How Role Play Helped a Designer Find Key Challenges at a Women's Clinic in Kenya

The role of designers in society is changing. More and more, designers are being tasked to make an impact on the world around them by applying their skills to better society. “LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation” published by Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design explores this emergent field of design for social innovation, its key issues and the future of the field. The following series are excerpts from the publication.


Have you ever tried to apply for food stamps? Have you ever tried to use a public toilet? Have you ever cooked on a cook stove?

I often describe my practice as leveraging the power of design to tackle wicked social problems. Human-centered design is a core part of that practice. From in depth, in context interviews with end users to prototyping ideas and experiences with those users at scale, the process privileges the voice and perspectives of end users as fundamental. And while the process doesn’t work without that framing, it’s also important to understand that the knowledge that fuels any great project will come from a variety of sources.

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One source that I have found to be tremendously useful — but at times overlooked — is “in context immersion.” It is a method through which I put myself in the end user’s shoes to enable me to see the problem through their eyes. It allows a radical intimacy with the context in a way that is quite distinct from — yet very complementary to — other methods of observation and engagement that I typically deploy. With in context immersion, the frustration of applying for food stamps, the smell of the public toilet, and the physical challenges of the cook stove all become visceral.

Jacaranda immersion | Studio O Soshl Studio
Jacaranda immersion | Studio O Soshl Studio

A couple of years ago, the power of this method unlocked some significant insights and opportunity areas for a project I was working on in East Africa. Marika Shioiri-Clark of SOSHL Studio and I were collaborating with Jacaranda Health, an innovative social enterprise that seeks to provide a new model of quality and patient-centered maternal healthcare in Kenya. Together, we were trying to understand how to improve the quality of service and deepen the relationship with their patients.

Over several weeks in Nairobi, we interviewed past, current and prospective patients, as well as nurses and staff at Jacaranda. We visited other hospitals, and spent time in Jacaranda’s clinics. While all of these activities yielded important insights, we felt we still couldn’t unlock what challenges existed at the clinic itself. So one day, Marika and I decided to role play. She was the expectant father and I was a pregnant patient. We asked the staff to not explain to us what they would say but to role play alongside us and allow us to experience Jacaranda as first-time patients.

Jacaranda immersion and role playing | Studio O Soshl Studio
Jacaranda immersion and role playing | Studio O Soshl Studio

The experience was eye opening. The Jacaranda staff was quite friendly, but we realized that their engagement was not deep enough to create the trust needed to build a sustained relationship with the patients. Husbands can play a role in some key decision-making around clinic selection and payment, but points of interaction like the doctor’s visit didn’t engage them well. And as I waddled around the clinic and the exam room to complete all the needed procedures, challenges from the physical layout to the height of the exam table became clear. None of these things had come up in interviews; yet, by experiencing them, we were able to understand and visualize the design challenges and opportunities in a new way.

Top Image: Nairobi Skyline | Babak Fakhamzadeh | Flickr | CC 2.0

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