How my past life as a teen theater geek shaped my career in UX

This quarter in UX Night School's Intro Workshops, we're introducing a journal exercise to go along with each week's workshop. As I, Amelia, believe in walking the talk, I'm writing along with the workshop crew and sharing my responses. (Hopefully they'll share theirs as well!)

Journal Prompt #1  Reflecting on your own past experiences, both professional and personal, what approaches do you bring to practicing human-centered design?

In this lesson, we’ve looked at perspectives from performing arts like theater and dance.  But where are you coming from? Has your experience playing sports shaped your perspective? Studying history, sciences, or literature? Where have you learned to collaborate and make things?

Think about where you’re coming from, and how your perspective is unique.

I don't talk about it much, but I spent my teenage years as a bona-fide theater geek (or theatre geek, as I would have made a point to spell it then). It started with a middle school drama and creative writing class, and became full-blown when I went to an arts magnet high school

It's funny to recall it now, but I feel oddly proud of my former self - by the time I was 18, I had hung lights, run sound, acted in plays, written plays (two of them even got produced!), built sets, sewed costumes, and stage managed a production of Midsummer Night's Dream. I spent thousands of hours so immersed in theater, but at the end of high school, all I wanted to do was walk away.  I burned out on theater, and to be real, the drama that surrounded it. 

As an adult, my only involvement with theater has been as an audience member, and I have no regrets. Yet, as I look back, it's very clear how all those years spent in the shop or at rehearsal shaped who I became and what I did next, and what I brought to my career in user experience and design research. 

For one, my teenage passion for Playwriting helped me to understand dialogue and interaction, and how everyday interactions have a complex structure that very few of us ever think about. 

When one writes a play, one first step in developing it is to have what's called a "staged reading", where actors sit on a stage and read the words out loud. Years later, I would experience a very similar feeling when I tested a product I'd designed - the theoretical, in-one's-head concepts becoming real, and sometimes falling flat. A playwright can write what you might consider to be the perfect, brilliant bit of dialogue, only to hear it fall flat, the actors stumbling across it. Similarly, one can concept a feature only to get confusion from the end-users in the test. 

Doing Theater also helped me to learn how theory and practice overlap and inform each other, and just how complex representing a problem can be. The concepts of mimesis (artistic imitation, representation or presentation) and digesis (literal narration) date back to Plato. And they're particularly relevant in this regard - concepts that philosophers and theorists have wrestled with in the years since. Building technology is a form of mimesis, and as I learned in my youth, all acts of mimesis have a particular point of view. 

Of course, if you ever take part in putting on a play, or in building a technology product, you'll also quickly learn that production is always a collaborative effort. Just as actors draw our attention, tech figureheads are often who we see and credit with "the technology".

Yet, an actor speaks their lines written by someone else, moves across the stage in direction from someone else, is visible because of lights set up and operated by someone else, wears makeup designed by someone else, appears in front of a stage designed by someone else and wears a costume designed by someone else - the list goes on. Similarly, when we hear about technology, and see these individual hero figures, I look back to my teenage theater days and say "yeah right". 

Theater also taught me that any effort that requires specialized knowledge is "technical", and that hierarchies are almost always part of social life. Technical theater geeks (as I was) can and will nerd out about soundboards, lighting setups, set construction, stage makeup, or costume construction. It's funny, because although "Technical Theater" geeks try to show themselves as more serious than performers, the Greek word techne originates in reference to the craft of performance.  In my work these days, I take great joy in observing and identifying the hierarchical dimensions and secret languages of work and social life. 

Theater taught me that everything has a structure. A play traditionally has five acts, and stories almost always adhere to narrative structure. We, as humans, recognize, are assisted, and resist these structures in our everyday lives.

All those hours in the theater taught me to recognize craft and complexity, to appreciate beauty, and to understand how our humanity is shaped by what we experience on an often-fleeting basis. It taught me to understand and consider multiple points of view, and to recognize different types of work and knowledge. But perhaps most important, it taught me to work at things that I felt compelling, and to take what I learned with me.