Dramatizing prototypes

I’ve often written about the value of rapid prototyping your designs, with an edge towards going high-fidelity quickly so you can glean more accurate feedback from target users, which cycles back into the product design process. There’s also ample value for going low-fidelity too, particularly with rough physical prototypes, made with found materials in the studio, a la Stanford d.school :-)  

I’ve recently been assigned to a UI project exploring various forms of “multi-modal” interactions across devices (phones, tablets, laptops, large HDTV, roaming robots, etc.). There’s understandably much debate around what constitutes the best interactions (voice, touch, gesture, etc.) given the variety of contexts and assumed purposes or core tasks to be completed. Much of that debate gets captured on whiteboards and nice Illustrator diagrams. Lots of sketching ensues of the device screens and possible UI affordances and behaviors. 

But that’s just all very… theoretical. You’ve got to get physical fast. Make physical models of the devices and actively “act out” the interactions…in effect, dramatizing the prototype using “Wizard of Oz” staging techniques or simply “Bodystorming” (Ugh, I hate that word actually…it’s just acting. We all did that as kids!). So why is this helpful?

Drawing sketches, while necessary to get warmed up thinking about and probing the problem space, is actually rather inaccurate for helping to inform tangible decisions impacting the shape and behavior. You’re having an internal debate of how things may or may not function in actuality. Things do get foggy up in the ol’ noggin!  Even the most expert visualizers (who are surgeons, by the way…it’s true!) train and practice with real physical models to test their assumptions and verify actualities. There’s a valuable, rewarding, memorable learning and understanding that happens via the hands, feeling out the materials and textures and angles/joints/connections of physical pieces, separate from the ephemerality of animated pixels. 

Other benefits to physicalizing your prototypes:

* Forces you to consider posture, position, proximity, with your whole body and body space, as well as entire environment. As Raz Al Gul said while mentoring Batman (Bruce Wayne), “Always mind your surroundings!” ;-)

* Alerts you to possibilities, discovering pros/cons as you see it acted out, particularly with gestures and mixed modalities of interactions: In the car, in a cubicle, in a loud busy cafe, on a crowded bus, etc.

* It’s fun! there’s something very collaborative and engaging about creating rough models that folks can play with, poke at, shake around, and try things out. We “know” it’s all fake but can lead to novel discoveries and trigger associative ideas in other peers’ heads, per their unique experiences. 

* You can put them in the hands (literally) of other people, like your target users for initial conceptual high-level evaluations to see if you’re on the right track. And, this leads to great conversation fodder, as users love to play with them, hold and manipulate the artifacts, suggesting other ideas!

Finally, dramatizing also helps communicate your ideas robustly to remote development teams: just record short video clips on your smartphone (using your peers as hand models ;-)  and send along with some verbal commentary. Static sketches simply don’t do justice for conveying complex, multimodal behaviors. You gotta build quick prototypes, to illustrate the intent, and gather support for your ideas.



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