Playing the “What-if..?” game.

Jo Hopkins
3 min readMar 21, 2018

Since I’ve been working in the UX team here at IRESS, I’ve enjoyed the multitude of ways in which my background in theatre has crossed over into the technology world. One of my favourites that I’ve recently rediscovered, through some of my design thinking work, is the power of the magical phrase “What if..?”.

It’s a small phrase which can have a big impact - especially when you’re stuck in a rut.

Keeping things moving with many voices in the room can be tough, such as contemplating a specific concept for the future of a product, or envisioning what the world will be like for our customers in 2025. It can be tough to get away from the challenges we face today.

Whilst working with my theatre company we’d play the “What if…” game as an improvisation. We used it to help break a creative-block;

In response to a question, problem or opportunity statement…

Person A: What if…

Person B: Yes, and (then)… / Yes. And…

The game is to just run with it and build on what comes out of this exchange. It can run for as long or as short as it needs before the next “What if…” presents itself.

As with any improvisation game, the secret lies in being positive and not asking “What if…” to block another idea; it can be challenging but not a brick wall. If someone suggested a solution, a negative response would be “yeah but what if we didn’t…”; be careful it doesn’t come across as a shoot-down of the idea. However, picking something specific as a negative can be constructive, such as; “What if they’re time poor?”. Being sure to frame it in a way which invites discussion rather than close it down will take some practice, but that’s the aim of the game.

I also realised, especially whilst running devising workshops, that subtle changes to the language we used could make a big difference to the way conflicts and creative-blocks were resolved. Changes such as replacing the word 'but' with the word ‘and' or the word 'challenge' with 'opportunity' can move conversations on more constructively.

I’m not gonna lie, it takes a little getting used to, and can feel a bit weird to start with, but sometimes a simple "and what if..." is all you need to kick-start the next idea, or reinvent the existing one.

E.g. To try thinking or saying “What if this wasn’t/the opposite was true?” Or “What if we no longer used screens to interact?” Or even “What if we were always connected?”

So… I was working on a recent project and I heard the design process described as:

What is, what if, what wows and what works

And it brought me back to thinking about how ‘what if’ is naturally a progressive phrase, perhaps we should try and use more often to help resolve blockers constructively. A transition between what is and what wows seems to me a perfect and eloquent way to describe its value.

So from plotting your own downfall and planning your next step to simply overcoming a creative block, why not give the “What if…” game a try? And perhaps throw in the odd “yes and…” if you’re game for just running with an idea to see where it leads.



Jo Hopkins

Product designer, UX/CX consultant and Visual thinking practitioner