Even though I already knew what prototyping was, this week’s readings gave me a better understanding of the importance of prototyping and the role of the designer in the prototype-making process. It seems to me that through prototyping the designer becomes the mediator between the artifact and the user. Designers must empathize with the user as well as understand the technology of the object or system that is being created. Building a successful prototype requires iteration, combination of different skill sets, strategic planning and proper implementation.
What surprised and impressed me most about the prototyping process was the pizza-box prototype example described in Houde and Hills’ piece. In this instance, an architect was asked to carry a pizza box on a site visit. The box was meant to simulate a laptop computer that would let the designers determine how the form, weight and size fit into the context in which the laptop would be used. This was an extremely effective and affordable way to understand which direction the design should go in. Through this simple simulation, designers had a better understanding of the user’s needs and how those needs could be addressed. In Experience Prototyping, Buchenau and Suri further illustrate how roll playing can be essential in the initial stages of the design process. The article describes a very simple, inexpensive simulation where the designers replicate an airplane interior using only chairs to “evaluate ergonomic and psychological comfort” of a potential customer. This kind of direct participation allowed the designers to understand more than just the aesthetics and physical engagement of a space but also the social situation of being served by a flight attendant, sleeping, sitting and talking to a fellow passenger. It must be stressed that this invaluable information was gathered quickly and without a large budget.
Understanding user experience inspires further, more complicated prototypes. In Cardboard Computers: Mocking-It-Up or Hands-On the Future, Greenbaum and Kyng describe the next level of a design process as “second generation mock-ups.” Depending on the project, a designer might actually start building a physical object with or without computer-based functionality. Through this process the design might reveal certain limitations or pose other design questions that need to be addressed. According to the authors, the more iterations produced in this design stage the better the outcome will be. It is important to know exactly how an artifact should function before a programmer sits down to code the actual interface. It could be costly and time consuming to redo anything past the mock-up stage of a design.
Once the sociological, psychological and contextual aspects of a future artifact are established, and the role and look and feel of the product are determined, the design team can create, what Haude and Hills call, an “integration prototype” where the “complete user experience of an artifact” is built using information from the numerous preceding prototypes. In this stage, a prototype does not simulate the final product, although, it is used to get feedback from the client and the actual users. This is a more costly, time consuming prototype but one that is absolutely necessary in order to find out how functional the product is.
Only after careful research through roll playing, simulations, mock-ups and computer-based prototypes can an artifact make its way into the market. Previously, my idea of prototyping was that the process was much more limiting, that it was expensive and should represent an artifact as close to the finished product as early in the design phase as possible. On the contrary, prototyping should be a fun, explorative process that uses numerous iterations, various mediums, and the combination of different skills sets in a design team. It is also not necessarily expensive and, depending on the phase of the design process, does not have to be time consuming. The purpose of prototyping is not just to determine the functionality of a product; it is also a way to find out how the product fits into the context of every day life of the user.