Nudging the performer: ideation, prototyping, and testing

DES 304 | School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas at Austin | Professor Cathryn Ploehn, MDes

Cathryn Ploehn, MDes
DES 304
7 min readSep 7, 2020

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“Our desire to stay in harmony is so profound that we are, as a result, nudgable, inclined to go with the flow, lest we fall out of sync with our worlds.”
— Stephen Neely [2]

What we design makes certain ways of living possible . With design, we can nudge, provoke, or inspire people to move and think through life. When we consider what to design, we focus on how it serves, changes, or provokes the performers who encounter it — initially through brainstorming, and ending in observing how performers react to our designs. In prototyping, we provoke interaction (harmonious, or not), and in turn, understand our context of inquiry.

A common rhythm of creating designs is the following: ideation, prototyping, testing, and iterating.

Ideation

At the beginning of the process of design is a form of research: ideation (essentially a form of brainstorming). Ideation allows us to explore and take stock of the space of possibilities one might design, evaluating which designs are feasible or compelling to bring into being. One possible way of conducting an ideation process might entail

  1. Generate. Quickly generate many ideas, no matter how wild, writing them on sticky notes (etc.).
  2. Stretch. after you think you’re done, generate 3 more ideas
  3. Find patterns. Group ideas by category (affinity mapping), develop a system of organizing them through whatever principle matches your context if inquiry (time, scale, modality, etc.).
  4. Evaluate. Determine how compelling each category/idea is, distilling the strengths (viability, “interesting-ness”, scale of impact). You can also test ideas at this stage!
  5. Repeat. Continue the process until you’ve reached a compelling concept (or many).

However, despite there being common rhythms to generating ideas, each designer will craft their own way of brainstorming design ideas and evaluating them.

A 4-person ideation session produced several groups of ideas

Prototyping

After understanding which design might be the most compelling to build, we must bring it to life. First, we set out to define what we’d like to explore in making this prototype: What will the prototype teach us? We can use this goal as a north star in our prototyping and testing process.

Affordances

I aspire to entrain with the hammer — to strike the nail in a seamless fashion. In order for this to occur, the hammer must become an extension of myself. The hammer must become my hand. Integrated, my world is larger, and my agency is greater. Unintegrated, the hammer and my body do not commune. We are not one. I experience the failed attempt at hitting the nail, the failed attempt at a larger and greater world as disconnection, as pain; not the cutaneous pain of hitting my thumb with the hammer, but the pain of struggle to integrate, the pain of unrequited intimacy. [2]

One of the ways to approach constructing prototypes is to consider how we might design affordances for interaction. In developing a concept from imagination to reality, we must consider how that object makes itself visible to the actors that encounter it. In other words, we ask what our designs afford in terms of interaction.

In 1979, James Gibson defined the term affordance as what the environment “offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill” [1]. Donald Norman is well known for bringing the term into the realm of interaction design in the book “The Design of Everyday Things” (though is criticized for failing to properly cite Gibson in his work, among other bad vibes that Norman has contributed to in the design community) [1].

Affordance is a word that helps us think through a design’s legibility for interaction — the possible ways an actor can be in relationship with that design. For example:

  • A coffee cup handle affords grasping, and the cup itself affords liquid to be poured into and drank from.
  • Well designed online app affords ordering ahead, whereas in-person odering affords possibility of pleasant human-to-human conversation about what to order.
  • Cozy design, ample seating, and hipster music afford the possibility for good conversation (and hipster clientele).
  • Menu containing the origin story of a single origin coffee affords imagining the world a cup of coffee came from.
  • A coffee shop in a neighborhood affords a third space for community hangouts, and simultaneously the possibility for gentrification.

You might notice that successful designs contain affordances which take advantage of the metaphors grounded in the body in motion. Meanwhile, “unsuccessful” designs do not follow suit, as demonstrated in this Vox video explaining annoying doors:

The Concept

While ideation leaves our design ideas in the most vague, a concept image and description allows us to fill in the idea with life. We develop a design concept by adding relevant details: imagined context, a description of what it is, how it works, and how people might interact and respond to it. Imagery, even a simple sketch, help us develop

Bringing it to life

Once we have enough details fleshed out in our concept, we can start making more realistic, interactive versions of it. When we bring a design from idea to a realized prototype, we more clearly understand its ramifications: how realistic our imagined interactions are, how challenging it might be to create a polished version.

Because prototyping a high fidelity, polished mockup is quite time consuming and costly, beginning with low fidelity prototypes is key. It might be useful to prototype with cheap, readily available materials. If it’s digital, make paper screens. If it’s physical, use modelling clay.

Further, as we work from low to higher fidelity prototypes, we can move cyclically through the stages of ideation, prototyping, testing, and iterating.

Testing

When we ideate, conceptualize, and prototype a design, we can imagine what the possibilities are. We can predict that we’ve given enough affordances for folks to understand how we intend for them to be in relationship with our design. Yet, we’ll never truly understand what our designs actually entail until we test them.

In testing a design, an ethnographic approach (that was initially used to research a context of design) can now be used to understand the design in motion, in the world. A good example is the assessment, in the documentary “Urbanized,” of a visualization of power usage on a street:

To synthesize learnings from a test, we might aggregate our data, drafting a list of key patterns and takeaways. Did the prototype teach us what we thought it would? What have we learned about our design context and/or material based on the interactions people had with it?

After we test, we can also synthesize a new journey map (or enhance our existing one), communicating the impact on interaction we’ve observed in testing.

Iterating

Our tests can also inform how we iterate our design forward (or make a new version of our design concept), especially given how people responded to the affordances in our designs during testing. For example:

  • If a person dropped our coffee cup prototype, we understand that we’ll need to make the handle bigger.
  • Our well designed online app decreases the possibility of pleasant human-to-human conversation in the shop, and we’ll recognize how we might redesign the app to address this.
  • Our cozy design and hipster music affords crowding and loitering of laptop warriors in our shop, and we understand that we’ll need to possibly turn off wifi on the weekends.
  • Our menu containing the origin story of a single origin coffee is skimmed over by customers feeling pressured to order. We understand that we’ll need to provide more time for folks to read the menu through our coffee counter and line design.
  • A coffee shop in a neighborhood affords a third space in the community, but only for the “creative class.” We need to figure out how to serve other communities, or risk excluding the original residents.

In her exploration of cooking through the lens of interaction design, Claudia Marina gives a good assessment of her flan tests over time, and how she moves through iterations [3]:

Photo: Tom Newton. [3]

The Wintergatan YouTube channel contains a plethora of wonderful examples how to constructed and communicate the process of designing a concept, building a prototype, and learning from testing:

Sources

  1. Victor Kaptelinin, “Affordances” entry at The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.
  2. Neely, Stephen. “SOMA LITERATE DESIGN Recentering the Interstitiality of Experience.” (2019)
  3. Claudia Marina (2020): Making and Unmaking the Ephemeral Object: Design, Consumption, and the Importance of Everyday Life in Understanding Design beyond the Studio, Design and Culture, DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2020.1796373

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Cathryn Ploehn, MDes
DES 304

Data viz, computational design, interaction design / Professor at UT Austin / MDes Carnegie Mellon