Posts tagged “prototyping”

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Marvel faces mighty foe: publishing world uncertainty [New York Times] – ['Prototyping with comics' usually refers to a UX method on smaller scale, but as Marvel grapples with its own massive scope in both comics and film, they have natively derived an analogous method, or at least mindset] Though Marvel’s publishing side does not directly control the content of Marvel films, Kevin Feige, the president of production at Marvel Studios, said the storytelling in the comics had a strong influence on the movies “because it’s a hell of a lot less expensive to take a chance in a comic than it is take a chance in a movie.” Repeating a phrase he said he had heard from Quesada, he added, “It’s the cheapest R&D there is, but the best R&D there is.”

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from julienorvaisas] Plantronics and The Infamous Wall of Ears [SlashGear] – [The wall of ears is admirable in it's attempt at thoroughness, and it makes a disturbing visual impression in the bargain. Makes me wonder how they rely on it in the process – to give a "rough idea" of fit or to quantify fit and by association comfort? It's easy to see how it would give designers an idea of how well a headset fits in/onto the ear but cannot show how it actually feels to said ear.] This wall contains rubber molds of ears of every size, shape and form they could possibly throw together in order to cover as wide a range of ear shapes possible. Plantronics tests all new headset designs rigorously in order to put on the market the most comfortable headset for all shape and sized ears. Ears are notoriously difficult to create a mass market product for due to the level of inconsistency in human ear shapes. This wall is the “database” Plantronics has created in order to hit as many variables in headset design possible.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from julienorvaisas] Steve Madden’s Comeback [] – [Steve Madden puts real-time rapid shoe prototypes in front of customers for instant feedback communicated through sales and interest. It's research that asks people to put their money where their mouth is, and provides significant financial efficiencies.] Madden is also responsible for what many think is the shoe merchant's biggest asset—its ability to quickly create cutting-edge footwear. After he and his team come up with a design for, say, new boots, a mini-factory at their headquarters can turn it into a trial product within hours, produce a limited number of the boots by the end of the day, and place them in a few of its own retail stores by week's end. The shoe merchant then gets feedback from the stores. If the footwear is a hit, it can be on retailers' shelves throughout the U.S. in six to eight weeks.
  • [from steve_portigal] TidyPSD – Get your PSDs organized! – [A fascinating example of a service. Upload a Photoshop (PSD) file to this site and they will organize it for you, grouping layers and renaming them in a coherent fashion. You can imagine digital professional organizing services that will clean up your files, organize MP3s or photos, but this is a very specific offer, akin to a professional organizer who sorts out your spice rack only.] It’s very difficult for coders to work with someone else’s PSD files if they’re not organized correctly. We help fix that problem by organizing your PSDs for you.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from julienorvaisas] Six scientists tell us about the most accurate science fiction in their fields [Mad Science io9] – [Brief interviews with scientists discussing where some of the real science resides in our science fiction. Great comments thread, including this one: "The other side of the coin is how has science benefited from science fiction stories."] Ronald Arkin, director of the Mobile Robotics Lab, Georgia Tech: "Realistic depictions of robots are pretty boring, so there's not much to say on what is accurate or not. No positronic brains, no running amok killing everyone and everything. I guess that's the fiction in science fiction. You watch enough videos of robots at real research conferences and it's hard to stay awake… Anyway, [one] comes to mind that is a bit more accurate than most: Hal 9000, in 2001, apart from his apparent psychotic episode, is a robotic system that people live inside. Current research agendas, in human-robot interaction, task planning, command and control, etc., could conceivably lead to such an intelligent system."
  • [from steve_portigal] Will You Try My Paper iPhone App? [Techcrunch] – [Stanford HCI student gets soundly criticized for seeking feedback on paper prototype with actual users! The drama – as often on the web – really takes off in the comments.] When I looked down at his hands, however, instead of an iPhone, he held a few pieces of paper with wireframe drawings in pencil. This was his app. I was supposed to pretend the paper was an iPhone screen and press the hand-drawn buttons as I shuffled through the flow. The idea is that you could point your camera at a magazine rack and get digital versions of the magazines, which you could preview on your iPhone and then purchase individual articles or the entire magazine. It made a lot more sense when he did it (see video). Now, there is nothing wrong with getting your ideas down on paper or paper prototypes to work out the kinks before you start coding. But you might want to wait until you have an actual working app on an iPhone before testing it out in the wild and asking for feedback from normal people.

URF10: Research, Creativity and Astonishment

Many thanks to our friends at Bolt|Peters for hosting an energizing User Research Friday last week! Dan and I heard a recurring theme of research and creativity, both in method and mindset. Dan noted that several people spoke about research and creativity as though they were separate, and that combining them was somehow novel. But research done well, from framing the problem through storytelling, is creative by nature!

In particular I was struck by how Michal Migurski of Stamen (see his annotated slides here and video here) framed his discussion on their creative visualizations of information streams for Digg Labs and the Twitter Track for the Olympics (to name just a couple) as research-free, when we saw their work as a terrific illustration of a pretty standard method: Using stimulus (in this case the visualizations themselves) to do rapid prototyping based on immediate user feedback, all as a way to guide development. He even talked about Digg Labs as a “wide-open playing ground” for this kind of cycle of experimentation.

One of many visualizations on Digg Labs

NBC Olympics Real Time Twitter Tracker

Even beyond that, Migurski implied that Stamen’s visualizations have become research tools that help people to understand, navigate and make use of vast swathes of data, such as the journalist who keeps the Digg example up on his screen as a snapshot of what’s got buzz. So Stamen’s gorgeous visualizations are really a product of research as well as possibly a nascent research method. If their creation doesn’t feel to Migurski like deliberate research methods are being employed that may be because it’s just so embedded in their process. I’d argue that’s the best kind of research: an integral part of the process.

Now, terms like “User Research” are slippery, but I do object to his definition:

“User research, to me, is an attempt to mitigate and control astonishment by determining what an audience believes or expects, and where possible delivering on that belief and expectation. User research promises stability and predictable outcomes, and I think that we’re at a curve in the road where the idea of stability is just not all that interesting.”

This sounds like the objectives of conventional focus group or usability testing, not the front-end discovery methods that are at the core of our discipline. Our goal is not simply to determine what consumers believe or expect and then use those observations as marching orders, but to creatively synthesize these discoveries into insights about what people need and value, in order to drive the development of experiences and products that delight and (why not!) astonish.

Overall, the content at URF10 left us hungry for more discussion about how creative research methods are used as a set of inputs and methods that complement and inform design and business strategy at many stages of the development process.

Finally, a tip of the hat to presenter Ed Langstroth of Volkswagen for telling us about the “Party Mode” button (which turns up the bass in the back of the vehicle) on the new Toyota 4-Runner:

For more User Research Friday goodness, check out Steve’s 2008 User Research Friday presentation: Research and Design: Ships in the Night? (slides, audio, and video here) and the subsequent articles in interactions: Part I and Part II .

Get our latest article, Ships in the Night (Part II): Research Without Design?

My latest interactions column, Ships in the Night (Part II): Research Without Design? has just been published.

Our client had the right idea-get feedback on something unfinished in order to improve the finished product. Unfortunately, aspects of the object were so unfinished that people were unable to make the leap from the prototype (excuse me, appearance model) to the real thing, and the outcomes shifted away from usability and aesthetics toward high-level concept validation. Given that, there’s always the opportunity to create something specifically to provoke people around the deeper issues we want to explore.

Get a PDF of the article here. To receive a copy of the article, send an email to steve AT portigal DOT com and (if you haven’t given us this info before) tell us your name, organization, and title. We’ll send you a PDF.

Be sure to read Ships in the Night (Part I): Design Without Research? as well.

Related: Steve Portigal speaks at User Research Friday – Design and Research, Ships in the Night?

Other articles

Full Nelson

A fun read at Metropolis on the ‘good old days’ at Nelson & Company.

Irving Harper tells a story about developing his iconic Marshmallow sofa:

How did the Marshmallow sofa come about? One weekend, I thought about doing an upholstery unit, and wondered, Is there any way to do a sofa out of reproducible parts that could be done as if fitted out to a frame? I cooked up this model out of a checkers set, and I stuck the checkers disks on a metal frame, and it looked good to me. So I drew it up, brought it in, and that was the birth of it.

Harper’s story is testimony to the power of mocking up an idea. So when you or your team are in an idea-generating mode, go for it. Make ideas visible. Try things out. You never know where the exploration might lead…

Prototyping a body-mounted interface device using coat hanger, rubber bands, and Logitech mouse

Human Behavior

I was in Chicago last weekend for IIT Institute of Design’s excellent Design Research Conference, and spent a day walking around the city. (I’m happy to say I can now use the term ‘Miesian’ with authority.)

I ended the day in Millennium Park eating a hot dog and looking at Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture.


Actually, to say I was looking at the sculpture sells the experience short. I’d seen the giant silver bean from a distance earlier that day, but once I was next to it, the combination of scale, surface treatment, and form made it such an unusual and compelling object that I couldn’t help but start interacting with it. Chicago writer Lynn Becker’s article on Millennium Park sculpture-as-architecture delves further into the interactivity of Cloud Gate.

After a few trips around and under the sculpture, I decided to sit back and watch how other people were responding to it.

I saw people

  • photograph it
  • photograph themselves with it
  • photograph others with it
  • have strangers photograph them with it
  • use it as a mirror and check their makeup, hair
  • clean it and (while being photographed) lick it
  • fit their bodies into the smallest possible space created by the sculpture’s curves
  • smear their fingerprints along the mirrored surface (this seemed like a form of graffiti, a recording of presence)
  • pretend to be holding the sculpture up
  • use it to hold them up
  • pose suggestively on all fours next to it
  • talk about having come there other times
  • lie on the ground in poses to create specific tableaux in the funhouse mirror-like underside


It was fascinating to see how people reacted to having this functionless object placed in their midst. It struck me as a form of spatial/environmental prototyping, and I’m sure that noticing and examining what people do and what their patterns of motion around this object are and synthesizing that data could produce insights to inform many types of design.

In our research work, we periodically use objects to elicit responses from people to new concepts. Sometimes these artifacts take the form of storyboards, sometimes models, and sometimes we’ll just put something in a person’s hands to give them a starting point, something to react to. One time, I handed a person we were interviewing a CD box set that was on his coffee table, and he proceeded to talk us through a whole design for the product idea we were discussing. “It’d be smaller than this, I think the corners should be rounded, maybe this part could come off . . .”

We’ve been collaborating lately with a couple of our clients on the creation of storyboards and models for this purpose. It’s been interesting figuring out in each case the right balance of detail and abstraction; how to give people enough cues to get the basic concepts, while leaving them enough space to think about how they would like to see those concepts refined.

Of course, what gets created depends on where our client is in the development process and what we want to learn from the people we’re talking to, but I think that what I saw at Cloud Gate is a good model for what one hopes an artifact will spark in a research participant: the urge to experiment, to hypothesize, to test, to interact, to play, to see what’s possible.


Related posts:
On using objects for generative research

On noticing
On prototyping and fidelity

Trying to find out things we didn’t even know to ask about

Great article about Disney theme parks and the design – prototype – test – iterate – build process for a new ride, Toy Story Mania

“It is much easier and less expensive to do this before the concrete has been poured,” he added. “As rides become more complicated, your ability to tweak in the field gets harder and much more expensive.”

Across the street, in a cold, unmarked garage, Ms. Allen helped to conduct “play tests” on rudimentary versions of the ride. More than 400 people of all ages – all had signed strict nondisclosure agreements – sat on a plywood vehicle set up in front of a projection screen and played various versions of the games. Disney workers studied their reactions and interviewed them afterward.

“We were looking to see if some effects were too scary,” Ms. Allen said, “or if there wasn’t enough laughing happening during certain sequences.”

Among the discoveries: People wanted to be able to compare scores after they were finished playing, while some children had a hard time reaching the cannonlike firing controller, christened by Disney as a “spring action shooter.” Engineers added a computer screen to vehicles to display scores and installed the controls on movable lap bars.

“We were trying to find out things we didn’t even know to ask about,” said Sue Bryan, a senior show producer.

Projective Techniques for Projection Technologies

Projective Techniques for Projection Technologies, my paper for the dux05 conference, has just been posted online. Check it out here!

To facilitate the development of a new home-entertainment device (a portable projector with built-in speakers and a DVD player) we conducted in-home interviews that explored home entertainment activities, presented a demo of a rough prototype, and brainstormed with participants about future refinements.

I don’t often get to talk about my consulting work, so it’s great to have a fairly detailed case study published and available.

FreshMeat #18: The Houses of the Wholly

FreshMeat #18 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat

FreshMeat. It’s free, it’s Fresh, it’s Meat. FreshMeat!
If you build it, they will tell you what they think

At the outset of the house-hunting process, one is
advised to make a list of requirements for the new home,
such as number of bedrooms, neighborhood, size of yard,
and so on. Of course, what is wonderful (and daunting)
about this step is that for a purchase as important as
a house, we may not know what we want (or don’t want)
until we see it.

The process of going to Open Houses and visualizing our
lives and our stuff in that space is enormously powerful.
We are, in effect, evaluating a prototype.

In this evaluation process we will decide whether we
want to buy and live in the specific house we are
visiting, but what else do we learn?

– confirmation of some of our earlier assumptions
("See, having a big backyard is crucial…")

– revision of earlier assumptions
("I guess if we had a shower like this I wouldn’t need
to have a separate bathtub fixture…")

– removal or reprioritization of earlier assumptions
("I don’t have to have a side entrance…")

– new requirements for the future house
("Now that I see it, I would love an outdoor barbecue
pit just like this one…")

To do this right, you’re going to talk about it. Out
loud. And that means the people involved will negotiate
these requirements over time, making them more detailed
and more robust. In fact, the conversation will continue
after the encounter with the prototype is over. I hope
you see where I’m headed with this.

Earlier this year I was asked to show consumers a new
home electronics device that was being developed. We
went to people’s homes with this…box. A big, ugly,
weird-looking box. It was the result of clever engineers
working with off-the-shelf parts to create an artifact
that could be experienced. In other words, it really
It turned out to be the best possible prototype for the
research. We explained to consumers that this was
something they’d see in the future, but it wouldn’t look
like this box. The box was so obviously a prototype that
people easily understood that and framed their comments
appropriately, offering up their needs and desires for
this future technology.

I wouldn’t say we were "testing" this product. Rather,
we used the box as a conversation starter. We got
answers to the questions we had formulated ahead of
time (i.e., importance of a proposed feature), and the
consumers we talked to gave us information in areas
we hadn’t even thought about (i.e, not only that they
wanted it installed, but how and where they would install
it). As in the house-hunting example, we confirmed some
of our earlier assumptions, revised others, removed
others, and identified new requirements.

In this situation we had the right prototype for the
type of learning we needed to do. Consider a similar
session where the box itself doesn’t do much of anything
but has a more realistic appearance. Then we might
explore what part of the home it might best fit with,
aesthetic issues, or what parts of the control panel
people would expect to touch.

We can accomplish a lot by selecting the best sort of
prototype to explore the right topics with a customer.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that prototypes are
made to best represent the current thinking about what
the product will do/look like/etc. These prototypes are
the outputs of the typical product development process,
and are not always appropriate for this type of study.
But there are cool ways to explore different options with

In the house-hunting example, it wouldn’t be at all
unreasonable to go look at a multi-million dollar
house (although in the SF Bay Area, that just means
you get a two-car garage – but seriously folks). A lot
can be learned from the "prototype" even if it isn’t a
literal example of what you might choose. In other words,
there’s no way you’re buying that house, but as an extreme
example, it can be very effective in revealing more of
those unspoken assumptions,and clarifying the requirements.
See, there’s real usefulness is being a Looky Lou!

In any product development activity there will always be
"outsider" ideas. Even though there are valid reasons
not to take them all the way to market, those concepts
can be especially effective in sparking the type of
customer dialog that we can really learn from. If people
hate it, let’s discover why, and leverage that insight
in the concepts we go forward with.
In addition to varying the "goodness" of the idea that
you prototype (as in, that’s not a "good" idea, but
let’s get people talking about it anyway), there is also
the realism (or "fidelity") in the way you prototype it.
We often use the phrases "looks-like" and "works-like"

but there’s more to it. Consider how to create layers of
"fidelity." A plain box with no styling can have a nice
color printout of a control panel right on top. Take a
photograph of a person on a plane and put a cartoon
product in their hand. There’s a lot to play with here.
If you saw the (horrible) animated film Titan A.E.,
they made fairly effective use of layers of animation
styles – cartoon faces inside stylized suits with
photorealistic backgrounds.

And consider the dimensions of "fidelity". If you are
concerned with the size of the product, you can use plain
boxes of various sizes. There’s no need to create a variety
of working, realistic designs if you are only concerned with
size (and be sure to bring along a too-small-to-engineer-
at-our-price-point box and a too-large-for-most-users box
and see what customers tell you, and why). Once, I saw an
engineer turn a bottle of orange soda into an excellent
prototype of color and finish. In the moment, it was the
best thing to get the customer to think about how, what,
and why.

If you’re interested in more, check out the work by
Stephanie Houde and Charlie Hill. You can read a brief
summary here, or see their chapter "What do Prototypes
Prototype?" in the Handbook of Human Computer
, 2nd edition, 1997.

And finally, Michael Schrage has written extensively on
how organizations can and should create a "culture of
prototyping. Check out this Fast Company article,
or his book Serious Play.


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