Play with design: “Context roulette”

Jo Hopkins
3 min readMar 23, 2018


Playing is a great way to get creative, to innovate, solve problems and explore the twists and turns of your team’s creation. We play to manipulate; to understand, creating a set of rules and change variables within these parameters to see how things play-out. As a result we learn more, such as understanding various cause-and-effect relationships.

From product to service design, taking the time to play with a problem or solution is a great way to create space for something unexpected and get to know the real problem.

Sometimes the easiest way to look at things a different way and / or break the rules is to write new ones.

I’d like to introduce you to a little game called “Context roulette” a game where you change the rules.

An example

Using a change of environment to test and explore your assumptions about how people will interact with your product/design/service.

  • What new distractions are there in the new environment?
  • What forms of interaction now exist or have gone altogether?

It doesn’t have to be off-the-wall or a deliberate game of opposites. Start small; simply consider… why only explore where we expect it to be used?

Run with it.

Capture any contradictions, questions or similarities to your real circumstance as you go. Then take time to explore these moments captured, and really run with it; see what you can learn.

Why this game?

It’s something I’ve adopted from my experience directing theatre shows; context roulette is a nice way to find some answers early on in the rehearsal process . The game is to play-out the same section of script in a variety of contexts; throwing new rules at the same elements to see what we discover. Pausing, re-running and asking questions as we go — a little like forum theatre.

It’s always good to ‘do-to-think’; get the actors on their feet, up on stage and improvising with a variety of contexts. For example: What if you were at a…

  • Bar
  • Job interview
  • Supermarket
  • Funeral
  • Silent disco

… you get the picture

All these contexts inflence the actor’s decisions from behaviours, movement and interactions between the characters to the intonnation on a single word.

So what’s the point?

Very quickly you move from a blank canvas to a metaphorical working wall of human interactions. After a couple of changes you’ll have learnt about what works, what doesn’t, what’s hilarious and what’s moving.

As a director you can see quickly how each character is complimented, where it jars and which elements of these various contexts you can stitch together to create the desired outcome.

It’s essentially the same as affinity mapping on a working wall… but with people in a space

Bringing it back to the design world

Think of the aforementioned actor as — in this context — the solution; having to adapt and reframe, responding to the environment and the way other people are interacting with them to best accomplish the outcome.

Using the concept of setting new rules you can explore how your current solution or assumptions would play-out — however subtle or extreme.

  • How does it change the questions you ask
  • Does it change your approach to solving the problem?
  • Does it change anything?

If you can — always try to build it; paper prototypes / doodles / postits .

Use your evidence from your research (primary or secondary) to help you tell the story of how that might look; how your people are engaging in this new context.

It’s usually best to time-box this so you can stop and look objectively (especially if you’re in a hackathon situation or time poor); “is there anything / are there any principles that resonate with the real design?”

If it’s got legs, you can run with it or, if not; change the rules. And in the end you can pull together the insights that resonate as considerations for your real design.

So why not give it a whirl? See if you find any hidden gems in some unexpected shifts of perspective.



Jo Hopkins

Product designer, UX/CX consultant and Visual thinking practitioner