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Whose Line is It Anyway: Innovation, Ethnography, and Improv – Steve Portigal

Date: October 1, 2004
Speaker: 
Steve Portigal — 

Customer researcher Portigal looks at two not-usually-combined-or-even-discussed-together approaches to direct experience: the theatrical activity of “improv” and participant-observer user research. As the “learner”, he shares some of his process and technologies for “learning.”

Improv is not “stand up comedy” (although people assume them to be the same thing). It’s a series of games with rules that offer huge degrees of freedom within a set of constraints. In these games we bring out a lot of basic, quickly understood and communicated rules of culture that are implicit, not explicit. We see people’s relationships to products, to each other, and to current events. Improv is also a process for exploring collaboration at its most fundamental level, the co-creation of ideas, rather than “shared document editing.”

Participant observation has interesting similarities with improv. Both are in-the-moment processes. You learn upon reflection. There’s enormous unspoken collaboration. Both involve a great deal of advanced “listening.” Within a brief exchange, what our respondents say contrasts with how they say it and what they are doing, and what we see in the environment. This kind of listening is an advanced skill that takes some developing. Improv can be a useful training activity to play out some of these research scenarios indirectly, to enhance and hone our listening skills, and to develop a core technology of participation-observation research. The improv approach draws from literature in anthropology as well as communication studies.

Finally, with improv, there is often an “aha” moment. As performers without a script, we learn to “look for the ending” and know when to conclude. We do participant-observation research to create and achieve new insights and see new patterns, a different kind of “aha.”

In this talk, you will learn more about improv, participant observation, listening, context, and, of course, how these things all fit together and can be used and experienced.

About the speaker
Steve Portigal is a customer research consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He started out as a computer scientist but was soon drawn to the interactions between people and technology. Eventually, he widened his focus to the relationships between people and “stuff”, the products, companies, consumers, media, and advertising that flow through our culture. It is Portigalís belief that companies must understand these relationships in order to succeed. Portigal carries an impressive portfolio of clients including Hewlett-Packard, Palm, Sony, Nestle, and Rubbermaid, to name just a few.

Presentation Files
Download program slides (398 KB .zip)

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