The Discipline of Simulation Design or The Path to the Big Dream

Blog post by Elisa Alabaster

I admit it – I’m a very practical minded person. If I’m with a group of friends who are day dreaming about getting together for a weekend away, I’m the one who gets out the calendar and proposes the date. If I’m with colleagues who are painting a blue sky picture of what our next simulation will be able to do, I’m the one whose face turns sceptical and who asks a question like, “What is the user actually going to be able to click on?” That can seem like the opposite of dreaming big, but it is what guarantees that we keep moving towards the big dream in manageable steps.

The discipline of practicality is necessary for designing simulations. It is what allows me to see each of the small steps needed to get from where we are right now to where we want to be in a few weeks’ time. To be able to create new, client customised simulations which meet their learning objectives, are reliable, robust and simply work within tight deadlines.

In a meeting, if a future client is voicing their business challenges in general terms such as “We need to break down silos between our functions,” my mind is immediately wondering whether the main issues are between manufacturing and marketing; what some of the concrete actions are that people take which express this silo mentality (maybe not sharing a crucial piece of feedback received in an email from a customer for fear of blame?); and what the everyday choices are that the company’s leaders should be taking to cooperate across functional lines and think as a single organisation. Questions similar to these guide design discussions as we move towards defining an experience that will truly engage and affect behavioural change for each individual, and thus impact real business results.

Very often, there is not a clearly defined end solution in mind when we start. The overall objective may be known, but how we’re going to achieve that is still shrouded in mist. It’s only as we map out the route, explore the territory, ask the questions and let creativity open up new vistas that the solution takes shape. The practice of rapid prototyping lets us experiment and get quick feedback on what works and what needs to be improved. By implementing ideas quickly we’re both expanding on what is possible and giving ourselves something solid to build on.

As a perfectionist it is sometimes hard for me to know that a piece of software will never exactly replicate the richness of human interactions. As a realist it is exciting for me to see a simulated character evoking real frustration or laughter from the leaders interacting with it, as they seek new approaches to the challenges they face in the office. The best place to generate more insight into what can be done better is to watch and listen to people interacting in their real environment. When they interact with a working product that replicates the same stresses, challenges and choices, we can learn from that experience. That is where continuous improvement really comes from.

So in our design we manage the ambiguity of nothing ever being completely finished, the ambition of wanting to reach for perfection, while still getting the most reliable and effective simulation in the hands of working business people today. The practical discipline makes sure we get our products finished and out there to bring valuable experience to those who use them. They are having real impact right now and there is so much more that can be done. Let’s have blue sky thinking and dream big, and let’s also take each of those little steps that move us along the path to get there – because we learn as we go.

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