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Using role play to build empathy and champion the need for user centred design

Using role play to build empathy and champion the need for user centred design

by Emma Sutcliffe

In the agile process, having an understanding of your users is critical to building user-centred services and meeting their needs. But ensuring the whole team and your stakeholders are aligned, show empathy, and are engaged can be a challenge. During a recent discovery phase, we used role-play to build empathy and champion the need for user-centred design.

Why we introduced role-play  

As a User Researcher, I always encourage the team to observe research sessions and take part in group analysis sessions. I also build personas which are fictional character profiles created from user research to represent the users of a service. They represent their needs, motivations, and barriers. 

These techniques all build an understanding of users, but they fail to fully immerse others into what it feels like to be that user. The key missing factor is the lack of empathy building. Without this, driving user-centred change within any organisation is impossible.  

How we ran the role-play workshop 

To fully immerse our team and stakeholders into our users’ needs, I replaced a persona playback session towards the end of a discovery phase with a role-play workshop. 

  1. Every persona had a character summary card on the Miro board, which gave an overview of the persona. This included a headshot, their background, high-level user need, mindset, current pain points, and a quote from the user research. 

  2. Each attendee was already assigned to a persona. They first spent some time individually reading their assigned character summary card. 

  3. Next, we went around the group introducing each persona, speaking in the first person- ‘I’m [Name] and I’m a [Persona type]’

  4. I then led the discussion, acting as the narrator in the style of a story. I walked through the service journey bringing the personas to the virtual stage. I’d ask how they’d respond to the situations we knew happened in the current journey based on the research we’d done. We encouraged the role playing personas that would engage with each other during the real process to talk to each other in the workshop and share perspectives.

Lessons learned 

It is important to understand your workshop attendees when planning the session. If they have not been as close to the research or you expect they may feel uncomfortable, consider pairing them to a persona with another attendee. Alternatively, you could run the session with the attendees in two groups and just focus on two personas at a time.  

Running the session remotely was definitely an advantage. Role-play isn’t an activity everyone will feel comfortable with. Remotely they can turn their camera off but still fully engage without feeling others are looking at them. 

Prepare someone else in your team beforehand. Then if you introduce them as the first character they can be an example to the rest of your attendees. 

Put lots of thought into which attendee you assign to each persona. This shouldn’t be an individual decision. Matching attendees with personas who they are most far removed from, or in a completely different role to them is great. If you notice there is a lack of empathy for a certain persona, they are a perfect match! You want your attendees to have the ‘lightbulb moment’ when they realise how the current service journey impacts users.

Feedback about the session

Role-play was a really effective way of building empathy. Not only was role-play a great team-building technique but it also helped our team and stakeholders to experience how the current service impacts the users. 

Besides users, the employees are also important actors in the process. Their motivation and engagement is crucial for sustainable service implementation, so their involvement from the very beginning is key. 

The role-play workshop has created a lasting memory, which is often reflected on with the team. 

We’ve collected some thoughts from attendees of our role-play workshops. 


"Our team started off with horror as they realised we were about to do role-play, then threw themselves at it, crying or demanding or both at once! Stopping them acting was harder! Close curtains! It really cemented into our minds who the different user groups are and what frustrates them. It will be much easier to stay focused on our project aims and deliver something that will benefit us all."

I’ve been involved in hundreds of UR feedback sessions over the years, many of them exploring the feelings that customers or users expressed, I’ve never seen a session with as much impact as the persona role-play workshops. Seeing subject matter experts and stakeholders have their horizons broadened at such a rapid pace, and truly understanding the challenges of their service users had a dramatic impact. Personas are a complicated artefact, it takes a lot of work to comprehend them and these workshops force you to understand and articulate the needs of a user as they go through the service journey which has massive impact.”

"I really enjoyed the role-play and thought it worked really well. It does certainly make you connect with your customer on another level again – to step into their shoes completely and almost ‘physically feel’ their pain."
Emma Sutcliffe's avatar

Emma Sutcliffe

Senior Design Researcher

Contact Emma

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