Prototyping in the early design phases

I define ‘prototypes’ are material manifestations that carry an essential parts of the functionality of a concept design, and are developed toward an intended product (which may be a traditional mass-manufactured item for sale, a service, a method, tool, or technique).

Functions of prototypes within research

Making prototypes comes natural to a designer doing research. And it helps in several ways. In my 2010 presentation at the pro to:type 2010 symposium (currently in press), I listed five:

1 prototypes confront theories

If you’re building a prototype that should be really used, you can’t hide in abstractions. You are forced to translate your theory into the situated complexity of situations of use, rather than conduct an isolated laboratory experiment on an abstracted principle. Typically, building the prototype involves creating a complete solution, which means that multiple theories must be satisfied simultaneously in deciding on the properties that the prototype should have. This requires that theories from different areas are brought together, and that a single phenomenon in the world is used as a carrier that is described from these different perspectives; this in turn helps creating links between different fields in interdisciplinary research.

2 confronting the world

Whereas the previous principle occurs even before you get the prototype working (the confrontations may occur before anything is really made), this principle fits the basics of empirical research: you’ve got to make it work. Even though your theory might state that something is ‘strong’, ‘fast’, or ‘thin’, making the prototype requires a concrete instantiation: something which is thin is either 1 cm thick or 1 mm thick; something which is fast must arrive within either 1 second or within 1 millisecond. In making such concrete decisions, one can be surprised how many details are just not discussed in the experimental literature.

3 evoking discussion and reflection

The previous two principles take place if the researcher works in a studio, or works hidden away. This one is social, and concerns involving other minds. Prototypes have an evocative quality, easily surpassing theories in books or presentations in powerpoint. They are tangible, hands-on, ‘things’ which speak to the imagination, and allow other people (including other researchers) to engage with it, and discuss it in the language of everyday experience. In Keller’s project, a lot was learnt from the reactions of visiting researchers given a demonstration of the TRI or Cabinet prototypes, and from the many suggestions for improvements given by people who played with it.

This evocative social function may be the most important one in this list, as it concerns not only generation or validation, but also communication of knowledge. In this direction, Morgensen (1992) proposed to speak of ‘provotypes’, objects whose function is not to test or prove, but the provoke reflection, experimentation, and discussion.

4 changing the world

This principle is close to ‘action research’ approaches in the social sciences. The prototype embodies a possible future, and allows this to be explored. It can be used as an intervention in a work practice (as Cabinet was put in design offices, to study how its use of new media techniques affected image collection in practice). In action research methodology, methods have been proposed and developed to document and explain the effects on work practice, and thereby better understand this work practice.

5 testing a theory

This final principle is put last in this list not because it is less important than the others, but because it fits in best with the classic experimental approach to research. A prototype can serve as an embodiment for a hypothesis, realizing the conditions (independent variables) in an experiment. It connects to the observation at the beginning of this paper that researchers were so keen on design students because they were great at producing stimuli. This principle fits well into accepted (psychological) research methods, which makes it much easier to publish the research than the previous four.

Prototypes carrying knowledge

There is a last candidate which is sometimes mentioned, that prototypes are themselves carriers of knowledge. But although it is clear that prototypes can give powerful illustrations of scientific statements, they do not make a statement in themselves. The prototype embodies knowledge only when it is framed within that knowledge. That framing then provides the knowledge, they way in which the prototype is interpreted, which must be made explicit for knowledge to be shared and understood. In itself it is merely a piece of matter, open to interpretation, but not by itself making a statement independent of the interpreter.