Use improv to be a more creative, empathetic, innovative designer

UX • Design
22 • 2 • 18

Around 4 years ago, I started an improv course with Neil Curran from Lower the Tone, an improv school in Dublin. I saw my first improvised comedy show about 2 years prior to that and loved it but it took me those 2 years to build up the courage to take a course myself. It also took the pressure of having to do an ignite talk at Defuse 2014 where I had 5 minutes, 20 slides and no control over the presentation. When I started improv, I only really saw the course as a means to an end; doing a great presentation at Defuse. But after my first class, I was hooked on improv as most people who try it, are.

Improv is fun! In fact, it’s one of the most enjoyable activities I’ve taken part in while also being one of the most challenging. Improv is defined as “the art or act of improvising, or of composing, uttering, executing, or arranging anything without previous preparation”. For me, doing anything without preparing is difficult but doing it live in front of a paying audience… eeek.

The list of what I’ve gained from improv is too long but here’s a few examples; greater confidence, ability to get out of my head, ability to engage with emotions, better listening skills, better collaboration skills, a huge support network of fellow improvisers, the ability to form characters and take on other’s perspectives, the ability to be vulnerable and open. While I started improv to facilitate my professional growth, it has now become a personal hobby which is rewarding, inspiring and collaborative.

In 2016, I completed an improv course which focused on character building with Kelly Shatter from It was during that course that I realised how valuable improvisation techniques and games could be to designers and really anyone working on product development; researchers, project managers, developers, stakeholders, etc. During one session, we had to develop characters from scratch and on embodying that character, I felt a huge sense of what it really feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes. I started thinking about how improv could help us to truly empathise with the people using the products we design. For the past year, I have been using improv techniques in workshops with stakeholders, end users and my own team. I’ve also moderated a workshop “Improvise to empathise” at conferences and events in Ireland, the UK and the US.

"Great facilitation, Karen put everyone at ease."

The workshop focuses on three areas:

Increasing empathy capability.

We increase empathy by working on the basic rules of improv i.e. always saying yes, always supporting each other, allowing yourself to feel vulnerable, taking other people’s perspectives and enhancing the game.

Increasing confidence to run more engaging and insightful workshops with stakeholders.

We increase confidence by allowing people to fail, supporting each other, getting out of our heads, playing games and engaging with each other on a common ground.

Create more meaningful personas, user stories and scenarios.

We create more meaningful personas by building on all the data and creating real, truthful, honest, vulnerable characters that are much easier to engage with than a sheet of paper.


I’m sure reading this with vague interest, you’re probably terrified about taking part in one of these workshops and I don’t blame you as I would have been terrified too before I started improv. Having run this workshop a few times, I’ve seen the transformation of attendees even in just a few hours. Improv can help with all aspects of your life and also, it’s loads of fun!

"I had to force myself through the door because I was terrified! But it was great to be uncomfortable and stretch.

I’m very excited to share these techniques with the attendees at Convey UX in Seattle on February 27th, 2018.





If you’re interesting in this workshop or hearing more about Karen’s work, please contact us.