The Play's the Thing: Scenic Design, Interactive Design and Experiential Space


Photo of performance of Around the World in 80 Days.

A scene from Around the World in 80 Days, produced by Stage West and designed by yours truly.



This summer my long-gestating dream of being a theatrical set designer was realized when I received an invitation to design a production of Around the World in 80 Days for a professional regional theatre company. Was it my ticket to Broadway fame? Probably not. But it was a good opportunity to explore what experiential design means in the physical world and to take that knowledge back to the virtual world of user experience design that I normally inhabit.

Website schematics and Stage Design schematics

"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it". For me, this means: make sure every element on every web page is there for a reason, that each is satisfying a need, and that you can identify what that need is.

In reality, neither user experience nor theatrical experience can actually be designed per se. We are more User Experience Enablers: we create affordances to enhance the user's experience, to shape their interactions. In theater we create "mise-en-scène"; we "place the elements in the scene". On screen, we use the Elements of User Experience (16.5 k PDF) to create a digital experience that is satisfying to the various stakeholders. In reality, however, each audience member comes to a show –- or a site – with a different mindspace, and it is the interactions that happen in actual real time that create the experience. As UX designers, we should use all the tools available to us to increase the odds that a site – or a set – will elicit the experience that we intend, and jettison those that do not work towards that goal.

An important maxim in theatre that UX professionals would be wise to heed comes from the Russian playwright Anton Chekov: "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it". For me, this means: make sure every element on every web page is there for a reason, that each is satisfying a need, and that you can identify what that need is. Is that wood-grained console actually serving a purpose? Are those top navigation choices really reflecting the user's primary goals? The added benefit of this philosophy is that each and every element can be seen as an opportunity to enhance user experience, user needs, and site objectives. When making decisions, there is a touchstone that brings you back to a specific goal and can guide your decision-making. Crafting elements to achieve specific needs allows you to build-in satisfaction and enjoyment. And that leads to great experiences.

Photo of performance of Around the World in 80 Days.
A scene from Around the World in 80 Days produced by Stage West and designed by yours truly. photo: Robert W. Hart

In the end then, much like effective UX design, theater design is about storytelling, about engaging the audience. In both theatre design and interface design, you are the working for the audience, to create a shared world. Your design shapes people's reactions, expectations, and understanding – whether they are sitting in the dark of the theater or under a desk lamp with a laptop. Only when the play is in progress or when someone is interacting with your website is the experience realized. All the work that goes before, the efforts of the entire web development or theater team, is aimed to make that actual lived experience compelling and memorable. Stand up and take a bow, everybody.

In Reflection

Of course, it is essential to recall that a theater production is not a website. There is no written, published script (no matter how many use cases and user stories we envision). In UX, we are designing for the equivalent of the audience at the stage show, however, in the theater it is very unlikely for the audience to storm the stage or start chewing the scenery with the troupe. We can pretty much expect them to take their seats, stretch their legs at intermissions, and applaud at the end before filing out. Website users are actually more akin to the director or the actors who take the scenarios provided and create an experience from them. However, as we know, users aren't reading from a script; they make choices we would never expect and certainly didn't plan for. No matter how many focus groups we listen to or surveys we run, we cannot know exactly what a user will do until she logs into the site and begins exploring. As a UX designer, make sure that you provide her with the setting for a great experience...and then sit back and watch what happens.

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