Business Simulation Design Principles

Drawing on a Fine Art concept this page explores the design principles necessary for the design and use of a business simulation.






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For painting Design Principles are the fundamental ideas about good visual design. Here I explore the design principles that are fundamental to the good experiential design of a business simulation. These are the principles that satisfy the needs and wants of organisations, tutors and participants.


The diagram below shows Design Principles as interacting and (possibly) conflicting pairs of principles that impact cognition (learning), cognitive load (duration), engagement, legitimacy and synthesis - for more information about each, click on the diagram below or scroll down.

Cognition Appropriateness Relevance Reflection Consiseness Cognitive Load Engagement Enjoyment Challenge Behavioural Theoretical Legitimacy Synthesis Harmony Ambiguity


Appropriateness and Relevance are treated separately but are linked as they are two viewpoints of the usefulness (learning effectiveness) of the simulation to the audiences. In the diagram above they are the Ying and Yang - the seemingly opposite or contrary forces that are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent. When analysing a business simulation it is necessary to ensure that it is appropriate to the organisation using the simulation and the participants must perceive the simulation as relevant to them and their job. Both of these are assessed based on the simulations learning (cognitive) purpose. Appropriateness and relevance focus on content - what is modeled, the decisions and results.

Appropriateness to Users measures the fit between the simulation, organisational needs and participant needs and abilities. It is of particular interest to the adopting organisation and the tutor. It is impacted by the participants, learning needs, scenario and manner of use. It is influenced by the participants prior learning, experience, maturity and job level. It impacts perceived relevance, challenge, behavioural legitimacy. The maturity and experience of participants impacts their ability to handle ambiguity. A simulation designed to be used as a standalone workshop for middle managers is probably not appropriate for use with senior managers, junior managers or as part of an assessment centre.

Relevance to Participants is a measure of the way the simulation fulfils individual needs taking into account their perceptions of the experience and the subsequent use of the learning. It is of particular importance to participants as it impacts their future success but is also of interest to the tutor and the adopting organisation as it impacts the extent to which participants will learn from the simulation and use this learning back on the job. Also, for adult learners, relevance has a major impact on engagement.

The separation of appropriateness and relevance is important because even if the simulation is very appropriate it may not be seen as relevant by participants. I remember running a simulation for the senior management of a marketing consultancy. Unfortunately, the C-level Artistic Director could not see the importance and the relevance of the financial aspects of the simulation and complained that he was wasting his time! In contrast I remember discussing with sales directors the importance of them controlling customer debts (Accounts Receivables). One director felt that this was not a sales responsibility, it was the responsibility of finance. However, after taking part in a simulation that involved a decision impacting Debtors (Accounts Receivables) he said that he had changed his mind!


Conciseness and Reflection are conflicting facets of simulation efficiency. There is a risk that shortening duration (conciseness) is at the expense of reflection (and learning) and lengthening duration (to increase reflection) is at the expense of conciseness. When formally analysing a business simulation it is necessary to ensure that conciseness and reflection time are balanced. In the diagram above, this is shown as a tug of war between reflection and conciseness. Reflection and Conciseness focus on process - how the experience evolves.

Reflection is key to experiential learning as participants learn thinking about the experience, discussion and argument and the design must ensure sufficient time for reflection. Providing adequate reflection is on particular interest for the tutor when running the simulation and the participants when using the simulation as otherwise learning will not occur. Reflection design is a key aspect of a simulation's meta-composition (experiential structure).

Conciseness impacts simulation duration and is impacted by complexity, the way the simulation is used, reflection need and learning purpose. It is of particular interest to the organisation and the participants because of cost and efficient use of learners' time. However, if the duration is too short this will prevent proper reflection and be disengaging.


Enjoyment and Challenge are how a simulation engages participants, with enjoyment based on emotional fun and challenge impacting conation (task and success). Both enjoyment and challenge are important but it is necessary to ensure that they are balanced as too much emphasis on one at the expense of the other will reduce learning and cause disaffection. In the diagram above enjoyment and challenge are illustrated by the comedy and tragedy theatre masks suggesting the emotional and dramatic aspects of the simulation.

Enjoyment is the affective impact of the simulation on fun. It is of particular interest to participants and the tutor as a lack of fun will cause disaffection and reduce effort. However, maximising fun (at the expense of challenge) is inadvisable if it leads to flow where this is ďan activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they get out of it" and in my experience optimal enjoyment is at the expense of learning.

Challenge involves the connection of knowledge and action to motivation (conation). It is especially relevant for adult learners as it is the personal, intentional, planful, deliberate, goal-oriented or striving component of motivation. Proper challenge is crucial where participants take part in a self-directed experiential learning activity but, if the simulation is too challenging (in terms of content or cognitive load) this will prevent proper reflection and is disengaging.


Behavioural and theoretical legitimacy (correctness) are two viewpoints of the simulation's ability to deliver effective learning. Legitimacy is used rather than validity or fidelity as these terms are commonly used to evaluate a simulation's ability to imitate reality rather than its ability to deliver learning. In the diagram above, the "academic" nature of Theoretical Legitimacy is illustrated by a mortar board and diplomata! and Behavioural Legitimacy is illustrated by a picture of the brain suggesting this is what stimulates thought and deep cognitive processing.

Behavioural Legitimacy of the simulated experience measures the simulation from the viewpoint of business learning. It evaluates the psychological legitimacy of the simulated experience and the extent to which provides learning from experience.

The simulation is behaviourally valid when the "training environment [simulation] prompts the essential underlying psychological processes relevant to key performance in the real-world setting". Thus the simulation needs to help participants be more successful in the real world.

But this is only part of behavioural legitimacy - the simulation must support, engender and ensure experiential learning. The learning process must be valid and this involves managing complexity (cognitively load), triggering reflection, developing critical thinking skills, providing adult learner needs, etc. These are determined largely by the simulation's structural design (meta-composition).

It is of particular interest to the tutor and participants for if the simulation is perceived as behaviourally invalid or ineffective this will cause dissonance. Behavioural Legitimacy is necessary to develop critical thinking skills. 

Theoretical Legitimacy of the business simulation measures the extent to which theoretically correct business concepts are modeled and explored. Theoretical correctness is of particular interest to the tutor as it ensures a trust in the simulation and the ability to relate the simulation to theory. Where the simulation is designed to be used in an academic environment, theoretical legitimacy may be seen by the organisation as of prime importance and focused on at the expense of the other principles. Also, the novice designer may see theoretical legitimacy and imitating reality as their design goal instead of delivering effective and efficient learning. In practice, if the simulation appears to represent real-life (verisimilitude) is usually sufficient to ensure engagement.

Behavioural and Theoretical Legitimacy separate learning to do from learning to know and learning to do is what is necessary for a business person.


The Learning Journey and the Experiential Learning Cycle are two enveloping or overarching structural desing principles for the entire simulation and hence provide a connective whole. In the diagram above, the Learning Journey is illustrated by a man standing looking at the routes to take asthe simulation and as it progresses! The Experiential Cycle is illustrated by a clown balancing on a monocycle suggesting the need to balance cognition and cognitive load.

Learning Journey For business simulations it stresses the need for learning (cognition), work load (cognitive load) and engagement (affection) to develop in a planned way as the simuation progresses harmoniously period-by-period or stage-by-stage.

The Experiential Learning Cycle is a second structural element and involves designing each period's cycle of decision-making, simulation, result analysis and replanning.


© 2016 Jeremy J. S. B. Hall

Most recent update: 06/01/17
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