Role Play / Bodystorming

Ideating and validating concepts can be tricky. It requires the team to come up with solutions that work within a context that they may not be familiar with. This leads to ambiguity and high potential for failure. What if there was a method to create concepts in a fidelity low enough for quick iteration? And what if we could do this in a realistic context?

We sometimes ideate by role-playing. As a group we get together, observe users in the real world and mimic their workflow as a means to brainstorm together.

Outlined below is our 5 step process for success.

Step1: Define the goals

While researching a new topic, it’s easy to get sucked into a rabbit hole of exploration. But good research needs to be well defined to be actionable.

Here are a few questions that help us define what our participants need to experience:

  1. What problems are we ideating for?
  2. What user group faces this problem?
  3. What situations represent this problem?

Step2: Build a Narrative

In this step, we outline the workflow of the system - the key players, the side characters, their daily struggles and the backdrop.

To do this well, it’s important to capture the overtones of the experience. So we try to identify what can make the activity feel authentic.

If possible, we strongly advocate going to the field and making observations for reference. If not, secondary research is a great plan-b — books, people and videos can offer you clues on what a realistic setting looks like.

Using this as the base, we build the narrative. We try to cover the following:

  • A list of roles with loose descriptions to guide the participants.
  • A list of tasks with the time required to complete them.
  • Examples of disrupted workflows for a more honest experience

We then determine how many rounds of role-play are required for participants to have a rich experience.

Step3: Set the stage

To make the experience as realistic as possible, we attempt to mimic whatever facets of reality possible. For example — If the activity happens in a public space like a park, we set the stage in a park or the closest available alternative. If this isn’t an option, we sit outdoors to replicate an open space or use cardboard boxes to simulate closed areas.

When we are done with this, we gather our team and the facilitator briefs participants about the goals of the study, the agenda and the participants' roles.

Tip: Remind the participants that it is a good idea to improvise while they’re in the scene.

Step4: Act

Next, the group physically acts out the experience using various props. We focus on enacting both existing and new ideas - making things up as we go. This helps us understand interactions with not only the product but also the people and the environment around us.

Here are some tips to encourage the participants to stay in character and ensure that the scenes are realistically played out:

  • As a facilitator, make sure to realistically act out your script so participants know to follow your cue in keeping it accurate.
  • Help participants enact disrupted workflows to ensure that the experience is thorough.
  • Take a 2-3 minute break at the end of every session to give participants the time to allow their experiences to sink in. It’s a good idea to also encourage them to take notes.

Step5: Reflect

At the end of the exercise, we hope that participants can walk away with clear takeaways. The best way to orchestrate this is by hosting a reflection session. A group conversation can help them discuss not just new ideas, but also new insights and broken assumptions. This creates structure and gives everyone a sense of closure.

However, doing this in an unstructured manner can often lead to an imbalanced conversation with only the loudest people having a say. So here’s what we recommend:

  1. Distribute sticky notes and pens to all your participants.
  2. On a white board make a column for each role and a row for each task/scenario.
  3. Ask each participant to quietly write down insights and observations and place them in the right row and column.
  4. Once they’re done, ask the group to gather around and identify patterns. As you do this, you might want to re-group the sticky notes to create some structure.

At the end of this exercise, we’ll be left with a few key takeaways that most of the group agrees on and hopefully bring a fresh perspective to an old problem.


Role play forces people to break out of the typical structure of a conference room discussion, it may take time to get used to. But, that by itself will be enough to create a memorable understanding of what a user typically goes through. So whether or not it leads to new ideas, it leaves us with a few key takeaways and a different lens to approach old problems.

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