How I use role play to test ideas

Theater as a place for observation and decision making

In 2011 I travelled back to Barcelona to develop my degree project. I wanted to create a service that would allow you recycle, repair, repurpose (three R’s 😏 how smart am I?) old electronics.

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

I came with many ideas on how to develop the product, in my mind those ideas were great. But I knew that some of them were like babies about to grow entitled, ugly and problematic.

So I decided to come up with a test that was different from other tests, because I’m an innovator (🙄). And I came up with the idea of Role Play testing (in reality this was nothing new, many agencies were using it before, it just happened that I didn’t know at the time)

Role playing serves to analyse either a situation your audience is in to empathise with or to test how particular part of a service you are designing would work (and probably has many more applications).

In my short and humble experience this method can be used when you have limited access to your target users and need validation. Role play gives you a low-mid strength of evidence accuracy , so you have to be careful not to take the results of this type of test as a gospel and test more after with a higher strength of accuracy method.

You need a goal. What are you testing with this role play? For me was validating the service idea. The goal my degree project experiment, was to understand some of the objections people would have when finding about the service.

You also need to understand your users, either in form of an archetype of your users or somewhat detailed personas.

This will help you to brief the another element of this equation, the actors/participants. The actors can be teammates or people that where not involved at all in the project.

In my case I used student of FabLab Barcelona that had no idea of what I was doing.

Sometimes the actors/participants role is to personify the objects or processes such as the a website, or an app, or an IoT device. In that case the actor needs to have a script of how to react to different interactions.

On the other hand, if scripting is too much, you can create props instead.

I created a cardboard vacuum cleaner and fake euro bills to simulate money.

What’s key is that your actors/participants get familiar with their role in the story they will play.

Then, you can paint the picture of where their character lives, by creating the context where the character lives and the situation the character is involve.

I told two of the Fab Lab students that they were at the place of the service I was designing. One of them was working at the place, the other was a new client. The “worker” needed to convince the client to use the service.

Before the scene is set up you probably need to do some convincing of who plays who, or what.

When the scene is set up is time look and listen to what is said and done in the scenario. If possible record it, and analyse. In my opinion the improvised aspect of it makes it more real. Sometimes is good to ask the actors/participants to switch roles after they’ve played the scene couple times.

Is your scene, so make sure you get the information you need. If the scene derails or if you don’t understand what’s going on tell the actors/participants to stop and explain what’s happening.

I hope this is useful for you. Cheers.

Explorimentalist is the curious creative ego of Ngatye Brian Oko that explores technology from the human side. Find more at

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