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Recently ran a workshop for MA Service Design students at the RCA on prototyping as a design method and a way of thinking about generating ideas. We started out with some general background information taking in what prototypes are for, how to use the fidelity of the prototype to communicate ideas at different stages of a project, how to include potential users in prototype development, and how to prototype interactions in a system. After this broad grounding we spoke specifically about prototyping digital interfaces as opposed to services or products. Software interfaces sit between the very tangible ways of prototyping physical products with their exploration of form and material and the abstract nature of services which is often best done in context with people i.e. role playing an airport security scenario or a hotel check-in procedure.

I drew on one of the key texts about prototyping ‘What do Prototypes Prototype?’ by Stephanie Houde and Charles Hill. In their paper, written in 1997, they propose that too much attention has been placed on the characteristics of the prototype i.e. the materials used, the tools used to create it and to what level of fidelity it performs. Instead, they say, designers should pay attention to what the prototype does. Houde and Hill suggest ways of getting to this knowledge by classifying prototypes in three ways.

1. Look and feel prototypes. These are mainly concerned with how people feel, what they see or hear, and other sensory qualities. Colour, texture, weight, responsiveness, and dimensions are important. The aim is to give an idea of ‘what it would be like to look at and interact with’ a system without having to write code or design a detailed interface.

2. Role prototypes. These focus on the intended role of the artefact in people’s lives. How is it useful? What does it do? Prototypes of this kind do not need to be highly resolved but contextual understanding is important. For example if a system is intended to help you check your bank balance while out shopping, it should be easy to access, fast to load, and optimised for mobile devices. Role prototypes imply an examination of how people behave and what their needs are, they are less concerned with how things work or what they look like.

3. Implementation prototypes. These concentrate on how the artefact performs its stated function. Houde and Hill talk about the ‘techniques and components’ the artefact embodies. The purpose of the implementation prototype is often to gather requirements or to inform a functional specification, they ask the question What do we have to do to make this work? They are as designed to demonstrate feasibility as they are to elicit feedback.

The next stage of our workshop was the creation of a mobile interface using paper as the prototyping. Paper was used for a number of reasons. Firstly it is a very common way of developing interactive systems before writing code and therefore likely to be encountered by the students in professional life. Secondly, it is low cost, widely available, easy to use, and fast to iterate on. Three tasks were given; design an system for booking hotel rooms, design an interface for streaming music, and design an interface for live sport updates. Materials in the form of printed templates were provided, students worked in three groups of five each.

Outcomes showed the limited time available – 1 hour – but expressed a wide variety of solutions. On reflection we realised they mainly fulfilled only one of Houde and Hill’s three categories; role prototypes in that they were all mainly focused on what the prototype did, and what part it played in user’s lives. Perhaps this shows how service design places attention on people in context and less on tangible or material design products.

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