Prototyping — Let’s put those Insights to work.

Shailee Rindani
Jun 4, 2017 · 7 min read

Second of a three-part series to cover a project related to the 3rd spaces for City of Boston: insights, prototypes, and recommendations.

Link to previous ‘Insights’ article:

Generically, prototypes are the preliminary interactive models representative of an idea or used as a tool to test the viability of an idea. It serves as a great way to receive and record feedback quickly and at a low cost. This model works best in scenarios where not all of the project requirements are known in detail or ahead of time and can be utilized by a team to come up with ways to fill in or detail out parts of a concept. Prototyping holds various meanings and methods when associated with different disciplines. I was introduced to the concept of turning sketches or ideas to perceivable and usable objects during my industrial design training. It meant quick (usually breakable) and dirty form models, showing off aesthetic abilities, grips, physical and digital interface, product footprint etc. Transitioning from a concept to an actual product meant working in parallel with interface designers, researchers, engineers, marketers etc. Which meant that the definition of a prototype evolved as the category the product/service we dove in. For example, quick scribbles on an iPhone-sized paper of an App interface or setting up a stage that looks like a check-out kiosk in a supermarket both qualify as a prototype. It is an iterative, trial-and-error process that takes place between the developers and the users.

So, what happens when you hit a milestone or complete a phase of a project? If I’m being completely honest my mind releases a huge sigh of relief. A good practice (wise men told me) is to go back home, put all the thoughts or feedback from the day onto a paper, much like Dumbledore’s Pensieve from Harry Potter. This exercise enables my mind to debrief itself.

This semester, our professors (Benjamin Little, Jon Campbell) gave us an opportunity to work closely with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics on a project pertaining to 3rd spaces in the city of Boston. Our research efforts (link to article) focused on answering a complex question: “How can we help people make use of — and create play in — public spaces?” The team’s congregated efforts were presented to the corresponding client team at the City Hall. We began our research equipped with the methods and techniques that were put to test during our human-centered design training. We formulated a set of goals not just for the project but also for the primary research agenda (i.e. intercept interviews, covering rallies, observing how people interact in public spaces). These goals anchored us while we fished for data and observations and helped us channel them into finding actionable insights. After assimilating the insights from the research about and presenting it to our clients, we collaborated and put together all the rich feedback-laden conversations in a simple word document in a manner that could be referenced later. Funny thing about uncovering an insight is that once discovered, it seems completely obvious. As mentioned in the predecessor article by my teammate Arthur Grau, insights are valuable as they can be retraced to the research that led to its discovery.

We started dumping all kinds of ideas that came to us when we again asked ourselves the question “How can we help people make use of — and create play in — public spaces?”. During the many brainstorming sessions to generate ideas or concepts, we realized that we could use the insights in as many ways possible. The potential directions that we could take were to either come up with ideas that tie all of the insights together or come up with ideas that have a ‘patron saint’ of an insight. We started to categorize all the ideas keeping these main directions in mind which further helped us narrow down our options.

Personally, sketching on napkins from any coffee shop works wonders. They not only get all the creative juices flowing but signify the crudeness of the thought that will motivate me to revisit the insight and refine the idea/thought later on.

I have had many people (inside of and outside the profession) ask me as to how diligently I as a designer stick to the design process, to which I answer by showing them my ‘parking lot’ of ideas folder. These are the ideas that pop up out of order while showering or while conducting research, in meetings or while talking to people etc. Our team had a similar document that we revisited during the brainstorming session, putting each idea into the context of the main goal and weighing the insights against these pre-conceived ideas to be able to test their feasibility and viability. We were able to distill the new and old concepts and saw it fit to further explore 2 main categories that would help us validate the insights (and assumptions during the course of the project) gained from our research.

After listening to concerns, pain points and problems that came up in conversations with various event organizers and our own first-hand experience while trying to fill out a permitting request to set up a (made up) public event, we leaned towards re-thinking and improving the permitting process to make it more intuitive and user friendly for the user and to be self-organizing for the City officials. This entailed making wire-frame sketches on paper, re-framing the questions asked on the original form, testing by adding suggestions or prompts to be able to determine how people think while filling out long and tedious forms etc. Note: This direction was not explored due to time constraints but was strongly recommended as one of the smaller steps to achieve the main goal of being able to successfully engage people in public spaces.

The second direction aimed to explore the possible interactions and reactions of people when provided with a permit-free option. The proposed idea was to set up a recurring ‘umbrella’ event that provides a platform/venue for people who are interested in hosting any type of event without carrying out a tedious preparation process. This event series was thought out to be co-sponsored by the City which would not require a permit to sign up and designed to move from neighborhood to neighborhood. The City would invite artists, individual speakers, musicians, activists, food vendors etc. to sign up for spots at the various event venues.

(quick visualization sketch of the Direction#2: Open Mic)

We were enthusiastic to test the idea of providing a free venue for anyone and seeing how people interact or react to it. Linking back to our observations and insights, we were positive that people loved being outside and social, Wi-Fi and food were important ingredients in public gatherings, they liked the unexpected, they loved to talk if someone was listening etc.

To quickly test our hypotheses, we gathered the bare minimums to host such an event namely:

  • An analog mic (aka. Cheerleader’s cone)
  • A few rugs
  • Snacks and soft beverages
  • Camera and tripods
  • Event posters, flyers, handouts etc
  • Advertising and awareness (via Facebook and word of mouth)
  • A few friends

On a bright sunny Saturday, we start to setup our make-shift venue in the middle of Boston public garden where there is another public event going on (we thought of piggy-backing on the crowd that was already gathered). The use of the analog mic alone turned a few curious heads and our event was beginning to get noticed, but people were shy to come up and inquire. In response, we directed our efforts to personally go up to people to explain the event and get them to speak up and had fun when they actually turned up!

(event prototype: Out in the Open Mic)

The observations from this fun prototype helped us understand that individuals (with or without a cause) do not have optimal impact or fail to gather an audience, but their chances increase if they join forces. People loved to be heard after a little nudge and a push. We also noticed that the people around us were dormant spectators that completely ignored the events happening in their surroundings and were just there to have a good time.

We went home satisfied and almost overwhelmed with all the information after our attempt at prototyping. Jotting down all the observations and insights from the day, we de-briefed ourselves and were ready to jump into integrating all the feedback into tightening our concept to be able to recommend it to the City of Boston. It will be further documented in our next article of this 3-part process!

~Team ‘Sach’

Experience Design Lab II, (CC) 2017 @ Massachusetts College of Art & Design. Instructors, Jon Campbell & Benjamin Little. Team Chuyang Chen, Shailee Rindani, Arthur Grau.

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