From Yes And to Wizard of OZ: How I Applied my Creative Background to Unlock Innovation in User Research?

Earlier this year, on a user research contract with a UK transport company, I had the pleasure of working with the innovative and creative service designer Nick Durrant from City ID.  We both had backgrounds that spanned across academia and the arts, this shared understanding led us get to rich conversations about how to work and try out new ideas very quickly. 

Two of the many ways we were able to bring creative approaches into our approach were: applying theatre games within ideation and wizard of OZ prototyping.

This blog follows an earlier post (see this link)  where I gave more of an overview as to why creativity is needed for digital transformation.  Within this I gave a brief overview of some other creative approaches including forum theatre. 

Theatre Games in Prototyping

After going through the process of conducting research to understand user problems, creating personas (representations of users based on research) and guiding stakeholders towards agreeing a problem definition we moved into the ideation process.  The core principle that we placed at the centre of the ideation process was the theatre game “yes and”.  The basic premise of this game is that participants must build on what has been said before, they must always say yes, they can never say no.  This structure forces participants to build on what has been said before, saying yes in this way keeps the flow going far more than it would, even if there were even a few no’s.

We introduced the yes and game as an icebreaker activity.  Here we deliberately kept this light and playful and unrelated to the actual focus of the session.  We started with the first participant stating on my way to work I … and each participant added in ideas to create a slightly fanciful story.  We kept the icebreaker away from the core content we were looking at as we simply wanted participants to get used to playing the game.  Our concern was that if we’d introduced the content at the same time as the game participants might have found excuses to block rather than playing freely.  Whereas introducing the approach as simply a quick icebreaker got participants into the idea of playing without thinking too much about it.

Once we got into the ideation process, we introduced new activities including: imagine the worst possible service, how might you improve the service with an army of magical invisible little helpers and trying to fix the problem for just one persona.  The yes and logic continued within the way each of these were played.  Keeping the essence of the yes and within all the others helped keen the games flowing, we were aware that as soon as participants started thinking about practical constraints the imagination flow would stop or at least slow down significantly.  Whenever anyone tried to add in any constraints or no’s we reassured them by saying that constraints would be added in, just not at this point. 

The worst possible future service was a lot of fun.  Participants came up with lots of ideas for how to make bus, tram, and train services worse, such as by removing all the timetables.  As you might imagine the next step was to try to flip as many of the negatives as possible to find solutions to them, so for example removing timetables could be a good thing if you could create an on-demand service that didn’t need timetables.  One observation was that many of the worst possible futures already existed, to some extent at least, so by going through this process they were actually starting to move towards addressing real world problems. 

In the magical little helper’s game participants imagined what might be possible if they had an infinite number of invisible helpers that they didn’t need to pay or feed etc.  Solutions that emerged included the magical people telling customers where their busses were, how long the wait would be and what their alternative options were.  This opened up discussion about what app functionality might be able to replicate this. 

The persona activity was useful in getting participants to consider what might help or hinder one type of customer.  The personas were representations of service users that had been created from earlier researchers.  The personas included user needs and pain points.  We deliberately selected the persona least able to benefit from digital solutions.  This focus was useful as it encouraged participants to think about how user experience could be improved for people that were digitally excluded.  Adding in that constraint opened up lots of new improvement ideas. 

Wizard of Oz

The wizard of oz prototyping approach is a variation of paper prototyping where one member of the research / design team plays the role of the machine.  It is called the wizard of oz method as playing the machine is a bit like the role of the wizard in the wizard of OZ.  The way we played it, I facilitated the sessions in a similar way to how I would facilitate usability sessions whilst the designer improvised responses to the actions taken by users.  When I say improvised these responses were not simply made up on the spot.  Just like with most theatre improvisation they were carefully planned and rehearsed responses to situations that were likely to turn up. 

Image created by me to represent the wizard or oz process

Prior to the sessions taking place I had collaborated with the designer to create a framework to inform potential responses.  The designs communicated to users had been informed by user research, the analysis of the last phase of prototyping.  In our case this had been presenting storyboards and collecting feedback about the ideas outlined.  The storyboards and user responses informed our wizard of OZ format.  The Wizard of OZ play outlined above was in effect a way to bring to life an updated version of our storyboards. 

One of the key benefits of all forms of low fidelity prototyping (including storyboarding and the wizard of OZ approach) is that it enables the testing of improvement ideas without the need to invest lots of money in expensive product development work.  This is not to say that testing more sophisticated ideas is never useful, simply that it can be a lot more effective and cost effective to start testing with low fidelity prototypes.  The benefit of this approach is not simply financial however, research has shown that users are more likely to feel free to express negative reactions if the prototype they are responded to is in an unrefined form.  This article by the Norman Neilson Group outline the benefits of different types of prototyping including the Wizard of OZ approach. 

One caveat I would add in about the use of improvisational approaches such as the wizard of OZ.  To work effectively it requires facilitators to think quickly and to improvise.  This approach worked well for us, but prior to my research /UX career I sent many years working and training in theatre and the designer I was working with also had a strong arts background.  My background was mostly in street theatre and physical theatre, both of which involve a lot of improvisation to deal with unexpected events. 


As illustrated in this blog post theatrical approaches can greatly enhance different stages of a design approach.  They can at first glance appear fun and frivolous but, if used well they can help guide participants towards coming up with more innovative ideas (as in ideation) and to test user responses prior to investing lots of development costs (as in the wizard of oz approach).  These approaches do however take lots of careful planning behind the scenes, as is implied by the name wizard of oz.  They also need the involvement of one or more skilled facilitators, both the approaches outlined in this blog are in effect examples of applied theatre.  For them to work smoothly a facilitator able to hold the attention of participants and respond quickly to sometimes unexpected events is required. 

I would also like to add that I wrote this blog post because I love this kind of creative work and I would relish the opportunity to do more of it.  So do please get in touch if you can help make that happen.  Contact me if you:

  • might be interested in hearing more about my approaches and experience
  • might be interested in collaborating with me in some way
  • if you are aware of events where I could speak or facilitate, to demonstrate my creative approaches
  • you have a user research, service design on consultancy contract I might be interested in

More about my background and how its relevant is outlined in this earlier blog post where I talk more about my creative background and how its related to design. 

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