Using playful prototypes to bring new ideas to life

Using playful prototypes to bring new ideas to life

Daresay Team - October 5, 2017

We brought our Mix, Match, Make workshop to our friends at Telia to do some rapid prototyping around the Internet of Things and look at some of the questions about smart home technology.

What challenges can be met with meaningfully connected solutions, and which of the things in our home are better off — well, not smart? And how do you find out?

Meaningful connectivity

One of the biggest issues with new technologies, especially when it comes to smart homes, has been the use of technology to solve small problems, with the hope that they’ll just add up to a useful ecosystem. But connectivity doesn’t solve a problem until you learn what people actually need, find what motivates them, what challenges they have along the way, and then build something that smooths that path for them.  

For us, tangible things help us test and get feedback, better questions and smarter products. That’s why we like to build as we think.

Mix, Match, Make with littleBits

We brought a little bit of our way of working to our friends at Telia, with our workshop based around littleBits, one of our favourite tools for rapid and playful prototyping. The workshop is based around purposeful overengineering because, in addition to being fun (and usually extremely funny), introducing pointless complexity helps us challenge our assumptions, break down barriers, and take a creative path to important questions.

Trust is the foundation

Because feeling safe is a precondition to being brave, we start every workshop by building a little bit of trust. It’s important to have a facilitator, preferably someone who isn’t part of your immediate team, and do one or two small exercises to create trust, or tap into trust that’s already there.

We broke the room into small teams and set them a short task: what if you had a remote control that could solve just one problem? What would you choose, and what would that button do for you?

Going beyond sticky notes

You don’t get innovative ideas by talking about innovation, and you can’t pull people into a room and tell them, “Be creative.” So we asked the group to do something counterintuitive: choose an annoying household problem and come up with the most complicated prototype they could build in under an hour.

The teams had access to littleBits kits and a range of craft supplies that we brought with us.

We gave them some sample scenarios, but invited them to choose their own annoying problems, then mix, match, and make something that addressed them — as inefficiently as possible.

Congratulations to the winning device: Xit

The winning team built a machine called Xit (the “x” is pronounced “sh”), for people who generally hate cleaning. It’s a ‘smart’ device that will clean all of your dust with sweeping and brushing feathers, fold your clothes using bionic — and fluffy — arms, remove cobwebs and dust from high places using an extendable arm (especially useful for short people) and even use an annoying sound to keep the dog out of your way.

And here it is.

Yes, we know his machine is not actually a real cleaning machine, but the team won because, in addition to building something fun to look at, they did some key things that are needed in more serious development for ‘smart’ products.

They made a decision to give it life and autonomy, and they also created elements that showed awareness of the complexities of the home context. There’s an implied ceiling you can’t reach, a hypothetical dusty surface you’d rather not deal with, and an imaginary dog that has declared the machine its sworn enemy. And they even added some fluffy elements to make it more likable–because we don’t value objects for their function alone.

You’re not going to get a lot of cleaning done with Xit, but the team had a chance to playfully ask questions about what a smart device in the home should do, and what it should be like.

We’re always learning

We’re always reflective about our methods, and we try to learn continually. From our experiences running workshops, we’ve learned that while prototyping might be business as usual for us, it’s new for a lot of people, especially if we’re asking them to make something physical. Some of us are visual designers, artists, and makers, but that’s not true for everyone, so it’s important for us to emphasize that it’s fine if it’s ugly. The point is to create objects to think with, not to admire aesthetically (that comes later).

That’s why we set some soft KPIs for our workshops. Are people bonding? Do we hear them laughing? Can we see them smiling? Being psychologically safe to share even the messiest ideas without judgment can be an important step in building the environment where the next big thing can be born — ugly, at first — a little bit at a time.

Rapid prototyping can be a powerful tool for building innovative new things. Taking the same approach, but using something, like littleBits and a pile of craft supplies, to build in playful ways that won’t lead to a product or service can help you ask even braver questions, without judgment or consequences, that can later inform even more courageous core work.

Want to have a Daresay Labs workshop with your team?

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