Design Methods #26 – Role-playing

Role-playing is used in design, workshops and research to place people in the roles of users, exploring the behaviours and habits that happen in different scenarios or reflect different aspects of customer experience. This is done by acting roles in realistic scenarios to build empathy and identify challenges and opportunities in a product or experience. This can be a low cost and easy to execute way to uncover many of the habitual behaviours and responses associated with a particular aspect of life.As long as participants are willing, then immersion in a role can really help to uncover the reality of a particular experience, often leading to complete immersion in a situation with strong and difficult reactions to some events. Therefore, role-playing situations must be managed to ensure a good balance between uncovering the truth of a situation and ensuring the well-being and comfort of participants.

Role-playing can be very easy to set up, needing no more than the people in the room, although props, costumes and environment may help create more realistic scenarios. With more realistic props, role-playing is often similar to body storming. Participants are given the description of a situation, event, goal or task and asked to begin acting out assigned roles, which can include users and various stakeholders. Roles are set in an overall context of the situation or task, but are then largely improvised relying on normal behavioural patterns rather then conscious deliberation to shape events as they unfold. Sessions are often recorded in video or pictures to capture outcomes, with a thorough review and discussion afterwards to ensure that useful information is captured.

Role-playing can be a useful alternative to observation when this is not feasible or ethical, or when it is important to get a group of people to truly empathise with a particular user experience or situation. It should always be based on realistic scenarios and behaviours, and it is important to benchmark role-playing outcomes to real-life either before or after any role-playing sessions, through additional research or observations.

Role-playing is a great way to get participants to behave rather than act, tapping into their unconscious mind and habituated responses.


Universal Methods of Design by Martin & Hanington

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

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