Prototype the experience, not the product!

I’ve written previously about the value of product prototyping in quickly creating and refining product designs based upon usability and human factors research. But what if the product involved is just too complex to even prototype? Many high-value products including medical implants, high-tech exploration devices and aeroplanes just can’t be prototyped, except at unviable costs.

In their paper on “Experience Prototyping”, Marion Buchenau and Jane Fulton-Suri of IDEO describe ways to get around this problem by prototyping user experiences. The authors describe 4 ways to prototype experiences:

1. Simulation:

Using a virtual or real substitute for the actual product and simple tools like cameras and diaries to capture the user’s impressions. What if you wanted to prototype chest-implanted defibrillators? The shock is enough to knock a man off his feet, so real prototypes can’t be used. One solution is to give patients a pager and whenever it buzzes, capture their impressions on film and in a diary. What if the patient is using a power tool or holding an infant? This led to the idea of finding a way to warn people that the defibrillator was about to go off.

2. Role-playing games:
Getting a design or client team to role-play the user experience with readily available props like chairs, tables and video cameras. What if you wanted to prototype a deep-sea submersible robot? One solution is to set up a room full of chairs (portraying underwater obstacles), have one person hold a chocolate bar as the target and another player plays the role of the robot by holding a video camera connected to a TV in another room, where the user of the robot relays verbal instructions to the person playing the robot. What if you wanted the camera to look right but the person moved to the right instead and collided with a chair? This led to the idea of separate controls for the camera and the robot.

3. Improvisation:

Using actors or design team members to improvise user experiences (acting out a situation without prior preparation) with the aid of instruction cards carrying contextual statements. What if you wanted to design a service for train passengers? One solution would be to put designers into the role of passengers and make them improvise real user situations with the use of instruction cards. “Pretend you can’t speak English.” “Be hungry, find something to eat.” This could lead to ideas about how trains should be configured and how staff should be trained.

4. Bodystorming:

Testing physical environment configurations by brainstorming within physically constrained setups. What if you wanted to prototype the interior of an aeroplane? One solution would be to set up explorations within a life-size fom-core environment, making team members enact real-life passenger experiences like sitting, reading, sleeping, talking, receiving and eating meals. This easily configurable enviroment allowed the design team to test many ideas for physical configuration and user comfort.

The authors posit that there are 3 types of activities where these processes are of value:
1. Understanding existing user experiences and context.
2. Exploring and evaluating design ideas.
3. Communicating ideas to an audience.

Experience prototyping is a concept with applications across industries. Whether you need to understand the user experience of a digital blood-sugar tester, design a new space shuttle or explain to a senior executive what a dark, cramped, low-income household’s bathroom is really like, this is a most effective tool.

Do leave a comment and share your experiences with prototyping or experience prototyping.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] Prototyping doesn’t even have to be a tangible thing. Here’s the “proto-experience.”  Link to excellent background on the phenomenon of “experience prototyping” is here.   Or watch it in action on youtube: […]

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