System provides continuous grounding in the metaphysical outcome of the narrative. This is quite different from HTA. For example, of the 108 methods¹⁷ commonly referenced in HTA, only 4 are explicit about the ultimate aim of the human being the important outcome. We might have reason to observe, therefore, that HTA and HCI perhaps take an inherently materialistic, instrumentalist approach based upon behaviourism and cognitivism, rather than naturalism and creative radicalism (per Stanislavski).
Concentration and Attention
If context provides the soil for actions, then Concentration and Attention provide the Sunlight for the growth of a performance. Crucial to empathy is the practice of perspective shifts, the living mind, by controlling one’s inner state. Physical attributes of the Actor may persist, but it’s the mind and the Actor’s concentration which define the character.
Stanislavski demonstrated the curious effect that changing one’s internal state can do to observers. In one scene, Tortsov challenges his class to interpret his emotions — outlining how life itself teaches you how to do the technique. “Haven’t you ever felt out someone else’s mind, probed it with your feelings?… what am I now, would you say?” His class observes that his mood is “Kindly, warm-hearted, affectionate, lively, interesting”. “And now?” asked Tortsov. “I prepared myself but suddenly saw, there in front of me, not Tortsov but Famusov with his usual tics, his naive eyes, thick lips, podgy hands and the soft, senile gestures of a pampered man” (pp. 245–246). “So where is Tortsov?” questioned Stanislavski, “…you weren’t in communication with Famusov’s nose, nor his hands which I altered as part of the character I had created, but with my mind…you will come to know this marvellous metamorphosis that takes place in a truly creative actor.” (ibid)
When teaching his students how to shift attention, Stanislavski introduces the concept of ‘Circles of attention’, in his chapter on ‘Concentration and Attention’ (pp. 95). He outlines the 3 relationships which exist, and how it’s the 3rd which the Actor seeks to dismiss, imagining the 4th wall enclosing the action on the stage.
- Introspection, or ‘Solitude in public’ (within Self)
- Interaction, or ‘Communion’¹⁸ (Between selves)
- Observation and Judgement (audience)
These circles provide the Actor’s concentrative layers, at the same time protecting from scrutiny from the judgement of the audience (which inhibits truthful action), whilst also insulating the introspection and reinforcing the ‘solitude in public’. In that way Stanislavski defined it, it sounds very much like the Buddhist practice of zazen, or shikantaza: “The actor, in the center of the small circle, was secure within this circle, even before large audiences. This small circle could then travel on stage with the actor, enveloping the actor ‘like a snail in its shell’ (pp.82).
Even in the dramatic spaces of acting, an introspective mode of thought is crucial to performance. So too, in Design, where the ‘deep work’ of the Designer happens within. The Designer’s task is to synthesise all they’ve seen, heard, understood, experienced, and to convert, create into something new. When the breadth and depth of the designer’s experience is the same or greater than that in the customer-base, then the work will be great. If this breadth and depth is spread across a team, then the work of the team will be great. If all design is redesign, then it must originate in the internal world of the designer.
Our description of The System began with the outermost physical aspects. And now we reach deep into the core of it. We shall talk about emotions, and feelings.
When my Dad asked me about what it must be like for a snail to cross the garden, my immediate reflex was to imagine a scaled-up version — like my experience of crossing a football field. In which case, my mental gymnastics attempted to imagine my eyes in place of the snail’s eyes, to make an approximation.
Stanislavski’s rationale is that it’s impossible to have a genuine understanding of someone else’s lived experience without having your own lived experience to compare it to. Simply by being alive, it allows something of the subconscious to recognise that feeling in others, much like the Delphian oracle. Although the combinations and contexts change what you have experienced, intensified or attenuated, by drawing on the naturalness of one’s own feelings, can one awaken the empathy from within.
This is what Stanislavski referred to as ‘Inner Truth’. An innovative aspect of Stanislavski’s work has to do with inner truth, which deals with the internal or subjective world of characters — that is, their thoughts and emotions. That inner truth can be expressed in many ways, not always physical. In fact, it’s often more powerful with a facial expression or gesture. The mechanical approach to following a pattern is what Stanislavski was teaching against — the importance of recognising ‘Living tasks’, versus ‘Dead tasks’ (pp.310–311)¹⁹. A living task is one grounded in reality, and in real emotion.
This is a significant thought on ‘empathy’. The feeling about, or from another, cannot truly be extracted from someone else and put into another person. We don’t yet have the technology from The Matrix. But what we actually do is (as Stanislavski believed), find a personal approximation from our own lives²⁰. We might not have the intensity, or the exact mixture of emotions, but we find the most appropriate feelings for the character in the context. The reason that we can name emotions, and recognise them, is because they’re common to humans because we’re human. Stanislavski believed that we should train our emotions in the same way we train our muscles, being aware of them, and controlling them — amplifying or reducing whenever needed. And this is the very definition of ‘in-feeling’ (empathy), to resonate with the same emotion in two separate bodies.
Supertask, and through-action
And finally we come to the concept that brings all the threads together. In Design, we’re very attentive to possibilities. In fact, it might be said that Designers have an intimate relationship with possible states, and understand the potentiality of their work. An imperative dependency on this is the strategy, as shown by Jesse James Garrett (2011, pp. 28, 36–54). Part of finding the right possibility is the art of tactfully challenging the brief. Strategy provides definition, the root constraints, and provides the ‘pull’ towards a given goal. Stanislavski has a word for this: ‘Supertask’.
When discussing Supertask and Through-action, Stanislavski explained the importance of definition. The supertask represents the motive and goal of the playwright. “The process of seeking and consolidating the Supertask of a great role is difficult, and choosing a definition plays an important part in it”, states Tortsov (pp.323). When splitting any task into its components, then there is something of the motivation and the outcome that is lost. We see this in task analysis, where it can be easy to lose track of the purpose of individual actions. Stanislavski imparts that ‘accuracy of definition gives them strength and meaning’, effectively creating an anchor for the actions to manifest. Further, anticipating the resistance that a layman might have for the importance of definition, Stanislavski cautions that such a simplistic way of thinking doesn’t anticipate how ‘…the line we take and the interpretation we give to the work depend on the accuracy of the name, and the action implicit in that name” (pp. 323). The same might be said when interpreting the narrative of a customer during user research.
Using examples, we are shown how the definition directly affects the outcome of the play, and a reinterpretation of all the tasks it contains. Using an example from Griboedov’s Woe from Wit, Stanislavski contrasts 3 definitions: 1) ‘I want to strive for Sophie’, 2) ‘I want to strive’, 3) ‘I want to strive for freedom’, we can see how the purpose is different in each case. “If that is what the hero is striving for, the force of his criticism becomes even sharper and the whole work takes on not a personal, private meaning, as in the first instance — for the love of Sophie, not a narrowly national meaning as in the second version, but a meaning which is common to all men.” (ibid). In Design, we might refer to this as finding an appropriate Scope, but it is also an important lesson related to the second phase in Design Thinking: ‘Define’. Crucially, the way we define, changes everything we do from thereon in.
The General Creative State was part of Stanislavski’s attempt to visualise The System. The general principles and concepts are useful, but all the most useful to be mentally modelled into their appropriate places with each other.
In Stanislavski’s GCS, we can find many correlates to validated psychological ideas, although largely pre-dating them by over 50 years. Primarily, we can see anticipations of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of The Flow State (1990), and the autotelic personality. It will take an entire article to expand on this in the detail that it demands, but let’s consider some of the important parts here²¹.
If we dissect the diagram through which The System is made visual, we can see how it follows a useful schema for UX. Let’s say that the Proposed Supertask is the User Goal, which must be well defined in the right way. It becomes the central defining pillar of the entire experience. There must be a single Supertask, since it anchors the entire meaning for every single action in the narrative. “Imagine an ideal human being/actor who devotes himself to one single great goal in his life” (pp. 327). In the same way, we can understand the user goal as the Northstar, or the outcome sought. The through action represents the actual steps taken to reach the goal, which of course is (or rather should be) a straight line (pp.329).
Intentionally, it’s combined from the elevation of Feeling and Will, threaded together to create the through line. The Mind of course is present, but detached, representing for Stanislavski the presence of, but detachment from, the Actor within the Character. In our case, we might see it as the detachment that System 1 thinking provides our user — a reminder than the user is rarely aware of the rationality of their actions (demonstrated in cognitive dissonance, etc), and why the post- or pre-rationalisation of any task by a user is rarely reliable.
On either side, the Will (Motivation, Intention) and Feeling (Emotion) drives forward the task in 2 ways, the physical and the metaphysical — on the left, the cognitive but holistic feeling of progress toward the task, which weaves together the foundations. On the right, the symmetrical and outward performance of the task by the user. Their habitus, and behaviour.
The user Role is defined not by a narrative, but by Context (or Stanislavski’s Given Circumstances). At its foundation, the core ‘3 whales’ (as Stanislavski refers to them, pp.609) “we place 3 ideas, the 3 major foundations of acting. You should base everything you do on them” (ibid). These were defined as:
- Active dynamism: The art of the dramatic actor is the art of inner and outer action, which we might reframe as ‘the art of the designer is the art of enabling/facilitating user inner and outer action’
- Truth of passion and feeling are true in the given circumstances (Pushkin’s aphorism)
- The subconscious reflex of creating nature, through the conscious psychotechnique of the actor
It is the Actor’s goal to overcome the self as an obstruction to true empathy, that is ‘easier and more natural to unite all the Elements…he needs all the constituent Elements of his organism and artificial substitutes — clichés — are a hindrance to it.’ (pp. 314).
The raw material for building a character is already present in the Actor. This is what Stanislavski calls ‘the Actor’s Elements’. Defining the fundamental qualities of the Designer has also been explored within Design. When it comes to the Designer’s Elements, Jason Mesut defined the most important qualities for the designer (May 2018), Designing a Designer (Mesut Dec 2018), Design Value (Mesut Dec 2018), which have close correlates to the definitions provided by Stanislavski and his students. But in many ways, this space is latent and in need for further explanation and investigation.
And further examples of correlation come when considering the similarities between HCI and Acting frameworks. Compare Cohen’s acronym for preparing a character (‘GOTE’, or Goals, Obstacle, Tactics, Expectation’) to Card, Moran, & Newell’s (1983) model (GOMS²², or Goals, Operators, Methods and Selection²³). The origin for creating GOMS was in HCI, wherein the approach was that “it is a representation of the “how to do it” knowledge that is required by a system in order to get the intended tasks accomplished” (Kieras 1996, pp.2). The purpose was to understand a specific task, as a means to provide an Engineering model of how an interface should be designed. What it does not include, is the additional context provided by GOTE, which could be helpful to a Designer to define users’ constraints, approaches to solving for the constraints, and the expectations/desires of the user. GOTE might also be used as an introspection method for a Designer to unpack their own GOTEs.
Taking a step further, it’s entirely possible to adopt the workflow of an Actor preparing for a role by spending time with customers. Such an approach goes a step beyond the traditional ethnographic, psychology approach. Instead of being an outsider, observing from a vantage point, the designer get involved in the subject-matter, conducting the method known as ‘body-storming’. Body-storming in the classic sense is more like a stepping through of tasks than internalising a meaning.
Interestingly, Service Design has adopted the concept of ‘staging experiences’, and utilising a front-of-stage/back-of-stage model. This mental model recognises the difference between the medium of communication, and the distances from the customer that exist.
So, if like me, much of this resonates with you, perhaps it’s because these concepts of a completely distant field, contains many ideas we are familiar with in UX. Perhaps many of those principles might be tacit, and largely untaught in Design? An equivalent schema provided by the GCS is not found in UX with any degree of uniformity or consistency, and yet the GCS comfortably covers many aspects of UX. The GCS attempts to provide a structure, showing how each of the concepts fit together and interact with each other. This is something that seems to be missing from UX, and perhaps Design more generally.
As we’ve seen, the ultimate goal is to overcome the mechanical, returning to the first principle of one human being related to another, through emotion, feeling, action, gesture. With emotion memory, we’re taught to move away from being ‘active’ (‘concentration for concentration’s sake, objects for the object’s sake, the feeling of truth for the feeling’s sake…This, of course, is abnormal’, pp. 309), but ‘action’ directed always toward the goal or outcome.
Perhaps it’s somewhat ironic how, as UX Designers, we’re taught to design the experiences of others whilst spending very little time on how to experience. Imagine if, like an actor, the entire first year of study was based upon inspecting and dissecting the nature of direct experience itself?
Establishing rapport between interface and human, begins with rapport between humans. I’ve always had a suspicion in my career that the best outcomes for customers come from when the designer has internalised their needs, and feels them like their own, committed totally to learning and improving with the genuine and truthful application of the UX Designer’s Elements to serve their users. Amazing things can happen.
After all, Empathy is the mother of invention, as it continues to be defined as the starting point for design for good reason. And Acting serves as a fascinating correlated field, that can provide plenty of inspiration for the practice of Design.
In fact, I now have adopted a number of aspects from The System, and taken them as direct inspiration for my own world-view on Design and UX. Here’s a quick overview of some of the most important, although the majority are somewhat ‘infused’ into the entire body of knowledge:
- The establishment of The Designer’s Elements
- The natural talents of the Designer, and how to enhance them with ‘Psychotechnique’, and inner concentration
- The importance of the Designer’s inner action,
- Using emotion memory to connect and empathise more directly with customers via my own lives experience — and using this to better appreciate the limitations and benefits this method has for User Research,
- General Creative State as a useful mental model, that goes beyond the one’s we already have in UX and Design,
- The 7 steps as a framework for User Stories, and a general stimulus for Imagination
- A vocabulary with which to better describe the inner experience as a Designer, and the effectiveness of conscious practice of experiencing.
- The reinterpretation of Goal as ‘Through-action’ and ‘Super-task’
- The benefit of visualising a mental model of master craftsmanship into a codified System or Framework.
- Critiquing the mechanistic or procedural role of UX, beyond bootcamps teaching rote techniques, toward an agnostic, non-dogmatic use of methods to be effective.
In exploring an alternative to the orthodox lessons about User Experience from the field of Acting (amongst others), it’s clear that very useful and meaningful lessons can be drawn from more diverse domains. I’ve been prompted to make new thought-experiments: ‘what might the field of UX be, if it had originated from the field of Acting (or any other field — Social Care, Religion, Hospitality, for example), rather than HCI?’, ‘in what way would our digital experiences be different if that was the case?’.
Perhaps the ultimate lesson for anyone working in UX for a while is the reminder that the field of UX doesn’t have a monopoly over human experience. Every human experiences life and the meaning of existence, from the seemingly trivial to the spiritual. As more people every year are attracted to making digital experiences for the common good, and entering the field of UX, here’s a reminder that Acting has a lot of value to offer UX. Diversity in views, background, experience is crucial to improving UX for everyone — lived experience is the highest value we can hold in this field. To use Stanislavski’s term, it forms the designer’s ‘Elements’, those being ‘Artistic aptitudes, qualities, talents, natural gifts, and even some of the methods of our psychotechnique’ (pp. 307), ‘special skills, qualities and gifts (imagination, concentration, a sense of truth, tasks, dramatic potential etc. etc)’ (pp61).
Leveraging Stanislavski’s psychotechnique, and his System, we might cultivate a deeper and richer sense of connection with customers, and with other people more generally. It should also mean the cultivation of oneself as a designer. Working in UX should, as Adler used to claim at her Studio “growth as an actor and as a human being is synonymous”. We might aim for something equally as fulfilling — that growth as a designer and as a human being is synonymous. Design not just as ‘thinking’, or ‘doing’, but as ‘feeling’. As Plato said at the beginning of the article, once you’ve suspended your own ego and lived like someone else, this is the greatest form of knowledge there is. Whosoever is truly empathetic is compelled towards kindness, as Rousseau once asked ‘What wisdom can you find, that is greater than kindness? (Jean Jacques Rousseau)
As Brown said earlier, as Designers, “We build bridges of insight through empathy, the effort to see the world through the eyes of others, understand the world through their experiences, and feel the world through their emotions”. Armed now with an alternative Art of Experiencing, the question is:
If you approached your next UX project with the mindset of an Actor understanding a role, building a character, how might you see, understand, and feel the world differently?
The above article is a personal work, and does not represent the views of my employer.
If you’re working on (or just interested in) any of these topics, please reach out! Connect with me on LinkedIn, Academia, Twitter, or Medium.
: Certainly not as deep, nor as rich, as Einstein’s Gedankenexperiment.
: Some ethnographers see themselves as part of the object being studied, immersed and accepted within the community (Linska 2012, 42–44), whilst others have pointed to the problems with it (Lissner-Espe 1993, 14). The concept of being one with the object being studied is hardly universal with Ethnographers, as the personal notes of Malinkowski (1967) indicate, where he was neither sensitive to nor liked the people he was studying.
: Seitz (2019, 40) rightfully criticised Design Thinking, by suggesting how ‘empathy doesn’t directly dictate the process of accruing knowledge in Design Thinking or the respective steps that should be followed’. Indeed, in the majority of cases, the Design Thinking is shown to be someone who ‘thinks with their hands’ (Brown 2009, 106). It’s not in my interest to critique ‘Design Thinking’ here, only to demonstrate that there’s a gap in its standard process. Tovey (2016) also used terms such as embodied knowledge (pp.87), embodied meaning (pp. 159), embodiment stage (pp. 155). Curedale (2013) outlines how keywords used for design thinking typically related to empathy, being inquisitive, and remaining open-minded to the circumstances of those being studied.
: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. From 1909, as a translation of Greek empatheia “passion, state of emotion,” (via etymonline.com, accessed 09.05.22)
: 1570s, “affinity between certain things,” from French sympathie (16c.) and directly from Late Latin sympathia “community of feeling, sympathy,” from Greek sympatheia “fellow-feeling, community of feeling,” from sympathes “having a fellow feeling, affected by like feelings,”
: “feeling of sorrow or deep tenderness for one who is suffering or experiencing misfortune,”
: “empathy” (Titchener, Ward), “fellow feeling” (Mitchell, Smith), “inner sympathy” (Groos), “sympathetic projection” (Urban), “semblance of personality” (Baldwin), all terms were actually translations from the German Einfühlung. (“The American Yearbook,” 1911)
: There’s no way to prove that ‘red’ for me is qualitatively the same for you. Despite some more recent studies. My sensory apparatus (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, etc) and the way in which I construct the world around me through them might well be unique to me.
: As I mentioned earlier, this schema is, paradoxically, both the strength and the weakness of embodied experience.
: The opposite view, of course, was taken by Richard Feynman in his ‘Ode to a flower’, ‘https://fs.blog/richard-feynman-on-beauty/ (accessed 28 December 2021). In contrast, there is also the ‘Flower Sermon’, in Buddhism. JJ Gibson’s work on Affordances, the Ambient Optic Array, and the difference between the animal and the physical environment has a closer relationship to Buddhism than tends to be discussed.
: Benedetti (2013, pp. 1) refers to this as ‘the actor’s dilemma’.
: https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:9241:-210:ed-1:v1:en, 2.15 ‘User Experience’.
: https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:9241:-210:ed-1:v1:en, 2.2 ‘ Context of Use’.
: https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:9241:-210:ed-1:v1:en, 2.12 ‘Task’.
: Examples of using empathy are quite common in UX related literature. Kelley & Kelley (2013), expand on this concept through demonstrating the effect empathy can have on understanding problems faced by others.
: https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:9241:-210:ed-1:v1:en, 2.6 ‘Goal’.
: 108, made up of 6x Task analysis techniques, 8x Cognitive task analysis, 6x Process charting methods, 18x Human error and accident assessment techniques, 7x situational awareness techniques, 15x mental workload assessment, 17x team assessment methods, 16x interface analysis methods, 12x design methods, 3x performance time prediction. (2013); A Practical Guide for Engineering and Design
: In terms of Communion in The System, we find correlates for ‘Actions’, ‘Events’ (1,2,3), ‘Relations’ (location, patient/agent, instrument, Time: before, during, after; Causes, Triggers), Entity-Relationship Analysis techniques
: Benedetti introduced other keywords, referencing Piaget, not found explicitly in Stanislavski’s written work: Everyday behaviour (Necessity, Feelings, the Real ‘I’, Automatic reflexes, Organic action, sub-text and Inner Monologue) (pp.2–8). Events, Benedetti says, are what Stanislavski collectively summarised Episodes and Facts (a later set of terms for Tasks and Bits).
: The same belief was explained by the Father of Economics, Adam Smith, who said “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation …”
: Designer’s also experience what Michael Chekhov describes as a “happy moment”. This is when an actor reaches a particular inner freedom, so that they experience 2 roles simultaneously: the “creator”, and the “observer” who experiences their own creation.
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