Everyone Needs a Good Listener: Theater as a Foundation for Interaction Paradigms

The last ten years have changed the way most people on the planet use, depend on and intuit technology. Advances in mobile devices and tablets have changed the expectations of users across the board. We have all learned a new language that continues to evolve; whether a swipe or a two-finger pinch, we demand responses from only slightly varied articulations, responses that are tailored to our needs, whims, and landscapes. It’s future-retail gospel that experiences must be connected, leverage omni-channel strategies, and be personal. And yet, even now, most digital interventions in retail are barely more than a website instantiation wrapped in a kiosk. Every day we’re getting more confident, clever, dare I say, closer to the right balance of technology and service. But we need to do more. In order to get there what we really need to find is a damn good listener.

To really explain what I’m talking about, allow me to revisit my past. My early academic and professional storytelling career took place quite literally on a stage, where there were perhaps a few more make-up and costume changes than my current venture allows. This former life in the theater, however, involved only limited digital expression and certainly no daily computer time, though perhaps just as much coffee. In both worlds, rich narrative experiences began with periods of discovery and conceptual thinking, moved into design and development, and ended with a live release. In the theater, that release just happened to involve live humans delivering each run of the show, but both spheres maintain a similarly iterative dimension. Migrating organically from the performing arts to experience design has allowed me to identify the way a set of common principles, illuminated by a shared library of connections to process and design thinking, has kept me invested in making and allowed me to experience perspectives that are present in so many of the arts.

Working in multidisciplinary teams, like we do at Second Story, I’m always acutely aware that there is much to be gained by looking to other mediums for insight on one’s own. And it has gotten me thinking a lot about my past in theater, this shared library of connections, and how the rich history of performance paradigms might be evaluated and applied to the (comparitively) fledgling field of interactive media. How might we look to a mature and developed art form to inspire the development of this new one? How might these lessons enable us to create enriched interactions that feel intuitive, responsive, and holistically connected to the story they are trying to tell, and more importantly, to experience-craving audiences?

I have carried from the theater into the museum world and on into my present work a growing knowledge and understanding of the importance of space and context in the creation of a time-based experience. To be clear, space matters. Our environment influences our perceptions and emotions more than we may realize. In the theater, with each run of a show, the same stories are told and retold every day in basically the same sequence. Though the speaking of words may be replicated each night, the experience of telling-–of performance–is nuanced and fluid because of the shifting context. The players, the pacing, even the tone of the room and energy of the audience affect the experience. As a performer, you are trained (at least in my experience) to drive the base narrative into your memory and then forget it. To absorb and know the arc, but to live and feel the moments as they happen, to be aware of the fluid space in which the performance takes place. To do this successfully, the performer, above all else, must listen.

Michael Shurtleff, who wrote a book that most actors read at one point or another in their career, said, “Listening is not merely hearing. Listening is reacting. Listening is being affected by what you hear. Listening is active.” Jack Lemmon extends this thought, asserting that acting:

…doesn’t have anything to do with listening to the words. We never really listen, in general conversation, to what the other person is saying. We listen to what they mean. And what theymean is often quite apart from the words. When you see a scene between two actors that goes really well you can be sure they’re not listening to each other — they’re feeling what the other person is trying to get at.

So what of it, in the context of experience design? Well, what if we could enable environments to do just that: listen? Public, commercial, and civic spaces are all rapidly becoming instrumented, but to what end? What if this is the first step to making responsive environments: making places that are smart enough to listen to our visitors implicitly? Beyond surveilling, what if our instruments transcend their “ears,” stop merely listening to what people say, and instead hear what they mean? Be it body language, words, gestures, taps… software and spaces need to evolve. We should strive to anticipate and intuit a person’s needs, especially when that need is to simply be left alone. Responsive places will become both the setting for and a part of the scene; these places will listen to understand motivations and needs and work to meet them.

This thinking is quite embedded in the structure of our software already. Code often will include so-called lines of “listeners,” commands that observe processes and trigger behaviors in software based on these observations. They’re always there. They’re always listening, and they react or shift or manipulate based on what they hear. This kind of listening is quiet, reactive, and responsive. These listeners are behind the scenes, not in your face. Imagine we can begin to populate the world with physical analogues to these software listeners–receptors in the neural network of the internet of things. These sorts of listeners in the wider context of a space can help us to understand people’s needs, so that we can deliver back more meaningful experiences.

In the retail context, this thinking has some obvious applications. Clinique, for example, a brand that has shifted towards an open-sell paradigm in the last few years, has adopted an analogue example of this concept. Though not truly “smart” in the digital sense, the ability for a customer to quite literally wear on their sleeve the level of service they desire is the first step in this evolution toward responsive retail experiences–but I’m pretty sure we can do better. I don’t mean infiltrating a customer’s space, surveilling or annoying them, or collecting data in order to target them with broadcast media. I mean that we need to be smart, reserved even, seeking a balance between digital tools and service. That’s what a great customer experience actually means: educational, inspiring, motivated service. There is a need and room for both digital and human touch points if we do it right, which is where we can look back to the theater. For an actor, it’s not only the listening that is important, it is the performance itself. The word “performance” in the context of theater makes sense, but “authentic response” is probably a better way to say it here, especially where retail is concerned. I want a two-fold experience when I enter a store. On the one hand, I want to be left alone to explore the landscape and confirm or address some basic assumptions or desires, but I also want confidence in those assumptions, or assistance, at the very least, from someone I can trust. I want a salesperson who is knowledgeable and, more importantly, engaged. I want someone whose motivation is authentic. I want to engage with someone who believes in what they are selling, and I want to be inspired.

We need to invest in both sides of this equation in order to really elevate the retail experience. A well-designed experience needs to be about not only the customer but the salesperson as well. They need to deliver similar but separate experiential goals to the person that will be using them or directing customers to use them. The goals of the real-life person need to be differentiated from those of the digital experience, but they must complement one another. No digital tool, no matter how smart, can ever surmount the potential connection between two human beings. I believe technology should empower both the tools and the human pieces of the puzzle.

In the coming months, I’ll dive into this idea a bit further, looking at some competing theories, practices, and ideas on response and reaction in the theatre and how they might be applied in the context of experience design broadly, not only looking at implications for retail.

Until then: Shirley Booth once stated that “the audience is 50 percent of the performance.” Chew on that.

— Traci Sym, Senior Experience Designer


Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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