Introducing Protobot: a random generator for product ideas

Protobot is very simple: it generates a product idea by matching a random product category with a random constraint. Before you read any further, just try it out.

Right now, the source list has 130 product ideas and 130 constraints. This means you have almost 17,000 product ideas at your fingertips. Some are brilliant. Some are bizarre. Some are controversial. Some are hilarious. Some are very, very wrong. Have fun!

Why Protobot?

When we’re in a flow state, defining and solving problems creatively, designing is a joy.

But that groove is elusive. Especially when we’re adjusting to working with a new team of people; working on a problem that seems boring, unsolvable, or both; hungry, tired, stressed; or just sick of working on the same thing.

A great way to build creative energy and get to flow is through short bursts of structured exercises, or warm-ups, unrelated to our design problem. They’re a breath of fresh air when we’ve been thinking along the same well-worn paths for hours, days, weeks. Designers and design thinking folks know this already. When we’re running sprints or workshops, we borrow from improv theater, which brings a rich, deep set of games that give our brains a rest and a stretch at the same time.

As well as improv games work for designers, though, they’re not really about design. They’re about relationships, stories, and emotions. They’re not usually about objects, artifacts, materials, or planned experiences. As I teach design and design thinking, I’ve been missing a warm-up exercise that is about designing products and services, but inhabits the same wild-and-free place as improv games. I know plenty of improv-like techniques that work within a design process for prototyping a given idea in different ways (see this great card set by my colleagues Holger and Eva). But I wanted a quick, energizing exercise that stood on its own.

I happened upon a book of games used by the Surrealists in the 1920s — Ernst, Magritte, Bréton, and others. These games are even less traditionally game-like than improv games. They’re generation and combination techniques. The exercises often involve juxtaposing things that don’t naturally fit together. Sometimes the material comes from the other people in the room, and sometimes it comes from books, magazines, or art. Players are often forced to follow a nonsense path far longer than is comfortable. The results are sometimes funny, often deep, and sometimes a bit scary.

Then I thought: what if we used the surreal, barrier-busting power of juxtaposition and recombination to create a prototyping warm-up? So, on a tea-fueled Monday evening, I wrote Protobot. I’m going to use it in my classes and workshops in my day job at the D-School, and I hope you get some use out of it, too. Drop me a line in the comments to let me know what you think!

How to use Protobot

Solo

  • Before you get down to work, or after a break, sketch or build one of the ideas.
  • Storyboard how one of the ideas would work.
  • Write a quick profile of a person who would use the idea.

2–5 people

  • To warm up your group, or to get back to work after a break or a meal, set a timer for 5 minutes. Try to build, draw, or act out as many ideas as possible in 5 minutes.
  • Set a timer for 1 minute. Each person in the group sketches or builds the same idea. Then compare the different ways you interpreted the idea.
  • Each person in the group gets to hit “randomize” until they land on an idea they like. That person also gets to decide whether the group will sketch, build, or act out the idea.

5–40 people

  • Divide the room into teams of 4–7 people. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Each team has to sketch, build, or act out as many ideas as possible in 5 minutes. Not that it really matters, but the “winner” is the team who does the most.
  • Divide the room into teams of 4–7 people. One leader chooses a challenge and reads it to everybody in the room. Each team has 1 minute to build or act out this idea.
  • Divide the room into teams of 4–7 people. Each team chooses a leader, who hits “randomize” until they land on an idea they want to give to the team on their right as a challenge. Then each team has 1 minute to build or act out this idea. After 1 minute, each team presents to the others.

A really big crowd (for example, at a large workshop)

  • Use Protobot to get people warmed up for brainstorming or building. Ask everyone to find a partner (groups of 3 are also okay). Project Protobot on a screen. Hit “randomize” until an idea you like comes up. Then give everybody in the room 1 minute to build, sketch, or act out the idea.

Bugs and considerations

Boring ideas. Some of the ideas already exist. A lipstick that fits in your pocket. An alarm clock that wakes you up. When this happens, you can either just re-roll, or try to build something that fits the constraint even better than existing solutions. Don’t you hate when the lipstick cap comes off in your pocket, or when you sleep through your alarm?

Inappropriate or disturbing ideas. Some of the ideas are quite uncomfortable. A gravestone for a baby. A business card to use in bed. I made the decision not to code around the discomfort. I think it’s important to creativity that we don’t try to shut out death, sex, evil, and other topics that aren’t generally polite to bring up at dinner parties. However, depending on your group, you may want to briefly mention that people need to treat each other with respect, no matter how raunchy, weird, or sad Protobot gets. And, of course, explicitly give everybody the right to re-roll if they don’t like the combination, no questions asked.

What I left out. I did include words about sexuality and alcohol. (I work with university students, and they begged me not to take this stuff out.) But I left out words about race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and gender. The resulting ideas could be really fruitful, interesting, and important to explore. What would an anti-racist wastebasket look like? What about a wedding dress for men? However, unless a group sets firm ground rules for mutual respect and takes time together to unpack their assumptions, the lure of a cheap laugh may lead people to take the stereotype shortcut. I designed Protobot as a lightning-fast warm-up exercise; maybe I’ll make another version that’s better suited as a discussion tool.

What I’m working on. A “clean” version with no drinking or sex (for workplaces and younger students). A way to hide the header, for projection and display.

Thanks to beta-testers Clemens Buss, Afri Amu, Donia Hamdami, and Lilly Sassi for their ideas and feedback. Cross-posted on my blog.