Prototyping session with post-its and cardboard at EPFL

It’s the second year I am teaching the HUM-401 class at EPFL with Daniel Sciboz. The course is about creative processes and tricks employed by designers in their work. Our aim is to show engineers from various areas (IT, biology, chemistry, material sciences, architecture) a different approach than the one they have through various means: short lectures, basic assignments and crits. The first semester is devoted to techniques and methods, and the second semester corresponds to a personal project. This course is extremely refreshing for me as it allows to understand the various frictions between “designerly” of doing. I blogged about this last year here and this new class will have will certainly lead me to new findings.

One of the most interesting moment of the first semester is the prototyping phase (which follows the observation and the ideation series of sessions). More specifically, there is course devoted to “quick and dirty prototyping” that we always try to renew, finding original ways to make students understand the relevance of iterating their ideas via basic techniques. The class starts off with a short intro about the underlying rationale to prototyping:

  • We discuss what we found in the field study conducted at the beginning of the semester, and highlight the categories of findings: problems (pain points, lack of something, bad functionality), expressed or observed needs, constraints (physical, social, cultural), general interaction principles, existing solutions, weird ideas. These findings are presented as starting points for “creating something”.
  • Then we discuss the importance of using tangible material to “test” ideas. The funny part of the discussion here, with engineers, is to make them understand that there is no “silver bullet” and the importance of iterating. I introduce here the notion of “thinging” (Pelle Ehn), the practice of using rough things to decide collectively where to go. Mock-ups or props can be seen as “experience prototypes”, to “understand, explore or communicate what it might be like to engage with the product, space or system we are designing” (J.F. Suri).

The idea that mock-ups to test things not only in talk but also through richer bodily, social and contextualized interactions, is easily grasped by the students but not necessary easy to put in place. This is why we then apply these ideas with two exercises.

Exercise 1: the post-it phone

This design exercise is a common assignment in design schools and I found some inspiration at at CIID about how to apply it:

Students worked in teams of three to imagine new mobile interaction scenarios around a theme/context. Each partner applied a stack of twenty or so post-it notes to the screen of their personal hand-held and draw interface states on each. As the interaction scenario was acted out, the notes were peeled off as the reciprocal actions unfolded.

Our brief was the following:

Form a team of 2 persons. Each team has to imagine a new mobile service based on the results of your field study (observation/interview): a map/orientation app. Using a stack of 15 post-its, you have to prototype the 3 core functionalities of this mobile app. Each post-its represents a screenshot of the graphical user interface (drawn by hand), create a treemap of the User Interface flow and then stick your post-its on top of each others. At least ONE of the feature must be audio!. You have 45 minutes, you will have to present this in front of the class in 5 minutes

That brief is straight-forward the the exercise went well. It’s always hard to have the students role-playing the presentation. Most have the tendency to do a demo (it may be more natural with such an audience) and not to show a real-interaction.

Exercice 2: stickers on boxes

The second exercise uses the marvelous sticker on boxes prototyping toolkit created by Anvil. The materiality of these elements enables to accelerate and improve the sharing and development of ideas in collaborative contexts. It’s a set of cardboard, boxes and stickers (with tons of different shapes, interfaces, logo) for for generating objects that communicate ideas quickly and simply:

The tool currently consists of cardboard boxes in 3 ‘handheld’ sizes, and a sticker catalogue of over 300 different symbols, shapes and icons. From current and past technologies to body parts, we have attempted to make these descriptors cover as broad and comprehensive a range of things as possible. By selecting, arranging and attaching the stickers you can begin to build up a sketch of an object, its potential features and uses.

For this part, the brief was the following:

Same team of participants. Now design a physical mock-up of your project using cardboard shapes and stickers. Create a way to present the use of this prototype in front of the class (role-play). You have 45 minutes, you will have to present this in front of the class in 5 minutes.

See the 5 projects designed by the different groups

Project 1: FYND (Find Your Next Destination)
Context of use: find new places to visit and spatially organize your day.
What it does: the app guides you to the destination you choose (from A to B)

Project 2: Find It Easily
Context of use: during leisure time
What it does: foldable 3D screen on both side of the device, it shows maps and objects’s location

Project 3: To Do Clock
Context of use: daily life/urban environment
What it does: the app allows to create “to do lists” by dragging icons of tasks to a map of the city you are at. The user gets points if he/she gets on time to every places where a todo item is located.

Project 4: GeoCrisis
Context of use: urban street
What it does: a location-based game with a map of where the user is. 3 game modes: survival, capture the flag, and run.

Project 5: Scanline
Context of use: find something (POI, restaurant…) in an urban context
What it does: the service allows to locate you on a map (as well as POIs) by scanning the skyline of the city in which you are located.

Some comments about the activity:

  1. The fact that we had both exercises was a good thing, it allowed to have a final discussion about the relative merits of the two, and the importance of using different types of material to iterate and test ideas in different directions.
  2. The tools themselves lead to intriguing ideas, sometimes in a divergent way (new features enabled by tons of stickers!), or by narrowing down the possibilities (the form factor of the cardboard boxes in the second exercise leads to lots of smartphone app ideas).
  3. Only two students (out of 16) realized they could use the cardboard box as a sort of foldable device!
  4. As usual with such kind of assignments with non-designers, there is a tendency to treat it as fun and almost absurd. This leads to participants using weird post-its or thinking about odd features for the sake of it. This is of course problematic but I think it’s a starting point for a discussion about the difference between having fun creating something (targeted to a certain user) and not making weird choices because it’s simply funny.

Why do I blog this? Debriefing the use of new tools is interesting for upcoming workshops.

Read in Iwata Asks: Yuzawa Yeah. We were sure to make use of…

Read in Iwata Asks:

Yuzawa Yeah. We were sure to make use of that. And when the Wii U GamePad controller still hadn’t come together, we had Motoyama-san make a mockup (model) so we could check how it would feel in your hands.

Motoyama I actually brought that today. I’m sorry it’s such a shabby thing.

Iwata Oh, it’s made out of cardboard! (laughs) Motoyama Yeah. The screen has a lid and you can insert pieces of paper in the top to change the display.

Iwata I love how you can slide a piece of paper in! (laughs) Everyone (laughs)

Motoyama We wouldn’t know how it felt unless we could actually hold it, but since we didn’t have one, the only thing to do was make one. In the middle of the night, I cut pieces of cardboard and glued them together.

Kurisu It even has the grips in the back. Motoyama-san burnt the midnight oil to make this. (laughs)

Iwata It holds differently than a tablet, and the screen size isn’t like that of an iPad or smartphone. When Nintendo changed the design along the way12, I bet you thought “What are you doing?!” (laughs)

Motoyama Well, it didn’t make that much of a difference. (laughs) Kurisu Yeah. (laughs) But having a mockup like this that you could hold helped us get a better idea of what was being made.

Design Fiction + Advanced Designing + Trust in Volume Quarterly

The most recent — now a month or two old — issue of Volume Quarterly was on the topic of The Internet of Things. And within that was a small sub-volume of essays and articles on Trust compiled by Scott Burnham who has been running a project called Trust Design for Premsela which I understand to be The Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion.

((The Laboratory seems to be a recurring guest in Volume Quarterly. We were in one a couple of issues back — their issue on The Moon.))

Scott started his project on Trust just as we in the Advanced Projects (then Design Strategic Projects) Studio at Nokia were beginning a project with the same name and some of the same questions. One of our questions was to understand what Trust is and how Design can somehow illuminate where Trust exists and its paths and relationships. When I say “illuminate” the image that comes to mind is one of a special detective’s forensic UV light illuminating something under specific conditions that would otherwise not be seen. Or, in those weird 1950s era medical treatments in which a subject drinks some wretched fluid or is injected with something that shows the paths of digestion or the networks of arteries when shown under X-Rays or something. (Maybe it isn’t wretched, but the thought gives me the willies for some reason.)

In any case there were many facets of the Design work we did in the studio, one of which was this Alarm Clock which was meant to operate precisely in this fashion — to focus our attention on a simple interaction ritual in which we were forced to consider characteristics of Trust.

The essay far below below was my contribution to the Volume Quarterly issue.

But first..

There’s a thing or two to add as well, that have more to do with this particular way of doing Design — or Design Fiction. The process of *making these clocks — which were made out of plastic and aluminum and electronics and solder and all that — was only partially about the specifications that determined how those things would be configured. Beyond those pragmatic, specified things were the ideas we sought to force to the surface — the concepts that we wanted to make ourselves address and consider directly. The preposterousness of the interaction ritual that the alarm mechanism forces was a deliberate way of compelling us to think and talk and design for this ephemeral social bargain called Trust. There was no way around it. We couldn’t lose ourselves in the geekery of circuit design; or choosing a color for the LED numerical displays; of obsessing over compound curves in the industrial design of the thing; or fetishizing any aspect of the “Design” as it is traditionally understood — a material instantiation of an already-accepted and well-understood object. There’s not much movement these days in Alarm Clocks. They are what they are and the variations come in things like…size. Like…color. Like…brand. Like…AM/FM or longwave. Like…number of alarms. Like…style. Like…box-y or round-y. Etc. You get it.

You’ll get stuck with those sorts of boring variations if you think about Alarm Clocks traditionally. Rather, thinking *not about Alarm Clocks but about waking up, and the rituals around it changes one’s approach. All of a sudden, you’re mucking with tradition. You’re getting people upset. You’re not responding to the client’s brief the way they expected. You’re not just doing color and materials variations.

Pfft. So what? Well — looking at things a little sideways is, for lack of a better moniker, advancing design. Advancing it beyond the expected. Doing the Fosbury Flop for Alarm Clocks.

The other thing to say about the project is that the making of the thing — all that plastic prototyping; all that circuit design; all that figuring-out-of-colors-and-materials; all that CNC machining; all that figuring out of tool paths; all that figuring out of firmware and interaction algorithms..why was all that done? Yes, of course — to make the thing *work, in the plainest sense. But, more than that — it was all done to do the Design. The making of the thing is *also a way of doing the Design of the thing. We didn’t figure everything out and then said, “right. now we can make it!” The making was the designing. Assumptions and questions are raised. We interrogate our own ideas and create new ones, whilst making and building and handling material and trying out little scenarios. The peculiar nature of the clock was such that we had debates, one in particular was about what the display should do when the little keyfob alarm-buzzer part was removed to be given to a friend. I felt quite strongly that the display on the main clock should go off, so that you’d have to Trust completely the person who was meant to be your human alarm. Otherwise, you can wake up and check the time, which is an implicit way of not really trusting that human alarm person.

This was the bit of fiction insofar as a clock like this would be quite otherworldly. There would be a very different set of assumptions about how relationships work; about what waking up entails and what it is for (getting to a meeting on time; making sure the kids are ready for school; not missing a flight and all the weight and significance of what happens if you *don’t do these things when and what time they need to be done.)

It would be a very different world if we just *woke up when we woke up, rather than waking up to the same time nearly every day. It’s a slightly skewed universe that this clock came from, but it’s crucial to do this kind of design. Why? Well — it advances the realm of possibilities and begins one considering quite directly about creating new, more curious and sensible interaction rituals. It is also a way of advancing design — doing design differently; questioning and challenging assumptions not only of materials and colors and forms and such, which is good. But questioning the actions and rituals and behaviors of the humans, even to the point of something so seemingly absurd as waking up in different ways. This isn’t to say that people will want to wake up to other people knocking on their doors or shaking their pillows, but it forces a number of unexpected considerations and questions and new ideas that plainly wouldn’t come about if one just focused on different colors for clock displays or snooze button styles. Its a kind of advanced design that is able to engage in its topic by throwing out all base assumptions and free-fall a bit into a weird world and then *not allow the usual questions to arise. Sink into the discomfort zone and do some advanced designing.

How does the underpinnings of social relationships become a design principle? How does one design for trust? Can an intangible like trust become embedded in an object?

The principle that “theory” can be expressed in an object plays a part in this question. Substitute “Trust”, a kind of philosophical principle that is perhaps, in my mind, best expressed through exemplars that represent it, rather than the abstractions of philosophical discourse.

The topic of “Trust” presented itself in October 2008 with a tremendous force. The world rattled as global networks of “Trust” institutions collapsed on a scale that sent apcoloyptics scurrying for Old Testament passages consistent with the sequence of events witnessed across the globe. “Trust” became a keyword for these events as macro social institutions that were once “too big to fail” failed despite their size. These institutions that were once the bedrock of society cracked and dissipated and in their failure, revealed what Trust is, at its core. It is, of course – people and the networks of relationships that define what it is to be a social being.

In the Advanced Design studio at Nokia, we were curious about Trust and what it means. Trust is recognized as a core values of the Nokia brand. The worldwide events brought the topic to the fore and provided an impetus for a design-based experiment. Our question was — what is Trust and how could one design with Trust as a guiding principle? How do you embed Trust in the material of a designed object?

The project walked around the topic, building up the studio’s expertise on the topic through the Design equivalent of a “literature review”, both in the sense of readings as well as a more tangible equivalent. We collected essays and books and made things — objects. We brought in both internal to Nokia and external experts on the topic. A social psychologist talked to us about how ordinary people become extraordinary liars. We followed closely the daily events of the macro level systemic failures of insurance companies, banks, economies and entire governments.

Our goals were deceptively simple — to develop a set of principles that could become “actionable” and be “designed-to” in order that Trust could be embedded in the material of an object.

Amongst a dozen principles, one is worth highlighting and is best paraphrased and represented in one of our tangible exemplars. The principle goes something like this: facilitate the trust network — allow people to trust the people they already trust.

Our tangible prototype was, of all things — an alarm clock. We called it the Trust Alarm Clock. The design brief was simply to make an alarm clock that embodied the principle — an alarm clock that highlighted the idea that trust is a relationship between people. At the same time, it was a platform that allowed us to experiment with this simple principle. As you will see, it is an almost absurd object. But it was the response to the brief that we made, without questioning our motivations, but rather following our curiosity on the topic of Trust.

The clock is best described directly. It consists of two components. The main component is not unlike a conventional bedside alarm clock. The second sits nearly where one would expect the canonical “snooze” button of a conventional alarm clock. This second piece is a small, removable “fob”. When one sets the desired time to wake up, the fob is programmed with a digital count down timer. The alarm setting ritual starts when one sets the wake-up time using a dial on the back of the clock. While doing this, the fob timer is configured so that its count down would expire and the fob would “alarm” when the alarm clock setter would like to wake up. The ritual is completed when the fob is removed from the main component and given to a most trusted friend. In that ritual of handing over the fob, the network of trust is established and embodied. The “handshake” of the passing represents the creation, or the invigoration of trust in its most elemental form. Handing over the fob signals that there is Trust amongst this small, two-person social network. If one wants to wake up — or be woken up — one must first consider a number of things. Primarily — who do I trust to wake me up? Who would I want to be woken up by? To whom do I want to convey that I do indeed trust them?

Short animation of an interaction ritual.

We did not suppose that a bedside alarm clock like this has mass-market appeal. It’s a theory object — a way of questioning and probing and exploring the idea of Trust as made into this provocative material exemplar. In a way it is a bit of fiction, only not written, rather made as a physical object that compels one to think of the stories and “user experiences” that may surround it. The fiction is established through a provocation created through design practices.

Theory objects are like material instantiations of ideas — perhaps even our hopes and our imagination. Theory objects refract some social practice in a peculiar and hopefully thought-provoking way. They are “theory objects” in this sense, ways of shaping refining, refracting and altering social practice hopefully in a way that creates more habitable worlds.

The theory object is a way to think about “technology” as something that does more than utilitarian or instrumental. It is an embodiment of some sort of practice that is not outside of the realm of social action. In other words, the theory object is a social object — one that can shape and mutate social practice. Technologies are mutable. They can be what we need them to be, and shape how we experience the world and in that way, are social. What we are doing here is over-emphasizing this point by skirting around the usual assumptions about technology in order to make this point about their social nature more evident and obvious and provocative.

Why should we care enough to make this point that technologies are embodiments of social practice? Because we need to reveal the human hand in their creation and their possibility. Once we can see that people put these things together (and show this process plainly, through images and descriptions without secrets) it becomes possible to talk about how they could be different, or obey different laws and assumptions — possibly become more environmentally conscientious, or help us find playful ways to be more compassionate to mean people, or find ways to be kind to strangers (whatever..need some concrete examples, perhaps anticipating the projects.)

In the case of the Trust Alarm Clock, we were confronted with a rather exciting and unconventional direction for ways of waking up, which everyone does, with the regrettable exceptions, of course. The question evolves beyond *who do I want to wake me up, and who do I trust the most to, say — make sure I get up to make an unusually early meeting or airplane departure. Rather, through this theory object we were drawn into thinking about other *things one may wake up to besides the time of day. What sort of alarm clock might the near future bring that represents a trusted evolution of the waking-up ritual. Perhaps an alarm clock that allows someone in my networked social graph to wake me up. Or — are there things that I trust more than people in these circumstances? Somethings that are beyond the rather mechanistic and mundane ritual of waking to the time, which, after all — is not particularly exciting. Might the things that are more relevant or consistent with our connected age be what wakes us in the near future? In the near future, might we trust more an alarm clock that wakes us up when other people start waking up in order to facilitate that sense of being amongst a larger group of people who are also starting their day. Who are we to say that the now common ritual of waking to a specific time become as antique as luggage without wheels.

Pneu. Ma. Tique.

Thus uttered Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s film “Stolen Kisses” as a farewell letter to Madame Tabard is shussh-ered off through the Parisian pneumatic tube postal system..

Just enjoyed a coffee and reading Molly Steenson‘s article called Interfacing with the Subterranean on pneumatic tubes infrastructures in Issue 41 of the lovely, always diversely curious Cabinet Magazine. A nice little read on a system we’d now look on as antique, baroque and not just a little bit steampunk-y. That’s her up top sharing with me some of the very intriguing primary research she’s unearthed as she drops-gear and toe-and-heels the turn into the final lap of her dissertation Grand Prix race.

Aside from being still perplexed at how this proto-type internetwork of connected *tubes actually was able to route things hither-and-yon over cities and all such — I find it fascinating that versions of the hardware stack continue to exist in various ways. There are intranets within buildings still. The intriguing aspect of this is the material form that is rhymed (not perhaps on purpose or by design) by the networks electronic of today. Those guys standing around in the rooms receiving and continuing the little chariots of messages are little routers and TCP/IP compliant protocol handlers, one could think.

Why do I blog this? To capture a small historical scrapnote on the always constantly prototyping mechanics of communication that humans perform. This was likely perceived as wondrous, high-technology in its day. I’m surrounded this week by the hubris of high-technology prototyping, creation and thinking. Not all of it wondrous. Some of it down-right silly. Words like “engine” and context and gobble-dee-gook engineerig-y semantics make a hash of what the utterer may think of as perfectly reasonable sentence structure and syntax. I can’t tell verbs from nouns when I hear about context engines deciding that I’m in a meeting and little “agents” squirreled away on the chipset in my hand decide to book lunch but not before my chipmunk agent grabs an auctioneers gavel and let my local restaurants bid for he pleasure of my ordering a sandwich. I don’t believe this is an interesting future. There are others. More whimsical. More fun. More pneumatic.
Continue reading Pneu. Ma. Tique.

When Not To Use Doorknobs

3D Magazines

A familiar challenge is to translate the seemingly unyielding demand to put a specific technology into something because it is expected, or because the name of the technology is the new great thing. It doesn’t matter what it is in particular — I use “doorknob” as a stand-in for whatever the latest “doorknob” of the day might be.

For example — we’re going through an Augmented Reality “doorknob” phase presently, as most of you know. As evidenced by the recent issue of “The Skateboard Mag (78)”, we’re also continuing to go through another, another 3D “doorknob” phase. Which is fine, I guess. 3D is fun when the impact is light, like a magazine.

What do I mean by doorknob? Doorknobs are things that rarely mean anything at all to normal human beings but they mean everything in the world to doorknob enthusiasts who spend most of their time trying to put doorknobs onto everything they possibly can — coffee tables, lampposts, patio chaises, kid’s t-shirts, wrist watches, fancy cameras, car dashboards, toasters, clock radios, keychains, tea kettles, baseball hats.. I could go on, but I’ll let the “doorknob” enthusiasts go crazy themselves.

Rarely, on occasion — someone puts a doorknob on a door because, perhaps, they lead their thinking and ideas and making with principles that focus on people and their practices before they just think of shoving doorknobs on kitten collars or broom handles.

Rather than specifying design first based on technology and engineering-based *parts, fashion small, short stories around the people-based principles that might, in the end, specify that a doorknob be used. But, only at the tail end of things. If you start to feel like you’re bolting doorknobs onto stuff cause some guy in a yellow tie and blue shirt had a graph that suggests that competition is going to start using Baroque, mother-of-pearl encrusted doorknobs on their 2013 saw horses — then obviously something is backwards with the design process. Increasingly — or maybe at this point completely — my own opinion is that, for the near future at least, design can play a much larger role in fashioning and specifying and coordinating the activities between all the other participants in the making of things. Amongst engineering, marketing, operations, production, sourcing and so on. Not that all that is fun at all — but it may be crucial and necessary for creating a legible, sensible “output” at the end of a lot of hard work. Something that communicates and represents value in a people-centered way. It’s incredible how much kruft comes out at the end of markets-led decisions — it’s simply unsustainable, and often done just to keep a foot in the door and so that conversations (good or bad) continue to float around.

Alternatively is the translation of the *doorknob into something else. Doorknobs can be props that stand in for something else that is more people and experience-centric — say, access. A way in. Even an ornamental way in that suggests something wonderful lies beyond. Translating that experience could make a doorknob more than an inappropriate proboscis on something it has no business being part of, I suppose. That feels like a middle ground compromise, as opposed to starting with experiences that are legible to whomever you are hoping to make something for — making those experiences the best they can be (or even just a little better than they already are.)


Okay. Back to it, then.

Why do I blog this? Honestly, don’t read much into this or try to interpret what might *really be going on. I’m just capturing some caffeine-fueled notes on a thorough-going set of questions about how to effectively lead “innovation” or the making of things with design principles and design practices that then themselves specify “the parts.” How can design lead with the respect and authority that engineering and business and marketing-type activities have already? And do so without the hubris of “John H. Doe Design Agency” sort of stuff. If engineering and “research” start with, say — doorknobs that operate without touching them and business and marketing start by assessing what sort of doorknob ornamentation will the market expect down the road what is the way for design to contribute a perspective and translates that language in such a way that, perhaps — doorknobs themselves are questioned and new propositions appear that aren’t specifications based on what is available, but specifications based on what should be, that based on principles more thoroughly considered than “just ’cause.”
Continue reading When Not To Use Doorknobs