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The Role of Improvisation in Rapid Prototyping

Oct 25, 2016 By Chris Sroka

Professor, composer, Action Researcher and retired professional clown Patrick Pennefather identifies rapid prototyping as a key component to Interdisciplinary Improvisation in the Master of Digital Media program. The following guest-post dives into how improvisation is incorporated into the collaborative prototyping process.

Rapid prototyping is an important part of the Master of Digital Media Program’s user-centred design process. I’ve written about rapid prototyping techniques practiced at the MDM Program before.

Where does improvisation fit into the collaborative prototyping process? A rapid prototype itself relies heavily on the spontaneous co-construction of some kind of representation, however incomplete, however much it may fail, of an intended design, feature or product. My use of the word ‘rapid’ is intentional as time is an important factor in the co-construction of all prototypes. Time also informs the level of fidelity of a prototype. Time constrains but time also affords flow. Whether that prototype is a cardboard piece of the pie, a short video that demos a dream house, a low fidelity clickable powerpoint disguised as a website, or a blindfolded drummer accompanying a dancer.

Dummer & Dancer Post-it

Figure 1: A paper prototype of a drummer with a belly dancer

Identifying what is improvised

Identifying what is improvised in a typical rapid prototyping process is also a prototype. Take this low fidelity representation mapped in powerpoint in 2 minutes as an example.

What is improvised in the prototyping process flow map

Figure 2: A map of what is improvised in the prototyping process

Let me continue my improvisational meditation by attempting to articulate each point.

Materials: What we prototype with

What we rapidly prototype with (especially low fidelity paper and physical prototypes) can be at best, loosely defined. What is the best way to convey an idea in as fast a way possible? Whiteboard, paper and pen, pencil on desk, napkin?  Even the process of gathering all the tools to make a prototype has some spontaneity to it. A prototyper’s toolbox can be found at Michael’s, Deserres or other arts and craft stores.  

Prototyping Supplies

Figure 3: Example of materials used in the MDM Program’s Design Jam

But it can also be discovered in a recycling bin, back of an alley or on the side of the road. I regret not grabbing this gem the other day.

Alley Way Materials

Figure 4: A painting of a groucho moustache I should have grabbed

Working with the materials and the constraints as they come up seems to demand some unanticipated actions and reactions. The picture below shows paper prototypes of several dream homes made by one team.

 Dream House Paper Prototype

Figure 5: Paper prototypes of C11 dream homes used in a dreamhouse exercise

The next, a physical prototype that combined various features from all paper prototypes. In this prototyping exercise all participants had limited resources from which to draw. Some had a crappy pair of scissors. Not everyone had good tape. Glue was spare. Colours and materials chosen hastily on the spot for fear that another one of the eight teams might grab the good stuff first. Panic and surprise all in a wonderfully calm sprint of 8 minutes. Go.

 Dream House Physical Prototype

Figure 6: A physical prototype of a dreamhouse that combined features from 6 paper prototype dream homes

Goal: What we design and how

When you want to generate a rapid prototype, deciding on a design direction with others can also be adhoc especially under the constraint of time. Plan all you want but plan too much and you run out of time. Negotiating creative impulses with others will inevitably bring about unexpected surprises as well. We never know how someone is going to respond to what we contribute. In addition, it’s easy for us to get caught up in designing a low fidelity prototype that is representative of what we think the team can handle. At times we want to challenge our own limitations though. Other times, our paper or physical prototypes are somewhat conservative. And a rapid prototype is not the place to get too precious about your character, button, sfx or animated gif.

When you add others into the picture, an aligned decision-making process can also factor in. That’s why, how quickly teams make decisions and how well they’ve defined a process to make decisions is important.

Understanding the role of technique in the prototyping process

Beyond embodied, paper and physical prototypes, digital media teams depend on the skills that each team member brings to the virtual table. As we prototype we work with the limitations of our technique but we also try and push beyond those limitations. The action of rapidly prototyping challenges us to stretch our chops by going where no human (like us) has gone before… into that unknown zone. How can I program this new type of interaction that I haven’t attempted before, model, rig and animate this 3D character when I've only ever modelled a table? I’m working on this 2D environment in Photoshop and I want to make it pop out more. The team has given me feedback and they think the 360 shot I took from the middle of the suspension bridge at Lynn Canyon works but there are a few background objects that need to be added. How can I do so maintaining the style and aesthetic of the original when I’ve never really worked with the software in that way? Oh yeah, it was raining at the time.

Flow: How our prototype evolves in iterative phases

Flow is also improvised, especially in group co-creation. After all, there are hundreds of impulses to negotiate on any high functioning team. Flow also implicates time and at times, the absence of time. When we work under the constraint of time, then we have to be comfortable with working fast and elegantly. We have to maximize our effort in order to generate that best possible something, especially if other people are depending on that 2D object or user interface to integrate into the application. When we prototype rapidly we challenge ourselves to get lost in time, to find that zone of inspiration in which ideas we never thought we had can manifest. We also build, we give those rapidly generated ideas form so that these can be shared with others. Nachmanovitch talks about form in his excellent book Free Play.

The Imagined user: Who are we making our prototype for?

A concern that is not often considered but seems to impact everything we do when we prototype is how our imagined user might eventually interact with our creations. This is especially true with anything interactive. How does our imagination of a user impact what it is that we do? How does creating an installation for children on the theme of the solar system impact our creative choices, materials, flow, collaborative negotiations, level of fidelity and overall design aesthetic? The prototype below created in less than 48 hours as part of Larry Bafia’s Projects 1 curriculum demonstrates Wizard of Oz prototyping. In this case an operator concealed behind the giant paper mache moon responded to a user’s actions, emulating or ‘faking’ a specific feature in a digital prototype that had not yet been fully programmed.

Wizard of Oz Prototyping

Figure 7: Wizard of Oz prototype created by a team of talented C11’s

In creating and demonstrating prototypes for imagined users we exercise an improvisational process.

User Testing: How we test our assumptions

This leads to user testing. Improvisation appears everywhere, from planning a user-test, to its execution, how we interact with users in-the-moment as they interact with our prototypes (as in the case above), and how we use the data that we collect to inform our next prototype. How does one user test impact our next prototype? How do we move forward if we have collected many impressions, some of them contradictory? How do we sift through all the user responses and prioritize them?

Minimum viable product cycles

I’ve been focused on the role of improvisation in the co-construction of rapidly designed prototypes but I have yet to talk about how we know whether or not those prototypes demonstrate just the right amount of features in order for a team to collect enough impressions to validate their assumptions. The truth is we don’t until those assumptions are tested. Part of the prototypical process is that your MVP is tested with others and in doing so, it evolves. As Larry Bafia eloquently stated just the other day “You’ve received feedback on your MVP. Your product has changed.”  And just as a structured improvisation with a percussionist and a dancer may have its intended components, flow, minimum features present, costumes and staging pre-defined, once that performance is catalyzed by a live audience, surprises occur (click for more on prototyping and the arts).

Embracing the rapid prototyping process requires a certain expectation that humans will respond to the ideas of other humans in unpredictable ways. Now if your team responds to the unexpected responses of other humans then perhaps you can begin to truly say that you are rapidly co-constructing user-centered prototypes.

Read more from Patrick Pennefather on his blog and check out how he reinvented the audience experience through a live streamed dance event.