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Catalyze experimentation in design

Our quest for ‘un mouton à 5 pattes’* led us to create our own experimentation design tool 8 years ago. Project by project, we have enriched it to sustain our capability to experiment more and more complex user experiences.
8 years later there has never been so many UX, interaction, prototyping tools and yet our tool still belongs to a missing category.
This is what we discovered in San Francisco last year.

Thinking and making

We strongly believe in the combination of thinking and making.
We don’t just deliver prototypes. we build ‘experience prototypes’ as soon as we have an idea. Prototyping helps us work on ideas.

The culture of making

We learned this culture of making at the Royal College of Art (London, UK).
Nicolas had Anthony Dunne and Durrell Bishop as tutors when he studied his Master of Arts in Design Products from 2000 to 2002.
I was doing my Master of Arts in Industrial Design Engineering (2001–2003) and asked Durrell Bishop for feedback on one of my projects.
That’s when Nicolas and I started using Director and the microcontroller Basic Stamp to play with behaviours.
For those who have never heard of them, Director was a multimedia timeline-based Macromedia (later acquired by Adobe) software with a programming language called Lingo, similar to now Adobe Flash/Animate and ActionScript. Basic Stamp was a micro-controller by Parallax. That was before Arduino existed. You would connect electronics to the Basic Stamp board soldering or using breadboards, and connect the board to your computer via the SerialPort. On your computer you would write the code for the Basic Stamp and upload it and you’d use Director to design your visuals, sound, video and code to make them interact with your electronics.
Just like a pencil on paper and foam models helped us work on a shape, this combination helped us experiment behaviours. We used the multimedia quality of the computer (graphics, sound, video, webcam, etc…) and for the tangible aspects we mixed model making and electronics to work on shapes in combination with behaviours.

When we came back to France

After we graduated and came back to France, we both had the same experience. People were curious about our approach, some designers were reluctant: making mock-ups with electronics and code was the engineer’s job, designers shouldn’t be doing that, they’d say. Whatever.
We both started working in research labs. There were not that many designers there at that time. People were intrigued by the interactive mock-ups and electronic boards on our desks. Many more interaction designers would arrive soon, trained to experiment like we did. At least, that is what we thought. Close to France there was the Royal College of Art in UK, IVREA co-founded by Gillian Crampton Smith in Italy, where Arduino was just born. There were festivals and research conferences like Ars Electronica, CHI. There were agencies like IDEO, strong in-house design teams like Philips Design. There were interaction research labs like the Sony Computer Science Lab in Tokyo and Paris, the MIT Media Lab in Boston and Dublin, the INRIA’s in|situ| research group near Paris, etc.
Things were moving, we thought it was just a matter of time.
And things have moved, no doubt.

idsl and why we started our platform

In 2007 Nicolas Gaudron founded idsl with this culture of experimenting at its core.
I joined one year later.

No preformatting of design

We are able to use our ‘traditional’ design tools whether they are Adobe products or other software. We are not limited by a set of templates because for instance we might work on contexts of use, or shapes or configuration of devices that require or enable ways to present information and to interact that are not replicas of existing models.

Prototype scenarios on the devices, at the real scale, to zoom in on the experience

Services offer user experiences that are complex by the number and nature of their multiple touchpoints. If we look at the digital ones (the trickiest to prototype), some are screen-based like apps, some are physical like smart objects (IoT) and they all interact with each other. With our tool, we are able to work on flows between digital and physical devices with no limit on the number of interacting devices.

Prototype physical (non-screen) interaction

Interaction is not only about pixels, although a lot happens on screens these days. Physical is probably not the right term. Smartphones, tablets, computers are after all physical objects that we touch but let’s make the distinction here. I don’t know how to call it, some say software versus hardware, pixels versus electronics, bits versus atoms. I’m talking here about interaction that is not mediated by a screen.

This is what we had as we planned our trip to San Francisco.

We had prepared a demo on several tablets and smartphones and a physical demo box to show some hardware aspects.
There was still the security issue at the airport.
We were scared that the physical demo box with its electronics might be withheld so we sent a second demo box beforehand via UPS… which arrived broken. Damned…
So we labelled everything, fully charged all our tablets to be ready to switch them on if required. And we went through, no problem. Security agents were kind and curious. They probably see a hell lot of prototypes coming through but for us, that was one step completed.

Indeed, there is a very strong coding culture.

We were told « Here it’s function first, not experience first ». It’s a very engineer driven world with a tech bias to focus on features.
We expected people to make lots of prototypes but this wasn’t the case everywhere… The high cost of coders limits iteration: building prototypes means hiring coders and « you cannot afford code that won’t be used in your final product. »

A missing category: sketching the design of the multi-touchpoints experience

Of course, there are companies with very high standards of quality for experience and technology who can afford superskilled technical teams for UX explorations or as a support for designers. And we thought we would hear a very different feedback there.
But we heard things like: « Sometimes we feel, because we have these amazing people in the company that we have to use them and that leads us very deep in the technology…» « There’s something liberating about your tool: you don’t have to dive into the technology, you can just experiment straight away. It’s a sketching tool. »

Imagination versus standardization

As we explained earlier, we built our tool to leave us free to design all aspects, whether visual, dynamic, interactive, software or hardware. For that we have gone « down to the little bricks of interaction. It is back to the foundations of interaction. », as someone said. « It’s like the palette, the brush and the primary colours for interaction. »

User experience, interaction design still young disciplines

« There is an asymmetry between physical product design and interaction when it is down to explain the vision. »

Hardware is back…

As I wrote, there are many prototyping tools/apps for designing UX based on one single screen-based device, due to the needs of companies so far.
But things have changed.
As we were told: « The Valley was all about software in the past ten years. »

And prototyping-sketching hardware is still a pain…

It’s still a bottleneck, even there. Maybe we thought it would be different in digital native companies that have managed hardware and software since their creation.
But it is not, you still need coding and electronics skills. So it’s mostly done by engineers or ‘creative technologists’. But using robust technologies that are tailored for implementation makes prototyping/sketching slow and expensive.
Of course Arduino has been a real breakthrough but even though you can find help and examples thanks to the open community, it is still daunting for most designers.
And this gets worse if you try to prototype hardware pieces interacting with multiple screen-based pieces.
There are a few solutions but they are still pretty hardcore and not general purpose.
« You democratise prototyping. », we were told. « You are to Arduino what Arduino was to C++ when it was released, you are the layer above. »

A cultural shift?

In most companies UX and ID teams are separate teams.
I use the terms UX and ID because that is how the teams are named in most companies we met there. These names are worth questioning though. In many cases, UX teams mostly deal with the graphical User Interfaces (UI) while the user experience is broader: a flow of interactions with physical and digital media, environments and people.
But let’s stick with the names UX and ID for now.

Still an unstructured field

Until now, as for designers, it has been ‘left’ to individuals. Designing physical interaction has been embraced by those designers with a certain appeal or gift to dive into electronics and programming or by those engineers or technical people with an appeal for design, the so-called creative technologists.
There might be a design education issue. There is definitely a tool issue.
Most existing solutions are too technical to be widely adopted by the design community.
And they are technical bricks. They are not ‘integrated’ design tools that address the questions designers have to work with and the design experiments that are needed to explore these questions.

Conclusion

For sure, there’s something universal in design: it’s the necessity to make, mock-up, experience, test, explore, iterate in order to craft the experience.
And it’s not because complexity is growing that designers should treat aspects that are intertwined like aesthetics and behaviours separately, or give up their capability to ‘sketch’ any kind of idea or scenario.
This doesn’t need to result either in designers diving so much into technology that they cannot focus on design.
This is precisely what we have done for ourselves with our tool:

  • be free to create, using our familiar design tools, and to experiment beyond existing patterns, shapes or configurations,
  • be able to prototype, at the same time, macroscopically the experience across devices interacting in real time with each other and microscopically the experience of one touchpoint at the real scale,
  • be able to play equally with screens and ‘non-screens’ (physical, haptic, sound, smell etc…),
  • focus on design, no coding or electronic skills required.

We believe it’s time to liberate imagination.

Thank you

Thank you very much for reading this article.

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This publication features the articles written by the idsl team. www.id-sl.com

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