Strategy can be playful too y'all


4 Tools to Playfully Bring Strategy and Rigor to Your Design

Dec 15, 2023

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Ever been handed a beautifully designed solution, only to be asked to tack on a business model at the last minute? It's a scenario that's all too common in product and service design, where business strategy often plays second fiddle to creativity. This tendency to focus on business viability too late can undermine the benefits of early, integrated business thinking. That’s why IDEO introduced business design as a core discipline so that teams could tackle the intersection of desirability, viability, and feasibility all at once.

Venn diagram in pixelated video game style with the words Viability, Feasibility, and Desirablity in them

Hi, I'm Tomoya, and I'm a business designer in the IDEO Play Lab where I bring the principles of play to the rigor of business thinking. From designing an AI-powered writing hub for students and teachers to envisioning the future of space travel with a space agency, I’ve seen firsthand the value of nurturing innovative concepts through a strategic lens, right from the start. The key is to make the process as playful and creative as the product itself.

Here are four tools that I use to playfully bring rigor to the design process.

1. Dive into "Immersive Competitive Research"

Traditional desk research has its place, but the real magic happens when you step into the field. 

Take, for example, a project IDEO undertook for a global entertainment company. Our goal was to create a novel interactive device. Desk research helped us spot a market gap, but we craved deeper insights. So, Play Lab's toy inventor and I embarked on a retail adventure, taking kids (our end-users) to stores like Target so we could evaluate the competition from a new perspective. 

One adult and two children with pixelated smiley faces over their faces while browsing the toy aisle in Target with a headline of "Immersive Competitive Research"

As we followed them through the toy aisles, one thing became clear: children are often drawn to familiar toys, ones they've previously seen or played with. Introducing them to a potential competitor's product led to an unexpected discovery. They showed little interest, simply because it was unfamiliar – they "had no idea what it does." 

This immersive fieldwork allowed us not only to observe potential shelf spaces but also to gauge kids' reactions first-hand and understand the factors driving their choices. It led us to turn our attention to packaging as well as alternate go-to-market tactics that gave us a better chance of showcasing the value of our concept. 

What if you took your team members on an immersive competitive research trip? It could help them get out of their heads and into the minds of target customers.

2. Sharpen Your Competitive Edge with a "Wargame"

In a constantly changing market, being reactive isn't enough. You want to be proactively anticipating the moves of other players and adapting your business strategy to win. 

This is where our ‘Wargame' tool comes into play, akin to strategizing in a game. First, pick your monster (a.k.a competitor) and spell out their strengths and weaknesses. What is your competitive advantage? Do you need to invest time to build new capabilities? Next, make a move (e.g. product launch), and anticipate their countermove. What is your defense strategy? After a few turns, you will start to see a competitive edge that gives you the best chance of success.

An image entitled "Wargames" in a video game style with four modules with prompts like "What are their strengths?" "What's our defense against their counter move?" and

During a project focused on a new digital gaming platform, this Wargame tool was pivotal in validating that unique content IP would be a vital competitive edge. Although the team knew IP was important, a series of simulations consistently highlighted it as the key source of long-term competitive advantage. The client was originally focused on third-party IP, but this insight led us to revisit our content strategy, and also consider developing their first-party IP. The exercise not only helped the team to invest in building the right capabilities but also to pinpoint and develop paths to greater revenue sustainability.

What if you could transform your team’s approach to competition, turning strategic planning into an engaging, game-like challenge?

3. Expand Horizons with “Business Model Mash-Up”

In the world of brainstorming, sometimes the most enlightening moments come from unexpected combinations. This is the essence of the 'Business Model Mash-Up' tool. It is an exercise where your team takes freshly brainstormed concepts and pairs them with a variety of business models, chosen at random. 

I recall an instance when teaching Business Design at UCLA, where one group combined a “Furniture Marketplace” concept with a “Usage-based pricing” model. The conversation took an imaginative turn. What if you could rent a chair, but it could sense the duration of time you are sitting on it and charge accordingly? That could lead to very fair pricing! Or what if this usage data is sent back to the furniture maker to improve the design? While these ideas initially seemed novel, they sparked a deep discussion about privacy boundaries and the potential value of shared personal information. This thought experiment led the team to pivot towards designing a second-hand items marketplace where an item’s value increases with usage and even past owners' identity.

An image with the headline "Business Model Mashup" with an equation that combines Concept x Business Model = Service Idea

Imagine a concept, perhaps initially tailored for a subscription model, and uncovering its true potential in a rental framework. Or a consultation service taking on a new life with a licensing approach. This mash-up isn't about committing to these combinations; it's about using them to stretch and challenge your thinking – one of the great perks of play.  

4. Foresee Risks with "Sh*t Reviews"

When developing a new product or service, imagining the worst-case scenario can actually be incredibly enlightening, a little cathartic, and very entertaining. 

In collaboration with a rocket engineer from Japan's space agency on future space travel, I turned this concept on its head. Together, we rewrote our research findings as a series of hypothetical one-star reviews from future space travelers. 

An image with the headline of "SH*T Reviews" with an example of a made-up negative review for a future space luxury travel experience

After we nervously presented this to other space industry professionals, they complimented us saying these potential problems now felt personal and approachable. It led to a constructive discussion about how we might rethink our approach to space travel to be human-centered. 

Imagine your future users posting negative reviews. What would they complain about? How might you design your product to avoid those pitfalls?

As you explore these tools of business design, remember their true magic lies in their ability to bring teams together and spark creative conversations across different disciplines. By infusing play into the process, you can turn Business Design into a collaborative and engaging journey for the entire team, from Day 1.

Reach out at for more ideas on adding a playful yet rigorous touch to your design process!

(Visuals by Kezie Todd)