FreshMeat #18: The Houses of the Wholly

FreshMeat #18 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat

FreshMeat. It’s free, it’s Fresh, it’s Meat. FreshMeat!
If you build it, they will tell you what they think

At the outset of the house-hunting process, one is
advised to make a list of requirements for the new home,
such as number of bedrooms, neighborhood, size of yard,
and so on. Of course, what is wonderful (and daunting)
about this step is that for a purchase as important as
a house, we may not know what we want (or don’t want)
until we see it.

The process of going to Open Houses and visualizing our
lives and our stuff in that space is enormously powerful.
We are, in effect, evaluating a prototype.

In this evaluation process we will decide whether we
want to buy and live in the specific house we are
visiting, but what else do we learn?

– confirmation of some of our earlier assumptions
("See, having a big backyard is crucial…")

– revision of earlier assumptions
("I guess if we had a shower like this I wouldn’t need
to have a separate bathtub fixture…")

– removal or reprioritization of earlier assumptions
("I don’t have to have a side entrance…")

– new requirements for the future house
("Now that I see it, I would love an outdoor barbecue
pit just like this one…")

To do this right, you’re going to talk about it. Out
loud. And that means the people involved will negotiate
these requirements over time, making them more detailed
and more robust. In fact, the conversation will continue
after the encounter with the prototype is over. I hope
you see where I’m headed with this.

Earlier this year I was asked to show consumers a new
home electronics device that was being developed. We
went to people’s homes with this…box. A big, ugly,
weird-looking box. It was the result of clever engineers
working with off-the-shelf parts to create an artifact
that could be experienced. In other words, it really
It turned out to be the best possible prototype for the
research. We explained to consumers that this was
something they’d see in the future, but it wouldn’t look
like this box. The box was so obviously a prototype that
people easily understood that and framed their comments
appropriately, offering up their needs and desires for
this future technology.

I wouldn’t say we were "testing" this product. Rather,
we used the box as a conversation starter. We got
answers to the questions we had formulated ahead of
time (i.e., importance of a proposed feature), and the
consumers we talked to gave us information in areas
we hadn’t even thought about (i.e, not only that they
wanted it installed, but how and where they would install
it). As in the house-hunting example, we confirmed some
of our earlier assumptions, revised others, removed
others, and identified new requirements.

In this situation we had the right prototype for the
type of learning we needed to do. Consider a similar
session where the box itself doesn’t do much of anything
but has a more realistic appearance. Then we might
explore what part of the home it might best fit with,
aesthetic issues, or what parts of the control panel
people would expect to touch.

We can accomplish a lot by selecting the best sort of
prototype to explore the right topics with a customer.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that prototypes are
made to best represent the current thinking about what
the product will do/look like/etc. These prototypes are
the outputs of the typical product development process,
and are not always appropriate for this type of study.
But there are cool ways to explore different options with

In the house-hunting example, it wouldn’t be at all
unreasonable to go look at a multi-million dollar
house (although in the SF Bay Area, that just means
you get a two-car garage – but seriously folks). A lot
can be learned from the "prototype" even if it isn’t a
literal example of what you might choose. In other words,
there’s no way you’re buying that house, but as an extreme
example, it can be very effective in revealing more of
those unspoken assumptions,and clarifying the requirements.
See, there’s real usefulness is being a Looky Lou!

In any product development activity there will always be
"outsider" ideas. Even though there are valid reasons
not to take them all the way to market, those concepts
can be especially effective in sparking the type of
customer dialog that we can really learn from. If people
hate it, let’s discover why, and leverage that insight
in the concepts we go forward with.
In addition to varying the "goodness" of the idea that
you prototype (as in, that’s not a "good" idea, but
let’s get people talking about it anyway), there is also
the realism (or "fidelity") in the way you prototype it.
We often use the phrases "looks-like" and "works-like"

but there’s more to it. Consider how to create layers of
"fidelity." A plain box with no styling can have a nice
color printout of a control panel right on top. Take a
photograph of a person on a plane and put a cartoon
product in their hand. There’s a lot to play with here.
If you saw the (horrible) animated film Titan A.E.,
they made fairly effective use of layers of animation
styles – cartoon faces inside stylized suits with
photorealistic backgrounds.

And consider the dimensions of "fidelity". If you are
concerned with the size of the product, you can use plain
boxes of various sizes. There’s no need to create a variety
of working, realistic designs if you are only concerned with
size (and be sure to bring along a too-small-to-engineer-
at-our-price-point box and a too-large-for-most-users box
and see what customers tell you, and why). Once, I saw an
engineer turn a bottle of orange soda into an excellent
prototype of color and finish. In the moment, it was the
best thing to get the customer to think about how, what,
and why.

If you’re interested in more, check out the work by
Stephanie Houde and Charlie Hill. You can read a brief
summary here, or see their chapter "What do Prototypes
Prototype?" in the Handbook of Human Computer
, 2nd edition, 1997.

And finally, Michael Schrage has written extensively on
how organizations can and should create a "culture of
prototyping. Check out this Fast Company article,
or his book Serious Play.


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