MSc Product Design - Prototyping: Insights to Innovation

The focus of this module was to explore the various methods and techniques that could be used to prototype concepts. This involved using traditional methods such as a 3D modelling with materials and more unconventional methods that may not be initially perceived as valid prototypes such as role-play scenarios.

While exploring these methods, I was also working on a design challenge with Perth and Kinross Council - looking how to create toolkits for new tenants in social housing. 

Following the introduction to the design problem, the first step was identify a potential avenue to explore. I’d been interested in exploring how the use of a physical object in the home could be used to measure the level of ‘neighbourliness’ in social housing, specifically tenement buildings or blocks of flats. Using the information provided to us by Perth and Kinross Council, this helped me identify the specific responsibilities that tenants need to consider when living in close proximity with others and also identify what the object should be specifically measuring.

Defining the solution involved identifying which objects could be adapted to become meters for neighbourliness. Through research, I’d found that empathy was very important in successful co-existing: understanding that the people living in proximity to you are human. I decided that the best way to approach this was to prototype a connected IoT product that would allow a method of communication between neighbours for those uncomfortable with face-to-face interaction. One of the products would be placed in each of the homes in the building, while a public meter would be installed in communal areas of the building that would track the interactions between the various products.

Especially in my prototyping process, I find that my process goes a lot smoother when I have peace of mind and proof of concept. This means making my technology work as soon as possible. Working with creative technology is one of my favourite parts of the process and for this project, I had the opportunity of working with an Electric Imp for the first time, a board which allows you to created IoT connected products and works similarly to an Arduino. As I was new to this technology, I spent a lot of time exploring the various interactions I could achieve with this technology, including switching on and off LEDs via a web application and controlling a motor. This also helped me discover if my concept was plausible.

Once my technology was working, I used sketch prototyping to begin working on concepts. A technique I’d picked up in an earlier module, it involves using basic materials such as paper or post-it notes combined with creative technology to begin exploring concepts. My initial focus for this project was to create an IoT connected clock in the home that could communicate with each other. I used my Electric Imp circuit I had created with a post-it note UI to prototype how the clock would look at a basic level, and to begin refining the code that controls the motor, to make sure it was turning to the correct symbols on the paper. 

To fully define the interactions that would be involved in using these devices, I used storyboarding methods to create a “happy path” of use - how I ideally envisioned my product being used. This method helped me identify any gaps in the interactions in my product - for example, how would the two users of the products acknowledge that the message had been sent between and received between the two parties. It was also an extremely useful tool for explaining how the product would work and what sort of service it would provide, as well as help me define what exactly I should be looking to focus on when prototyping.

Using paper prototyping methods was extremely useful in creating quick prototypes that explored the potential form of the objects. By now, I’d identified that the product I was interested in creating was a social meter, reminiscence of electric and gas meters that are provided in some social housing. However, rather than draw on the brutalism and practical styles of those meters, I was interested in the more unusual shape of parking meters. From this, paper prototyping allowed me to explore a variety of different 2D shapes and forms, as well as add some basic paper interactions to explore the concept.

Satisfied with a desired shape, the next step was to create something more resolved in cardboard. These made the prototypes a bit more sturdy, as well as allowed me to explore more interactions that I was limited to before using solely paper. This included things creating a spinning disc to show how the motor would switch between the symbols when the product was activated via the web. Cardboard also allowed me to explore true to size prototypes, and give me an idea of the sizes I would need when creating further resolved prototypes, as well as finalise the spacings of elements of the product e.g. the size of the disc, the placement of the LEDs and the size of the symbols.

Integrating the technology into true to size prototypes was the next step of the process to create a more resolved proof of concept than just a sketch prototype. This is where the laser cutter comes in, a device that can cut a variety of materials with extreme precision as long as the correct files are sent via a computer. To create these files, this meant taking the sizes from the cardboard prototypes and creating them digitally in 2D pieces. These are transferred to the cutter and once cut they can be assembled as required. At this stage, I also had to think about the electronics in my circuit, and how I would integrate them into the model - this eventually had me soldering all of my electronics in place to create a working prototype.

 

With a working proof of concept, working towards final resolved prototypes meant that I could start exploring the materials and aesthetic of my product. Initially I wanted to make my resolved prototype out of wood, such a oak or beech, to create the casing and all of the pieces. However, while the wood would give the product a nice finish and would make it interesting to have in the home, it’s function would be even less clear as the material did not sync up with the intended function. Looking back at the meters currently available in homes, a lot of plastic is used to create casings and hide components. This led me to my final resolved prototypes: using the laser cut to create acrylic plastic faces and bending plywood to create a wooden casing. The two materials contrasted well with each other.

While the final prototypes did not work, I felt it was important to integrate the technology to give the prototypes a more finished look. In these final iterations, I implemented an LCD screen to allow the users to send personalised messages to other tenants - allowing a more personal touch and to further expand the channel of communication than through simple lights and motor movements. I also cut a card from the acrylic - other meters in social houses require either a key or a card to interact with the meters, and I wanted to create a card that could be used to acknowledge that the messages had been sent and received. These cards would also allow you to get a readout of your statistics from the public meters in the communal hallway, making you more aware of what responsibilities you need to work on as a tenant.

Overall this was a very interesting project and really helped me develop my own personal approach to prototyping.