Dungeons & Dragons & Design Thinking

Playing role-playing games and designing user experiences both share a deep investment in developing empathy for your characters or for your users.

First a little bit of background for those unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), D&D is a fantasy role-playing game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Dungeons & Dragons is, at its core, an empathy-based role playing for anyone at any age. It forces people to think outside of their own heads and understand the heart of a given character and to understand a character’s place in their universe. This empathy-based approach really resonated with me as an experience designer and as a design thinking facilitator. In design thinking workshops, facilitators try to do similar things to focus a team of designers, developers, and business stakeholders, from product management to sales. We build robust scenarios and activities for our participants to get to their outcomes — drawing them out to focus on users, create solutions for difficult problems, and build out solutions or programs for their users.

The way people play D&D is with a group of people led by a Dungeon Master (DM). The DM is responsible for unfolding the plot to their players. They control the story and it’s subsequent elements — all non-playable characters (NPCs), puzzles, and battles. Often hidden behind a Dungeon Master Screen, this person serves as the hands behind the curtain and ensures that all the players enjoy their time together while role-playing.

The role that facilitation plays in a design thinking workshop completely mirrors the same type of role that DMs play for their gaming sessions. Facilitators are behind the scenes, focused on working out the kinks of how to run a great design thinking session — to promote their participants in doing their best thinking. Similarly, DMs work to understand the stories, the characters, and the interactions within a given scenario to create fun and memorable role-playing sessions.

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