Chapter 10. Improv in Research

The best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.

Adapted From Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”

Humans are fickle. And no amount of planning, preparation, or experience can mitigate every possible variable. While we’ve encouraged testing technology, recruiting backups, and other methods to support an efficient research process, things ultimately don’t go as planned. Improvisational techniques are an invaluable way to approach the unknown with a positive outlook. This chapter introduces improv techniques and shares their application to research and product design as a whole.

What Is Improv?

Improv is storytelling. In traditional terms, it is simply telling a story you haven’t written down. This doesn’t have to be a complex story. In fact, recounting how your day went or describing your plans for tomorrow are perfect examples of improvising stories. In the professional setting, storytelling and research are very much aligned. We craft questions for stakeholders and participants but have no idea what responses we may get. Improv gives researchers the ability to think on our feet and pivot at a moment’s notice based on the reactions and feedback we receive.

Improv for the Masses

While improv is not specific to comedy, we often associate one with the other. Second City, Saturday Night Live, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus are all examples of popular improv troupes. You may have attended an open-mic night at a local comedy venue where improv games were showcased ...

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