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What: Strictly speaking, role play is in fact not an HCD tool, since no data is obtained directly from the stakeholder, which of course has its drawbacks. However, as an empathy tool, a way for you as a designer to put yourself in your user’s shoes, it is certainly worth considering. The first applications date back to the 1980s, when role playing was used to design computer systems. Now role play is used in both product development and service design.

When: Role play can be used effectively to expose the main issues in a situation or a product.

Advantages: Role play is pretty much the simplest and cheapest tool that you can use in HCD.

Even though role play requires little preparation, it can be part of a larger project for which some degree of preparation is indeed necessary. In service design, role play is sometimes used to act out a situation. For this purpose, prototypes are sometimes built in order to simulate the necessary interactions. Personas can be used as a guide to play a role, while scenarios can help test out different situations. In product development, it may be necessary to involve prototypes in the role play.

Role play can be used in a variety of manners:
1. As an exploration tool: an existing situation or product is investigated through role play.
2. As an empathy tool: sometimes, it is difficult to imagine people’s experience of a given situation. Designers can better empathise by acting out the situation, preferably in the real environment. This can be supplemented with additional empathy tools to simulate physical handicaps for instance (e.g. operating a device with gloves to simulate arthritis).
3. As a verification tool: concepts can undergo a first test by means of role play in combination with prototyping.

Step 1 – Team and role players
Start with one or more people from the design team who will act out a particular situation in the use of a product or service. It is necessary for them to know precisely who and what is being played. Personas and a scenario are the best guide for that. The actors must become engrossed in their respective role, to make sure there is no danger that they play themselves. Let someone from the design team record the impressions and comments of the role players. Alternatively, capture the whole role play on video. 

Step 2 – Environment
The environment can have a major impact on people; it is therefore advisable to perform the role play, where possible, in the right environment. In the medical sector, for example, this environment is very important. If you do not perform the role play in the real environment, you have to create the right situation with the help of prototypes. Prototypes will also be necessary to test concepts.

Step 3 – Performance and recording
It is advisable to take direct notes, photos and videos during the performance. What should be recorded: the impressions of the role player(s), the things that don’t go well, the things that do, etc.

Step 4 – Use of the data
Afterwards, the data is directly used in the design process. It is important for the role player(s) to be part of the design team to make sure these feelings are immediately tapped when designing, especially if the role play is used as an empathy tool.

Dag Svanæs, Gry Seland, Putting the Users Center Stage: Role Playing and Low-fi Prototyping Enable End Users to Design Mobile Systems