Computers as Theatre :: UXmatters

Art and Engineering

Often, there is a gap between the ways designers and engineers think about bringing an experience to market. But in a theatrical setting, technology and the artistic performance must be well aligned to produce an engaging experience for an audience. Still, the technology should be invisible to the audience. The performance is front and center.

Throughout her book, Laurel discusses the roles that artists and engineers play. While engineering minds are indispensable in the creation of technology, it is frequently the applications that artists dream up that end up being killer applications for technology companies. While typical engineering approaches are often overly practical, artists see the potential to create what could be. Laurel presents several humorous examples of ill-conceived software ideas that were born from practicality. In contrast, while motion-picture technology was certainly transformative, it was its use in conveying drama and performance that made it attractive to a wide population.

People with an artistic bent embrace intuition so may perceive potential technological developments well ahead of established scientists and engineers. Laurel cites a fascinating example, describing Jackson Pollock’s exploration of fractals before their wider recognition in the 1970s.

Immersive Experiences

Much of our thinking around human interactions is fairly simple—even when an interaction comprises multiple steps. Users have a need. They interact with a tool, and they get a result. However, the reader takes a different understanding from this book. How do we interact in an immersive environment, where the user interface surrounds the user?

The obvious components of theatre are the actors, the producer and director, support staff, technology, and sound. But much as with software and product design, the audience is a critical component of the experience. In theatre, the audience is not passive. The audience’s responses and demeanor have tangible effects on the performances of the actors, as well as other audience members’ perception of the experience. Imagine the performance of a comedy if the audience does not laugh. The audience’s reactions affect the actors—who feel a need to understand why the audience is behaving in a way that is unexpected. Laurel provides a very insightful anecdote that illustrates this point. Some of the best comedy shows I’ve seen are the ones in which a comic deals with a heckler artfully—in the best cases, incorporating the heckler’s gibes in the show.

Laurel’s first edition of this book was released in 1993, when the World Wide Web was about to take off and companies would soon introduce the precursors of virtual reality (VR) online. We are now at a point at which quality VR is affordable, so this updated edition is timely.

Although the obvious application of much of the book’s content is virtual reality—the most theatrical form of user experience—the book is about much more. Its ideas are applicable to voice user interfaces and interactive assistants, or chatbots. I can also see them being useful in service design. Supporting the user’s needs requires resilience and improvisation.


One of the strengths of User Experience as a field is the diversity among the voices of UX professionals and the backgrounds of its practitioners—all of whom practice empathy in their craft. Computers as Theatre brings a unique perspective to the world of User Experience that new UX professionals will find encouraging to and that will be eye-opening to seasoned veterans of the profession. 

Big thanks to Nick Dauchot (@nickuxd) for telling me about this book.

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