Rapid Prototyping

September 15, 2010

There are many ways of testing and evaluating user experiences, but sometimes these tests come later in the design process than they should or not at all. How can we avoid this? How can we make sure that a communications service will work for the people it’s meant to work for?

Frank Bentley, a Motorola research scientist gave an informative talk yesterday at the Mobile Life Centre in Stockholm on rapid prototyping for mobile experiences. His team makes use of existing technologies – from cell phones, to wi-fi networks, to Flash, to Final Cut Pro, to tape and texting – to simulate how a new service or product might work. This allows them to get rough working prototypes of new mobile services out for field testing within days or weeks (vs. months or years).

Because they develop social applications Bentley’s team looks at how these prototypes are used not just by individual users, but by social groups, such as families, friends or co-workers. This helps them to determine more accurately how the service might be used in the real world.

Each new field test feeds into an iterative process where the service is tweaked and improved. So, by the time that Motorola makes the decision whether to develop the service or not they have a sense of its potential applications and pitfalls, all without spending much money: “you can learn a lot from a prototype that does a little,” Bentley commented, and “the earlier you get the data, the easier it is to change course.”

In more depth, Bentley explained that his R&D process often starts out with a relatively lengthy period of ethnographic research on the communications practices of the potential market. This leads to idea generation for new services, and finally to the rapid prototyping phase. Data from the rapid prototyping sessions is collected in multiple ways, including: asking participants to call in and leave nightly voicemail reports on their experiences, pre- and post- in-home interviews, in-field observation, and server data tracking how the devices are used.

It seems that this process could be a valuable means of user testing for other groups: people whose needs are often overlooked by the telecom industry, such as low-income individuals. How could rapid prototyping, for example, be applied to making sure that subsidized communications services like Lifeline/Link-Up, SafeLink, and future programs work well for their customers?

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Social Impact, Systems