Role Reversal

Role Reversal is role-play where the participants get into another participant’s shoes. A role-play activity, especially with the roles reversed, allows the participants to understand each other’s perspectives and promotes empathy among the participants. Empathy is the ability to identify with another person as well as their situation. Additionally, Role Reversal also involves reflection. This method, therefore, allows the participants as well as the researchers (who may be participants playing the opposing role or observing the Role Reversal) to expand their thoughts, experiences and manage their expectations through Role Reversal.

A Role Reversal, like a role-play activity, involves playing out a scenario, except instead of playing themselves, participants assume the opposing role. The participants in this method of research play reversed roles in an interaction. Depending on the expected nature of the exchange or intended data to be gathered, a few participants are given the script in advance and a few are asked to either play themselves or specific roles based on instructions. The different scripts that the participants play out can be designed, as different scenarios where the participants are immersed in those scenarios to understand how each one would react in specific situations. After each Role Reversal exercise, the participants including the researchers reflect on the conversation and play out the other scenarios or re-play the same scenario with changes to gauge whether changes can alter the experiences of the participants. A variation of this exercise involves re-playing the same scenario with different participants or, changing the character profiles of the participants to understand how different users would act in the same situation.

Role Reversal is applicable in different kind of situations,

  • When competencies of another role need to be mapped.
  • When understanding the interconnections between different roles
  • When understanding someone else’s or user’s experiences
  • When managing change

Just like role-play, Role Reversal is difficult to design and can prove to be a helpful method in figuring out user needs, expectations, competencies, and acceptance as well as instill a feeling of empathy among different roles for one another. The users can also feel more involved in the design process making this a user-centered approach.

Role Reversal can be of two types – physical or in-person and online.

Physical/In-person Role Reversal 
  • Feelings & expressions are things that are better gauged in person
  • Similarly, body language and other visual cues can help researchers draw insights that are not explicitly stated by the users.
  •  A physical environment would help invoke greater empathy and engagement in the participants
  • Requires an experienced and observant researcher
  • The role-play may be based on a pre-planned script which can restrict the creative flow the Role Reversal could take
  • Setting up a physical location with props could be a costly affair
Online Role Reversal 
  • Good option for people who do not have access to a physical location
  • A virtual Role Reversal is much cheaper than the one involving a physical location
  •  These days, on account of technological advancements, virtual reality technology can help users experience situations that lead to feelings of empathy and engagement.
  • The possibility of Role Reversal in anonymity can be helpful for those users who may otherwise be anxious to participate
  • Design efforts required to ensure a perfectly comfortable environment replicating the physical one are quite high
  • The possibility of Role Reversal in anonymity can allow some participants to role-play without complete authenticity


Advantages of Role Reversal

01 Empathy

Role Reversal i.e. looking at things from someone else’s perspective allows the participant to understand that someone’s needs, challenges, and expectations much better than just observing or probing them.

02 Change Management

Role Reversal is very effective in managing change.

03 Rich insights

The quality of insights that can be drawn from Role Reversal sessions is in-depth and rich.

04 Reflection

Role Reversal allows or expands the participants to reflect and further deepen the takeaways from a session.


Disadvantages of Role Reversal

01 Time and cost consuming

The design or planning of the Role Reversal activity and the actual Role Reversal are more time and cost consuming than a few other methods such as brainstorming and focus groups as well as more exhausting.

02 Experienced Researcher

An experienced researcher will add more value to a Role Reversal activity.

03 Performance dependent reflection

Like role-play and informance, Role Reversal reflections depend on the performances of the participants of the activity. This may also bias researchers toward better performers than average ones.

04 Sensitivity

Some users may not be comfortable with someone else playing their role and so Role Reversals must be performed with a certain level of sensitivity.

Think Design recommendation

Role Reversal is a version or role-play where the designer/ researcher consciously plays roles that contrast with each other, in order to evaluate an idea, concept or design from two endpoints. By employing this method, we can potentially look for conflicts in the proposition and creatively resolve any conflicts. Say for example, we are working on a social media application that promises to hugely benefit its users. On the other side of the story is the business stakeholder, who would benefit from its revenue model. The researcher/ designer then assumes two roles: A user who is interested in his/ her interests and a Business owner who seeks to monetize… there are situations these two interests conflict with each other and playing these roles could help designer/ research identify those conflicts and resolve them through design.

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