UX Prototyping Trends

For the longest time our discipline seemed to pay only lip service to one of the key activities of UX design: prototyping.

Yes, everybody always states that prototyping is important. Do it often and early on in the process. Always treat your prototypes as experiments. Don’t fall in love with them and last bust not least, always welcome failure.

But who is really doing that? The first thing that gets thrown overboard when deadlines or budgets are tight, is prototyping (along with any form of user involvement). „We don’t have time for this, we need to build the real thing. So let’s stop fiddling around.“ Ah, thanks.
And criticizing our stuff is not always welcomed. Especially coming from non-designers. “How should they know how much thought and of my heart’s blood I put into this? And they always focus on the wrong things…“ Sounds familiar?

And until recently, there were only few books focusing on prototyping (if we disregard books explaining prototyping tools). One book I often quote is by Todd Zaki Warfel.

“Prototyping is practice for people who design and make things. It’s not simply another tool for your design toolkit – it’s a design philosophy.”

Unfortunately the book is from 2009, and eight years is ancient in our fast-paced discipline. But there are two new additions to the UX body of knowledge:

If you are into this reading and book buying thing I highly recommend the former one. It is well written and explains the process and mindset for prototyping in depth. It is my new favorite prototyping book.

I think one reason why new books came out is that our discipline needs an update. There are new challenges ahead of us. Let me talk about three key trends which already impact our discipline and how we work.

Low-fidelity Prototyping

With the rise of Design Thinking more and more people experience and understand the benefits of low-fidelity prototyping. It is now OK for grown-ups to bring Legos and play-doh to work and sketch ideas with markers on sticky notes. Just call your meeting a brainstorming or ideation session.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is an important shift that people now visualize and present their ideas (sometimes even to real customers) in a low fidelity format. But it is always important to frame these activities properly. Yes, they are fun but that’s a nice side effect, and not their raison d’être. Finding and describing the core of an idea and getting feedback as soon as possible, that is why low-fidelity prototyping is important.

A brainstorming session is not a chocolate bar. Don’t have one when you need to take a break from your boring day-to-day work.

IoT/Physical Prototyping

We still search for a good term to describe the second trend. Interaction design is often reduced to the practice of creating screen-based interfaces (mobile apps, websites and sometimes even applications). Old-school button and knob-driven interfaces are often forgotten and ignored. But the „Internet of Things“ brought these physical interfaces back to our attention.

How do people interact with these things that dont have screens? And how should these things interact with them?

Cross-Screen Prototyping

The third trend is closely related to the previous one. More and more services and applications live on different devices at the same time. Your fitness tracker on your wrist (let’s say you have one) has a tiny screen, an companion app and a website. It can send messages to your phone and show things on its tiny screen. You can also tell Alexa to talk to it (or any other voice interface) and you can even tell other services to use the data your fitness tracker has collected. This sounds confusing and, yes, it is.

What are the proper channels for which messages? How can we make sure that customers are not bombarded with useless information? How do we pick the correct functions for which device?

This can hardly be decided by drafting a powerpoint. These services and applications need to be prototyped and experienced. That’s why us UX designers need new skills and tools. We need to get physical. (Yes that’s a cheap Olivia Newton-John reference, I pledge guilty.)

We are not in Kansas anymore

In the golden days when people only expected us to deliver wireframes and then get out of the way, a frequent discussion was whether UX designers should be able to (read/understand/have an opinion on) HTML/CSS or even (god forbid) programing. And often we got away with: “Sorry, I focus on design.” Which translated to, “I am quite happy in my square over here. I am part of a larger whole. I get that. But I deliver design because that is where I am best at. Let the others do their job and let me do mine. Have a good day.”

Well, this time is over and gone for good. IoT and cross-screen services and applications need to be designed – and for this we need additional skills. What about programming? Language knowledge and copy writing? Electronic skills? Understanding the capabilities of sensors and hardware? 3D printing?

We need to face the fact that we need to stand up to our claim, that we, unlike others, have a broader perspective on things. That we always fight for the customer’s interests and that all other disciplines need to bend to our will because it’s the will of the customer.

If we think we are entitled to an opinion on these matters, please let it be an informed one. Let us aquire the skills that will help us. We can prototype ideas and make them tangible. We can show how services and applications will impact us and our environment. We can integrate the ideas and thoughts of different disciplines into concrete and testable prototypes to gather customer feedback.

These are very interesting times.
Let’s get physical.