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The Art of Prototyping

by Francesca Desmarais

One of the intriguing aspects of interaction design is the rapidly changing landscape and the overlaps with other disciplines and complex systems. To test and iterate ideas within this milieu, we design our prototyping process as much as we design final products and services.

Over the past year alone, CIID Consulting has worked on projects that criss-cross medicine, teaching, hotels & leisure, youth unemployment, banking, home organisation, paternity leave, airports, and sharing music. Our projects have used classics like websites, apps and raspberry pi, but also Slack chatbots and beacons. We’ve made movies, told stories, written code, run workshops, and even cooked an experimental meal with stakeholders.

The one constant throughout all of this: our design focus is on experiences. Throughout all of our projects, we explore people’s interactions with products and services that happen over time and within a context.

To fully explore the experiences we design, we have to open our toolboxes and custom design prototypes that best fit the exact context of a given project. There’s no set criteria we follow, or set tools that we always come back to. A prototype could be a fully coded app or as simple as a customer making a phone call to a mock service. Each project team approaches the prototyping phase as a design process in itself: how can we best simulate an experience to ask and answer relevant design questions?

There’s not a set prototyping method we follow: it’s more of an art, creatively juggling intuition and experience with analytic thinking and adventure.

Much like conventional arts such as painting or music, prototyping has traditions and cannons (ex: start with low fidelity and iterate to higher fidelities). But like other arts, prototyping is also about breaking rules and the freedom to create outcomes that represent an artist’s vision. The freedom to craft in creative and meaningful ways. Perhaps a touch poetic, I like to think of prototyping interaction design as an art that is part science experiment, part show business, and part intrepid exploration.

Part Science Experiment

Effective prototyping requires a level of analytic thinking. You are, after all, testing hypotheses about experiences and behaviours. It’s important to define what you are testing before you even make a prototype: what are the most important open design questions? How can you craft your prototypes to answer these questions? In What do Prototypes Prototype?, Stephanie Houde and Charles Hill group prototyping questions into questions of role (i.e. what can a product or service do for a person’s life), questions of look and feel (i.e. what’s the experience?), and questions of implementation (i.e. is this even possible?).

To ease the analysis of a prototype, it also helps to isolate the variables you are testing. A good rule of thumb is to only test 1 to 2 ideas per prototype. For a recent project, we segmented one concept into six different prototypes and explored distinct options (and assumptions!) of the concept through each of the prototypes.

Part Show Business

It’s probably obvious, but to prototype an experience, you have to involve people, and that requires a bit of presentation. It’s important to remember that a prototype is not self explanatory. We usually spend time ‘setting the scene’, explaining the project or bigger picture, making people comfortable, etc. For a project exploring healthcare 20 years from now, my team and I even got people in the mood by showing clips from science fiction films.

As with a good show, you need to play to your audience! It is critical to think about the expectations and knowledge of whoever will see your prototype. Are they intended users? Are they fellow designers? Are they stakeholders or investors? In general, lower fidelity prototypes are easier to critique and contribute feedback to, while higher fidelity prototypes are better to validate ideas and evaluate reactions. For one of our projects last year, the client expected prototypes that would set a vision for their employees and we went the extra mile to make beautiful, high fidelity mock-ups and videos for this inspirational purpose.

Experience prototypes also involve a bit of smoke and mirrors, somebody behind the curtain making the experience work. Often you don’t need to have working code to test the experience of using a product or service — one of our favourite tricks is to simply use the tech on a phone and stick the phone in a rough prototype. This is enough to convince people, but saves time and money before breaking out our circuit boards and micro-controllers. Orchestrating an experience and ‘being the backend’ can also be valuable to learn what types of data and processes you will eventually need to code.

Part Intrepid Exploration

Ultimately, prototyping is not a rigorous, tightly controlled process. Intuition and ambiguity play an equally important role – at CIID we like to measure powerful ideas by the number of goosebumps and ‘that feeling in your gut’. Much like an exotic journey, interaction designers use prototypes to fill the holes in our maps and be inspired by the people we design for.

As when traveling, we’ve learned to embrace the unexpected. This applies to both the hidden gems that you didn’t expect to find (that incredible restaurant with the local flair), and the uncomfortable failings (food poisoning?). When designing prototypes, we create opportunities for co-creation and give people the opportunity to add and contribute to an idea. For instance, when making paper prototypes we often leave blank spaces for people to write in what they’d like or expect. And when an idea falls flat, we forget our pride, learn what didn’t work, and try again. The key is to get into the wild with a prototype and learn to adapt your directions.

When it comes to interaction design, the art of prototyping is knowing how to focus, present, and explore experiences so that you can learn to make services & products that add value to people’s lives. It’s not about which tools (paper prototyping, Arduino, Flinto, etc.) or even the resolution and fidelity. Interaction design prototyping is about experiences and behaviours.

Observing people in their environments, interacting with the right prototypes, gives us a unique window into design possibilities and potential value. We believe spending time to think through and design the right prototypes is invaluable to the outcome of a project.

This post was originally published on 29 January, 2016 by CIID Consulting.

The Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design is a platform for enabling impact through innovation. With a commitment to disruptive thinking and action, people from all over the world congregate at CIID to work on or study innovation processes driven by prototyping and learning by doing. Since its inception in 2006, the talented and passionate people at CIID have been designing for empowerment and value creation for individuals, organizations, and society at large. The organization today includes an education program, a start-up incubator, and an Innovation Studio working with global brands around the world.

Early-bird tickets at a reduced price are now on sale for CIID: Service Design Through Experience Prototyping. In this intensive 3-day workshop from May 13-15, 2017, you will learn and apply advanced service design and experience prototyping techniques both in the digital and physical realm. You’ll also walk away equipped with a complete toolkit for rapid user-focused innovation and a certificate from CIID.

Get them as quickly as you can here.