When we co-created the game of complexity

Darshini Shah
Mar 13, 2018 · 9 min read

Designing while prototyping

Earlier this year, my team and I were introduced with the Darwinian theory of Blind Variation and Selective Retention. With our newly developed interest in the Complex Adaptive Systems, we decided to educate everyone about the concept. The best way to understand a complex theory is by doing it! So we decided to make a toolkit and prototyped it with our target audience while designing it - to reach a design solution following the theory of Complex adaptive systems. With this process, we understood the value and outcome of co-creation as there were constant reflections of our actions which were continuously iterated.

TB(D) A game of complexity

The name TB(D) is an abbreviation for To Be Decided/Developed/Determined. The ambuigity of the process and determining a solution is clearly communicated through its name. The team goes through a 3-stage intense process of decision making and arriving to ambiguous ideas during the process to develop a refined solution in the end.

Stage one — Understanding the elements of Complex adaptive systems. Making use of Agent, Artifact and Strategy cards to generate ideas.

What is TB(D)?

TB(D) is a design thinking toolkit that can be used to brainstorm ideas and derive simple solutions to complex problems. To understand it better, the brief of the toolkit is as stated below -

“Our world is complex. Our communities, relationships, interactions and intentions are no different. As designers, we commit ourselves to making the world a pleasant place through our work. This is not always easy. In fact, it rarely is. The common struggle of great ideas not working or not coming to life is because they are formed to help in one area but may be harming someone or something else in another place, time or meaning. The complexity of the systems we live in showcases this every day. As designers, we need to learn to flow with the complexity within this system. We can’t break the code of complexity but we can learn to understand it, to flow with it and harvest it in a way that our ideas can flourish.

This game was designed with the complexity in mind. The goal of this game is not to solve the riddle of complexity. The goal is to learn about Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) and how their components both co-exist and co-create solutions within complex environments.”

- The TB(D) manual

As a team, we started designing the game keeping in mind the ten elements of complex adaptive systems. From the first iteration to the last, this game was practically iterated in real-time! The process of accepting and implementing feedback was the core of developing this toolkit in contrast with the usual design process wherein the prototyping and testing is done once a certain satisfactory stage is reached by the designers. Since, this was an active process, and a successful one, this case is important to discuss the concept of co-creation.

Value co-creation and its implications

Value creation through interaction between supplier and customer is key in business-to-business marketing (Aarikka-Stenroos, Jaakkola 2012). The value that a customer perceives in a product is the fundamental basis of its success in the industry. With the increase in emphasis of value co-creation, creativity is not limited to designers. The target audience of that designed product is an active member, basically co-creators in the process of bringing value to the innovation process. Hence, for our toolkit, value co-creation went hand-in-hand with developing a human-centered design.

The services marketing literature has emphasized that services are created within interactive processes between seller and buyer (Aarikka-Stenroos, Jaakkola 2012) but research to investigate these interaction processes from the value creation perspective has been scant (Aarikka-Stenroos, Jaakkola 2012). With this toolkit as a medium, we understand the interaction between the customer and the designer. This approach was chosen so that we could get the opportunity to iterate as much as possible without assuming what the audience wanted but accepting and iterating as per their demands.

While undertaking the process of creating value through prototyping and designing based on feedback, there were three main kinds of data collected based on which the iterations were made. They are –

Practical — The data that is possible to put in effect. This was done to keep track of realistic expectations set by the audience.

Instrumental — This was the record of quantitative data. There were different types of instrumental data recorded during the process, some of them being -how long the game took to play, amount of time the audience took to understand it, number of times the prototype was iterated, number of usability testings, and number of people it was tested with.

Prototyping and Testing

The above example represents an example of the instrumental data collected. It explains the progress of the ten weeks in X-axis with the number of times the prototype was tested and the number of people it was tested with on Y-axis.

Emancipatory — To understand and research on the innovative potential of the prototype. There were instances when the audience would give feedback based on a product they had seen before. It was up to the designers to overcome pre-conceived notions and provide an innovative solution.

In this process, the audience worked with the designers in order to design a finished solution. There were various things that worked in our favour considering the receptiveness and acceptance of the audience to generate innovative ideas. Since this toolkit works with any design idea, irrelevant of its practical possibilities, the audience came with unrealistic ideas and this game helped them re-imagine the practical possibilities. We could see our progress in the response of our target audience as towards the end of the toolkit, there were groups of design students who would request a facilitation to re-iterate their design problem. We had initially designed the game in a way that gave clues to the players and simulate their process of designing. However, most players came with a pre-decided idea or wanted to use the toolkit to stimulate their process further. So, a major iteration was to eliminate any clues and let the players decide their flow in an organic manner, yet following the rules of the toolkit. There were certain points in the process that acted as game-changers during the iteration process. Some of them are –

1. The choice of using a board to arrange the cards against traditional design thinking techniques of using walls. The board gave the participants a point of focus and created an enclosure to contain ideas amongst them.

2. The amount of information on the cards had to be limited. The amount of information a mind could process from cards is limited, so learning about the elements of Complex Adaptive Systems needed to be an option.

3. The manual needed to have a simple language as most designers would not understand Darwin’s theories and misinterpret them.

4. Time was a major factor as if this game was a tool to be used by professionals and to be used more than once, it had to be within the criterions of meetings in a workspace.

5. The size of the board was an issue if it needed to be carried around and thus, maximum design iterations were made on the design of the board.

The final prototype was an outcome that could be played in both directions. The first direction is a process of blind variation while the reverse direction is the process of selective retention. If the players had a product/service idea in mind, they could blind variate it to think of possible options while if the players had a vague idea of a conceptual space, they could play it in reverse and end up with an outcome of a product/service. This is the outcome of a product created in collaboration with the target audience.


Along the way of creating a well-refined solution, we encountered several roadblocks due to the variety of our audience, our decision to remain within the context of designing based on Darwin’s theory of blind variation and selective retention along with the time constraint of ten weeks. While these roadblocks set the base for us, there were some that we encountered in our process of iteration. The major ones are as listed below –

1. The board needed to be self-explanatory as most participants neglected the manual and wanted to get immersed in the process.

2. Considering the complexity of this game, visual representation became a challenge. A lot of description on the board would stress the participants and divert their attention while very little would confuse them.

3. The complexity of this game also required us to act as facilitators. The game became difficult to play if it were an independent entity. We designed the manual as a combination of visual representation and description to create a balance. However, in certain kind of audience, it does require facilitation. If further iterated, it can be developed as an independent entity irrespective of the audience.


This toolkit is a unique offering not only in the way it has been designed but also the kind of outputs it generates. At the end, the participants realise, they just went with the flow while the design was generated as a by-product to the cards they decided to go further with.

This toolkit has four variations depending on the level of the player. It can be played either by an undergraduate design student or the CEO of a company and in both cases, the partiticpants will be surprised with the innovative outcome they arrive at. It has a potential of being used as a design thinking tool amongst large and small companies.

The designers — Alexis Roberts, Eliska Skarolkova and I have the skillset to facilitate a creative workshop with students and design professionals. There lies an opportunity for us to further the game and customize the rules to cater to a varied audience.


The concept of value co-creation is not a recent one. From the Thinkpad by IBM to the Google glasses, companies have sought out on consumer feedback for product development. However, seeking co-creation from the conceptualization phase makes the audience more involved and aware of the product they are expecting to develop. The service-dominant logic discusses value creation roles at a rather theoretical and nonspecific level, basically arguing that the supplier contributes by making a value proposition, and the customer’s role is to actualize the value by using the resource that is offered to them (Gummesson, 2008; Vargo et al., 2008). Having a constant feedback from consumers helps designers harness their innovation process to set realistic and achievable goals. Customer perceived value is commonly defined as the trade-off between the benefits and sacrifices as perceived by the customer (Zeithaml, 1988). In many cases, the consumer does not necessarily be a designer or has set expectations about the outcome. In the value co-creation process, the designer must strike a balance between the benefits and sacrifices. The benefits perceived by the consumer can be the performance and quality while sacrifices being monetary, cost and time. The increase in sacrifices also increases the dominant approach of the consumers over the design process in order to balance their benefits. Thus, value co-creation has its own set of implications on the design innovation process.

In the game of complexities, value co-creation was between designers and consumers who would use it to benefit them. The amount of sacrifices did not need to balance the benefits and the design outcome was dependant on their own inputs while playing the game. However, providing a toolkit that efficiently allowed the designers to organically come to design solutions was a challenge that was handled by adhering to the concepts of blind variation and selective retention and the use of complex adaptive systems elements.


Aarikka-Stenroos, L., & Jaakkola, E. (2012). Value co-creation in knowledge intensive business services: A dyadic perspective on the joint problem solving process. Industrial Marketing Management, 41(1), 15–26.

Gummesson, E. (2008). Extending the service-dominant logic: From customer centricity to balanced centricity. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 36(1), 15.

Vargo, S. L., & Lusch, R. F. (2008). From goods to service(s): Divergences and convergences of logics. Industrial Marketing Management, 37(3), 254–259.

Zeithaml, V. A. (1988). Consumer perceptions of price, quality, and value: A means-end model and synthesis of evidence. Journal of Marketing, 52(July), 2–22.

Chan, S. (2001). Complex Adaptive Systems.

Simonton, Dean Keith. (2013). Blind-variation and selective-retention theory of creativity. Physics of life reviews. 10. 10.1016/j.plrev.2013.05.002.

Stephen L. Vargo, Paul P. Maglio, Melissa Archpru Akaka, On value and value co-creation: A service systems and service logic perspective, European Management Journal, Volume 26, Issue 3, 2008, Pages 145–152, ISSN 0263–2373, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2008.04.003. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S026323730800042X)

Darshini Shah

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I research and design experiences that bring value to people’s lives.