Getting Physical with Technology

Until a few years ago, “Getting Physical” was strictly the domain of designers, who regularly build models, prototypes or ‘mock-ups’ of concepts. Technology now allows neophytes and professionals alike to create options more easily. Word processing is the most ubiquitous form, where changes can occur as a seamless part of the writing process. Similarly, for documents and Web sites, easy to use software make it possible to modify graphic design and interface options in real time. And, now a variety of technologies have evolved for prototyping physical products and experiences.

Physical models used to be a painstaking effort, cutting wood or foam into complicated shapes to simulate actual use. Now, a variety of technologies allow companies to create both virtual and physical models quickly and with a high degree of accuracy, so much so, that even tooling can be ‘prototyped.’ A process called “3D Printing” for example, allows developers to translate a virtual model into a physical model.

Even ‘experiences’ can be prototyped using avatars, similar to those used in the virtual world. Before a building is constructed, many physical models are built, and today, virtual models can simulate how light, temperature and various materials will impact the experience in a building. In industrial design firms, hundreds of models are often built that help designers understand the tradeoffs, before extensive engineering is considered. Early-stage modeling can help team members identify possible features and forms that can guide the next stages of development.

Further, testing has become much easier in online environments. Imagine, 10 years ago, trying to test the relative effect of one typestyle over another. The underlying assumption is that valuable learning takes place in the process of simulating use and that simulation is best done with a physical representation of the product. Simple artifacts enable team members to experience the possibilities of use while there is still time to define the product in terms of the user experience.

This method contrasts sharply from traditional product development methods which favor a deductive approach to solutions, beginning with “objectives” or “product specifications.” The deductive, “Ready, Aim, Fire” approach, uses product development as a way of implementing corporate goals or strategies. It assumes that product development is a process for envisioning what has already been defined.

Early stage modeling is a way to define parameters which may not be known when the team begins its work. It is an inductive approach to strategy definition. Through the activity of making and rejecting successive approximations, user needs and product “category” may be defined. It is a “Ready, Fire, Aim” method of development, where modeling is a vehicle for product definition and strategy. It is a way of learning about the experience of use by doing it.