How Role Play Changed Our User Testing Methodology for Mobile Applications

I remember role-playing when I was young. I often pretended to be in the doctor’s consultation room where my friend would use a toy stethoscope to diagnose me with one or the other ailment.
Once, I showed symptoms of Grandpa’s Ear, after Mom claimed my ears weren’t working. In a later visit, the doctor prescribed three ice creams per day after I contracted the Broccoli Virus.
Through countless hours of role-play as a child, I not only developed a factory of ideas, but also gained an understanding of different relationships, lifestyles and cultures within my community.
Years later, I am a Service Designer at, and I find myself scouring the web for user research methods that will help inform our project designs. There are many activities that can be run, most of which depend on a facilitator leaning over the user’s shoulder to see how they interact with the service.
Unfortunately, these methods frequently take the user out of context and neglect the emotional, physical, and social nature of interaction.
Role Play as a User-Centered Design Research Methodology
What if role-play could be used to understand a day in the life of our users? What if they could reveal their challenges, motivations and habits by acting out scenarios where they engage with our service  –  or an imagined version thereof?
Role-play, as a research method, allows us to assign people certain scenarios and roles. Through observing the improvised scenario-specific performances, we can capture insights on people’s emotional, physical and social experience which could inform the design or refinement of mobile solutions in international development.
I often overlook role-play because I’m afraid adult participants would not embrace an activity that seems too childlike and fun for research. However, over the past few months, I conducted five user research workshops for various projects in two sub-saharan African countries with young men and women, parents and early childhood educators. I can thus confidently share that all age groups and genders are open to role-play.
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In the Discovery stage of a project, we met with youth aged between 16 and 28 in Harare and Mutare in Zimbabwe, to get an understanding of how they make choices about their bodies, their rights, their love life and their sexual health.
We asked them: Within groups, demonstrate A day in the life of a Zimbabwean youth over a weekday, weekend or festive period. Your performance should address topics such as contraception, mental health or the roles of boys and girls within the community.
“I can’t enjoy a candy that’s in it’s wrapper,” exclaimed a young girl to her pretend boyfriend in rural Mutare, Zimbabwe. During their negotiation of condom use, the boyfriend revealed he wanted to be safe, but the girl refused as she wants it “raw.”
In another role-play, again a girl’s partner asked her to wear a condom. However, her reaction was different to the first. She dramatically emphasised her shock to the request: “I am not a sex worker! I do not have an STI!”
The act of taking on a role of someone else in a staged situation, provided a ‘safety net’ for the participants to dramatise something that they previously experienced, witnessed or even just imagined.
Their exaggerated expressions helped us to understand their personas’ opinions toward contraception. As a result, the performances introduced a topic for discussion that would most likely not have come up if the workshop simply relied on a traditional interview structure.
Watch this video where you can hear more from the participants themselves.
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Similarly, for PLAY, an online learning platform that trains Early Childhood Development (ECD) practitioners, participants role-played how they engaged with the platform during their daily rituals.
For them, the role-play provided an opportunity to place themselves in a familiar situation. They could imagine themselves in their home or centre, interacting with their colleagues and children while returning to our service on their mobile phone in every gap they get.
The observing participants could clearly relate to the performances and this stirred engaging discussions. They started sharing ways of working with each other and brainstormed ideas which fed into the enhancements of our service.
One of the revelations was seeing that they took screenshots of our mobile platform.
“At our centre, we have files with the printed screenshots. On Fridays, we sit together and share the experience [that we gained on PLAY SA] and try to plan for the next week that you in your class will be doing this and practising this for the whole week.”
They also revealed that they skip past the video tutorials. Upon discussion, a user admitted:
“I am one of the culprits that didn’t watch all the videos because as teachers we already have an idea. We know how to do certain activities. If I feel that I can save time by not watching some of the videos…then I don’t watch it. We don’t just not watch it because we don’t have data, we don’t watch it because we already have the knowledge of how the activity works.”
The performances and discussions helped us to finally make sense of the quantitative data from our web analytics. These insights provided us with a list of improvements to the platform’s user experience that will ensure a high rate of returning users.
In each of the workshops, so many of our assumptions were shattered — which is a phenomenal experience. Here’s a video sharing the experience of our PLAY workshop.
5 Lessons Learned Using Role Play in Mobiles for Development
While facilitating the workshops, I realized it was key to create an environment where participants feel open to role-play. Here are a few tips I gathered:

1. Break-the-ice by being the first to role-play.
Put on your own two minute performance to not only demonstrate the instructions given, but also use the opportunity to crack some jokes and get them excited about participating. This will help to create a comfortable, non-judgemental space where the participants will feel free to express themselves.
2. Accommodate all types of participants.
More often than not, you will have one or two shy participants that would prefer to hide away from an audience. Help them feel included in the activity by suggesting that they act as a prop such as a mobile phone or a table. This does not only bring humour into the plays, but can also surprisingly add to the insights you get. For those overly confident and outspoken participants in the room, bring a few props that can help them fully embrace their roles.
3. Be prepared to initiate discussion.
Many of the insights that we’ve gathered from the role-play activities were due to the discussions we had after each performance. I have found that being prepared with a set of questions before entering the workshop helps you to initiate discussion after the play. Below are some of the questions I prepared for one of the discussions beforehand:
  • How typical is character xxx in your communities?
  • Do you think the persona would have benefited from using a service? Why? How? For what?

Discussions after role-plays are crucial to gathering reliable information. Even though role-plays are fruitful, it is important to keep in mind that performances may often depict an exaggerated truth as participants dramatise for comic effect.
In addition, it could happen that you deliberately or unconsciously assign unfamiliar roles to participants. As a result, they may portray an unreliable version of events. Fortunately, through discussion, you are able to sort the information into facts, vacuous truths and perceptions and understand users’ knowledge, attitude and behaviour.
4. Allow them to express themselves in their home language.

It is easier for people to express themselves in their home language. Always be prepared with a professional translator if you know that your target audience are more comfortable in a language that you may be unfamiliar with.
That being said, role-play is not limited to understanding dialogue. Without being a native speaker of the language used within the performance, you can still capture the emotions within the scenario through the participants’ tone of voice and body language. Emotion is essential to determine the nuance of what is being communicated.
5. Record the performances with consent.
Often times, the performances are so entertaining, that you forget to take notes. Get consent from the participants to film them during their performances. An unobtrusive camera or even a camera phone is recommended to avoid intimidating the participants and increasing their stage-fright.

Role-play has changed my motivation and approach for designing mobile technology services. After watching the target audiences engaging with each other and our services, I cannot sit at my desk without imagining them using what we create at
I urge you to no longer design your solutions based on research that takes your users out of context, but rather look to role-play to understand the emotional, physical, and social nature of your users’ experience with your concept or service.
Estee Liebenberg is a Service Designer at and this post was originally published as Candy Wrappers and Stethoscopes
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