Scribbling possibilities for our Hackathon project

Meisner’s approach applied to design

Jo Hopkins
5 min readMay 17, 2018


Experiment, iteration and possibilities are just a few of the terms we designers are familiar with and we use these techniques frequently to help us solve problems. Sometimes when we begin to explore a problem there can be a whole conglomerate of possible solutions; whether it’s an interface design, VUI interaction or a service design question. These three things can help to whittle down the options available to us.

The question isn’t just where to start, but sometimes more importantly… where to stop?

The Meisner’s approach fits very much with this iterative, experimental school of thought.

It’s a quick-fire approach to sketching solutions; thinking of as many permutations of the interaction / design I’m looking to communicate as I can within a set timeframe. There are different layers to this approach but I’m going to focus on one; exploring possibilities.

Meisner’s approach is a technique which champions a ‘free-writing’ style of exploration.

Even if I think I’ve got the answer — sometimes especially in this case — It’s a useful, time-boxed exercise to be sure I’ve considered as many possibilities as I can before committing to exploring one or two in more depth.

Why should I draw stuff I don’t need? (I hear you cry)

Essentially it’s an exercise in removing any self-censoring such as pre-conceived product-constraints, or simply as a way to help get out of your design-comfort-zone.

Why be consistent for the sake of consistency, or simply out of habit?

Getting familiar with solutions for certain types of interactions for continuity reasons is often the ideal… but sometimes; isn’t it nice to break the mould and see if a new discovery can improve what already exists?

The ‘free-writing’ element comes into play predominantly because it’s also a good way to practise a bit of visual thinking and visual communication. Whether that’s presenting the plethora of options to your team, talking them through as you scribble them down or just running through the variations on your own.

So who’s this Meisner guy?

Sanford Meisner was an influential bloke in the theatre-world back in the 1900s who was prominent in the development of method acting. After reminiscing with a mate, the other day, about some of our theatre workshops, I got to thinking; what if we apply the aforementioned design terms to one of Meisner’s exercises?

Experiment: Improvisation
As part of his work, he advocated the use of (look-out, I’m throwing an oxymoron out there) spontaneous-repetition and improvisation.

His intention; to teach actors to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. Perhaps a somewhat extreme echo of the way we designers try to walk in our people’s/our user’s shoes, understanding their truth in given circumstances.

Iterate: Intonation and inflection
As one of his series of exercises actors are put into pairs (A and B) and asked to repeat a line over and over (A,B,A,B). To explore the raft of possibilities for delivery they use their voices to play with different intonations and inflections of said line in response to the actor in-front of them.

The aim for this exercise is to make the performance more authentic.

His belief was that when an actor focuses on responding to another person and their needs, it helps remove their own preconceptions of the script (problem-statement). This means they can produce a more authentic portrayal of their own character.

In a nutshell… focusing on other people takes your own bias away and fosters better empathy

Possibilities: Choice
The impact the change in intonation has on the interpretation of the line and the inherited body-language driven by that change can turn an entire scene on its head, or simply add just the right level of gravitas or humour to a moment. It’s all about the intonation (solution) you choose.

Bringing it back to design

A key part of building any VUI is the script; being able to articulate the most meaningful response to a question. There are several elements that make this possible, the one I’m going to focus on are the questions asked.

At IRESS we have an annual global 24 hr hackathon in May. We, the UX team, formed a hackathon team and as one part of our solution we were building a skill for Amazon Echo.

In order to make sure we give meaningful responses we wanted to understand what people will be asking of our new skill, and the different ways in which they will ask.

This is where the Meisner approach comes in; after planning the over-arching steps through our chosen journeys we experimented with the iterative, free-writing approach to create the skeleton of our script and identify the various utterances.

  1. We set ourselves the challenge of, within 30 or 60 seconds, listing all the possible ways someone could ask ‘that question’ — we all did this individually for the same question. (It’s important to know that there’s no such thing as a wrong answer, just write down whatever comes to mind.)
  2. We played back our lists to each other, sharing our assumptions; ranging from the very similar to “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that”.
  3. Next we worked together to write an answer which could serve as a ‘best answer’ to all these possibilities
  4. We chose one of the questions from the list, that we felt best represented our user in the demo journey, and put it together with the answer to form the basis of our script.

The added bonus is that this script also formed the basis of our interface version of our solution.

We found that, rather than agonize over getting ‘the right question’ into our script, debating the semantics for each question in the dialogue story, we were able to quickly pick a best-assumption from a vast array of choices and move on.

Given that the structure of the project was part of a hackathon, this was ideal, but – obviously – given more time in a ‘real world’ project our next step would be to validate these assumptions with some user testing.

So why not give it a go?

Whether you’re blitzing through sketches of interface interactions or hastily scribbling voice interactions for an ambient device, see if the Meisner approach can help you iterate initial thoughts faster and explore more, or even new, possibilities.



Jo Hopkins

Product designer, UX/CX consultant and Visual thinking practitioner