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How Serious Play makes us better design innovators
Jan 09, 2014

By Kelsey Thomson, User Experience Consultant, Provoke Solutions Wellington

serious-play.jpgAnyone who has seen kids play knows the vast imagination and creativity they hold; the infinite uses for a cardboard box, the competency for solving problems, the limitless self-confidence and boundless zest for life and everything new. Sometimes we forget that once, we were children too. Cardboard boxes were space ships for exploring distant planets, submarines to take you 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, or flying cars that let you explore fairy cities in the clouds. As adults, we seem hard pushed to find more uses for a cardboard box than moving house or storing unwanted Christmas presents under the bed. The great news is, we do not lose the ability to play as we "grow up". Instead, we bury it under layers of insecurity, inhibitions and self-editing. This is where Play can save the day.

When I say Play, I'm not talking hula-hooping in the office, I'm talking 'Serious Play'. Serious Play is a movement emerging in the design industry that takes the premise and principles of Play and applies them to complex business and design problems. CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown has a great Ted Talk that discusses how he uses Play to lead innovation in the design industry. Visit this link or watch the video below:



Play, or playfulness, is an approach that can be used by one or more people to freely generate ideas. It involves safe spaces, agreed upon timeframes (for example, setting up a half-hour meeting for idea generation), methods like role-playing, playing design games or rapid prototyping, intrinsic motivation and agreed upon rule sets.

So what exactly is Play, then? Often we associate Play with children, something one grows out of. This is one of the common misconceptions surrounding Play. Another is that work and play are binary opposites, that work is respectable and mature, where play is not. These are all misconceptions that limit us, and our capacity for innovative problem solving. Psychological, anthropological and educational research on the effects of play in children and adults has revealed that Play is an important medium for learning and socialisation all throughout one's life. Play is intrinsically motivating, meaning that the will to play, learn, explore and experiment is in all of us already. We want to do these things, and thus if we incorporate them into our work it becomes more enjoyable, more enjoyable work means better outcomes!

In studies of Play with children, several common elements appear that we can apply when incorporating Play into our working day. There is agreement amongst players involved to suspend reality for the duration of the game or allocated Play period. There are boundaries – a beginning (where one enters the game/play space) and an ending (where one exits the game/play space). There are agreed upon rules and behaviours that are different from day-to-day interactions. The combination of these parameters create a safe space where participants can trust each other enough to suspend judgement for the allocated time period. This minimises the perceived risk of participating in Play, and leads to productive collaboration where people feel safe to speak their opinions – resulting in a larger quantity of better quality ideas. We see examples of these Play spaces in the top innovative companies around the world. Pixar has huts or caves for its employees to work in, Google is well known for its slide and beach volleyball, and IDEO has finger blasters as we saw in Tim Browns Ted Talk.

As we grow into adulthood, we learn to fear others opinions, we find ourselves self-editing before we even have a chance to think about a new idea – let alone voice it to others. Filtering prevents us from taking chances and limits potential for really innovative solutions. As we experience more in life, we learn how the world works and rely on our past experience to guide us when solving problems or making split-second decisions. This tends to make us less willing and open to new ideas, new processes and new ways of doing things and instead favouring known or habitual solutions to problems. Breaking habits we have formed in our work is crucial to further innovative thinking. We cannot let ourselves fall into the trap of re-hashing processes, methods and solutions we are comfortable with due to tight deadlines. This is where Play comes in! Allowing some time at the beginning of tackling a challenge to experiment and explore all imagined solutions, before deciding on a particular one, is invaluable to producing the best solution. When we look to children, we see they are still figuring things out - they take every problem and try relentlessly to solve it. Kids don't have the reliance of past experience, so they try new things, failing often. Instead of seeing this as a bad thing, they just pick themselves up and try again until they have the best way of tackling the problem at hand. This makes them great role models for creative thought and innovation.

A way to quickly test ideas in a Playful manner is rapid prototyping. Rapid prototyping allows a multitude of ideas to be tested in low fidelity, and ideas that won't work to be filtered out quickly. The great thing about rapid prototyping is you want to test a large quantity of ideas, rather than just one single one. It has been proven time and time again that when someone comes up with a single idea, they get attached to it and find it hard to diverge from this idea, explore the idea further, or see anything past it at all. This does not happen when someone create multiple ideas. Rapid prototyping invites vast quantities of ideas to be explored inexpensively (often done with paper prototyping or low fidelity wireframes), with little personal investment by the creators. As we Play with rapid prototyping, we allow ideas to evolve by experimenting how they work in actuality. This is incredibly valuable as we can show clients our ideas quickly, and get engagement and agreement sooner.

Play allows us to set a start and an end time to enter a safe space, with agreed upon rules that allow us to model or enact scenarios, ideas and behaviours in a socially acceptable way. When we Play, we throw away things that do not work and focus on what does work, building upon these further. The beauty of Play is that it is a fast-paced iterative process not held down by inhibitions. Play is a space for testing things out that would otherwise be risky to try. Play is a rapid generation and improvement of ideas. Play is discovery, curiosity, collaboration, critical thinking, failure, learning, making connections, risk-taking and creativity. Play, serious play, is the future of design thinking and innovation.


If you're interested in further reading on this topic, check out these blogs: