Digital Prototype: Essay

Designing and prototyping with the help of sci-fi
Robin Schritter | robin@schritter.se

 

Introduction

This is an essay written as an assignment at Malmö University. In this essay the relationship between digital prototypes and design fiction is being discussed and looked in to. Is there a relationship between the two, and if so how are they effected by each other? The essay aims to address Design Fiction, Prototypes and Digital prototyping tools as separate subjects to in the conclusion discuss its relationship, if there is any.

 

Design Fiction

Design fiction; an approach at designing with the help of science fiction and science facts to challenge the present as stated by Julian Bleecker (Bleecker 2009). It is design which questions the present, creates provocations, raises questions, innovations and exploration. The idea of challenging the status quo of everything in its origin.

Gaver and Martin (2000) means that as designers we want the narrative to create an openness. When details are not being resolved an openness is being created meaning that an interpretation of the artefact opens up. In the narrative specific object needs a certain context to be alive and to be functional. Julian Bleecker (Bleecker 2009) also mentions that the object is meant to encourage interpretations, to motivate your imagination to set a float and start to imagine logic and questions around the artefact which in turn feeds the narrative or the story.

Gaver and Martin (2000) mentions similarities to commercial and sci-fi stories where artefacts are described just enough to be able to imagine the artefact without having certain specifics or a needing to understand the underlaying mechanics.

When discussing Design fiction often both science fiction and science facts are discussed and are often compared. Is there a difference and if so, what is the difference and how is it cultivated in to Design Fiction as a method?

 

Science Fiction and/or Science Facts

Science Fiction could usually be described as over extended realities, often carried out in or out of our universe. It is a narrative which could have ground in reality but is never needed to. When discussing Science Fiction both Kirby (Kirby 2010) and Bleecker (Bleecker 2009) discusses the Science Fiction movie Minority Report from 2002. This movie is a great resource of creative and interactive ideas for us as designers, some of them have been implemented 16 years after the release of the movie.

Science Facts often describes how something is or if something is plausible or not. A given fact of how something works.

Julian Bleecker mentions how science fiction and science facts are similar to each other but as science fiction is easier to grasp and allows a broader way of imagination. It also captures the interest and engagement of a wider audience which in turn often opens up for discussion and interpretation, a need in Design fiction. While science fact often informs what is plausible and what is not. It does not, as often, open for discussion, interpretation and creativity in the same way.

 

What is a prototype and why do we prototype

To better understand how digital prototyping could express itself with the help of design fiction it is important to understand how a prototype works and what its purpose is.

A prototype is an artefact which is created to express and investigate a designs current state to evolve the future state of the design. Houde and Hill (1997) mentions that the expression prototype could be interpret differently amongst different team members, while working on a project. Could a brick be a prototype? Houde and Hill (1997) thinks so. Their meaning is that, close to anything could be used as a prototype depending on what the prototype is used to evaluate.

Prototypes provides the means for examining design problems and to help evaluate solutions. It is created to get early knowledge and references around the proposal design and its functionality. While a prototype is evaluated users are often involved to express thoughts on how the prototype looks, feel and behave. This is a very important step in the design process.

 

Efficient Digital prototyping tools

There is a large number of different tools and methods to use while creating prototypes, digital in this case as that is what the course has been targeting. With the help of tools like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe illustrator designers can create images and visual designs. Tools like Invision and Sketch creates possibilities of having your design interactive. This could prove very useful when designing online solutions such as applications or web-based design in which there is a huge benefit if the prototype is user tested. Being able to create an interactive prototype without using programming skills is very useful in both the aspect of time as well as quality. Often a medium-/high fidelity prototype is the outcome. Out of the user data the designer gets an understanding of design choices which could be altered to create a better user experience.

Video as a prototyping tool is a widely used tool. Video is a very efficient tool when the designer wants to show the artefacts interactivity. Video editing is often used in prototyping to create an interactive or animated artefact which could mirror its design which either is factional, fictional or a combination of both. A great example of this is the movie Minority Report from 2002 which often is discussed when discussing interactive designs or design fiction.

Minority Report is a movie in which a detective is being able to foresee murders before they happen. With the help of interactions such as hand movements and finger gestures the detective can communicate to technology in the form of a screen, too fast forward, zoom in or out, throw different video snippets around on the screen to organize. With the help of this technology murderers can be taken in to custody before any of the murders are carried out. This is of course a fictional story but many of the prototypes, which consists of video edits, are close to being used in todays’ technology in one way or another.

Another example of video editing could be seen in the HBO series Westworld. In this movie series narrative takes the biggest role. Together with technology they present the idea of being able to visit a tangible world built with tangible objects and AI which behave and moves flawlessly. Conversations, tangibility and experiences are key interactions within this world.

One of today’s technical representations of this, but allot less complex and none futuristic, could be seen in Virtual Reality. A technical world built by a programmer in code, with visual representations which often tricks or challenges the mind.  None the less a very interactive prototype as engagement with the surroundings often is encouraged.

 

In practice:  Prototyping with hidden thoughts of Design Fiction

Understanding the problem

During the course “Interaction design: Digital Prototyping” at Malmö University our project group was tasked to work on a digital design solution for Lund Municipality regarding a soon to be built residential area, named Brunnshög, and its surroundings.

An interest in the newly and on-going tram which is being built in and around Lund grew and we decided that this would be our subject to design for. The tram in Lund has gotten negative feedback because of various reasons. Through user feedback we noticed that there was a lack of information and in some cases, users were misinformed. With the help of this information we found a problem we could design for. Our goal was to find a solution to simplify the display of positive information and create better accessibility around this information.

Prototyping to understand

Once we had a grasp around the design problem we could start finding design solutions. After a number of iterations, we were set on a design which involved interacting with a touch glass. A design which we did not have a technical solution for which kept us restrained in our thoughts around the design solution.

As we had technical restrains we set out to write a narrative to better explain our design. The narrative in turn was made in to a storyboard to create a video-prototype which would show the design and its interactivity in a living environment.

The design was meant to give the user information which in turn could be used to answer questions through different gestures and interactions with the bus stop glass, on which the information was displayed.

In hindsight I cannot help to think and compare our design to Minority Report and its interactive gestures to control and navigate the digital screen.

I believe our group, without acknowledging it, had a Design Fiction state of mind when thinking of our artefact and design solution. Working with futuristic solutions to question the present information provided from Lund municipality and how it was displayed. A design choice we settled for, even though there was a lack of technical solutions at the time. Looking back at it, it might be lacking in science fiction but still we tried to design for a technology which to our understanding was not available, (until we got the information that it was).

 

Conclusion: Design fiction and prototyping

I definitely see a benefit of having a fictional way of thinking when creating both design and prototype. As this opens up for interpretations and according to me a better way of designing. Surely as Gaver and Martin (2000) mentions there could be little value in a concept which rely on science fiction-technology which yet are to come. But I cannot help to think how technology and design benefits from challenging the present. How ideas and technology could be expanded to reach new possibilities by challenging its core. Julian Bleecker (Near Future Laboratory 2014) mentions in one of his talks how him and design colleges every now and then meet up, go through an existing artefact or narrative and try to design for this artefact giving it futuristic features and try figuring the artefact in years ahead. How does this artefact look and act in the future?
I believe that these kind of designers, amongst others are pioneers in designing for the future and technology. I believe their initiative of designing with fiction helps technology to come to life and also feeds the designers with creativity and experience.

Looking back at how and why prototypes are created; When designing a prototype, your intent is to find design choices to alter and improve to further increase the user experience. You are changing the present to create a better version for a future design. As Gaver and Martin (2000) mentions for a designer the prototypes “works” as soon as the experience of using the given device, even if the implementation issues are not fully resolved, i.e. designing a fictional artefact. As the tools for creating digital prototypes is very broad and many in numbers it opens up for possibilities of being able to create that specific futuristic element or narrative which still is not fully technologically implementable.

I feel like there is grounds to draw the conclusion that there is a positive relationship between Design fiction and its practices while creating digital prototypes. To question the design in its present state, to be able to further develop it. To be able to, with a futuristic design, open up discussion and interpretation to help further develop the design.

I also want to mention the very thin line between the practices of design fiction, speculative design and critical design. I must say that reading through the different papers, at first, I struggled with understanding the different practices and their specific properties.

 

References

Gaver, B. & Martin, H. (2000). Alternatives Exploring information appliances through conceptual design proposals.
CHI Letters, 2(1). 209-216. ACM

Malpass, M. (2016). Critical Design Practice:
Theoretical Perspectives and Methods of Engagement.
Design Journal, 19(3). 473-489.

Houde, S. & Hill, C. (1997) What do Prototypes Prototype? In Handbook of Human Computer Interaction (2nd ed.). Elsvier Science.

Bleecker, J (2009). Design fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. Retrieved June 18 (2018). Online: http://blog.nearfuturelaboratory.com/2009/03/17/design-fiction-a-short-essay-on-design-science-fact-and-fiction/

Kirby, D. (2009) Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-World Technological Development. Social Studies of Science. Retrieved June 16 (2018). Online: https://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=d90643c2-5352-4e62-9070-7daa849f0893%40sessionmgr120&bdata=Jmxhbmc9c3Ymc2l0ZT1lZHMtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=edselc.2-52.0-77949415311&db=edselc

Near Future Laboratory. (2014, January 22). A Design Fiction Evening. Retrieved June 19 (2018) from http://designfictionsf.nearfuturelaboratory.com/

 

 

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