Walk a mile in their shoes

The value of perspectives, personas and role play in urban development

“Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”

(Proverb by the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans)


How does your organisation understand its stakeholders and end-users?

In urban development, one project might have 8-10 agencies and disciplines working towards the same goal, along with a range of stakeholders including community, builders, and government.  To use Cathryn Chatburn’s analogy, we are playing a game, however each player is skilled in a totally different sport. When collaborating with others or navigating a diversity of objectives with different stakeholders its necessary to understand the following:

  • How do we all agree the game we are playing?
  • How do we understand and enable each other’s strengths?
  • How do we understand each other’s challenges and perspectives?
  • How do we work together to define and achieve our objectives?
  • How do we creatively and collaboratively problem solve?

A fundamental first step is to understand each other’s perspectives.


When was the last time you took a different perspective?

A perspective is the way that individuals see the world, shaped by life experiences, values, their skills and knowledge and the assumptions they bring. For most people, their perspective is their reality, which is sometimes why its difficult to see the perspectives of others.

The urban development system is complex and often different sectors have competing objectives. We believe that decision making with a whole of system view is important to create value for all.

Studio THI use personas and role playing to help key stakeholders, project teams, and communities understand and explore each other’s perspectives.



Personas are an archetypal end user or key stakeholder whose needs we are seeking to meet with a new product or service. In urban development, we use personas throughout the life of a project as a tool to bring audience and stakeholder research to life: visioning, determining needs and requirements, place experience, optimising outcomes and negotiating issues.

When working on major urban development projects, Studio THI develops project specific persona sets to reflect both:

  • End users of a project (who we are creating this place for)
  • System actors (who needs to be involved to bring this idea to life)

These personas are grounded in insight from engagement and research. They articulate the needs, desires and motivations of end users and key stakeholders for a major project.

We champion the creation and use of personas to enable project teams to get to know their end users, prioritise decision making with a holistic lens and help teams consider the needs of key stakeholders.

Our experience has demonstrated that personas work best when project teams actively ‘step into the shoes’ of their audiences, and this is where role playing can be effective.


Better than understanding your stakeholders: BE them

Role play is experiential and creatively generative. It enables people to connect with all their senses; and have memorable experiences that build empathy and insight.

Benefits of role playing:

  • Enable exploration of a topic
  • Help define a problem from different perspectives and interest
  • Understand complexity
  • Unpick challenges that are more systemic
  • Explore tensions in a safe environment
  • Broaden your understanding of different actors in the system
  • Work through scenarios before delivery or implementation
  • Discover hidden nuances
  • Create rapid group understanding
  • Enable better decision making
  • Optimise solutions based on value to everyone


Setting up a role play to better understand complex urban challenges and projects
  1. List the various stakeholders (developers, community, local government, architects)
  2. Build a persona of the stakeholders (insert image from slide deck)
    1. How would you describe this person in three words?
    2. What motivates them?
    3. How do they view other stakeholders?
    4. What are their fears? What do they want to protect?
    5. How do they view this situation and what do they want to achieve out of it?
  3. Create a scenario (e.g. a project reveal, or town hall meeting).
  4. Allocate roles to people in your team.
  5. Step into role playing, using acting, speech and props if available.
  6. Explore the scenario and project using persona’s strengths, weaknesses, goals, hopes, priorities, needs, limitations, and concerns. Identify opportunities and issues, areas of alignment and tension, collaborations that can maximise shared benefit.
  7. After the session, have everyone write down any key insights they had about themselves or others.
  8. Use the insights you’ve gained to develop project strategies, maximise strengths and benefits and use this as a platform to navigate tensions and conflict

Practitioners Tip: Defer judgment, encourage wild ideas, build on the ideas of others, stay focused on the topic, and one conversation at a time.


In Studio THI’s Urban Leadership Sprint our future leaders created personas for their part of the system, then used these personas to role play a town hall meeting for an urban development in conflict with the community.  Participants played a persona that was a different to their own perspective and were given the challenge to collectively agree a move forward position.

Reflecting on the persona and role playing experience, participants discussed the value these tools could bring to their practice including; a deeper understanding of customers and stakeholders; a more holistic view on the impacts of decisions; a method to stimulate innovative thinking; and clarifying why conversations sometimes don’t go to plan.