Problem Prototyping at Butterfly Works

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Recently I was invited by Butterfly Works to come speak at an inspiration day about Prototyping. It make me think: what makes me such an authority on prototyping? I sure know how to make and fake things (the Wizard of Oz is my absolute favourite method in the design book) and to ask questions and observe what happens. Actually, when I teach about prototyping this is my favourite video to make the point that you can fake an entire system whilst still getting a full emotional response:

The benefits of making problems tangible, and not restricting to prototyping possible solutions

Anyway. So prototyping. Well actually I reminded myself to look at my coaching activities and workshops and youtube channel (and the other one): I make and build a lot, including prototypes (but not necessarily). I guess what I’d have to say about prototyping if anything, is that it’s such a shame it doesn’t happen earlier on more often. What I see in my design coaching work is that design teams have a really hard trouble prototyping rough ideas and concepts because they’re not defined enough to be built. They postpone building anything, and thereby missing valuable opportunities of putting ideas out there in the world in a tangible form. Hence I would often say: build them (or parts) because it will help you define the idea. The chicken or the egg story.

The most important point of prototyping is that all this magic bubbles up when you make your ideas tangible: the process of doing it helps you think through things, so they get more defined. And being able to expose people to your idea (rather than exposing them to words about your idea) allows all these interesting observations, conversations and insights to come to the surface. In my experience in working with interdisciplinary project teams, this magic tends to happen more at the end than at the beginning.  And is probably partly a result of different backgrounds and ways of working.

From discussion starters to problem prototypes

I’ve been working on these things a lot, and previously I’ve talked about “discussion starters” to make sense of it. When I got the invitation from butterfly works I realized: what if I tried understanding discussion-starting-making activities as a form of prototyping? Can we use these hands-on makerly methods that we employ to test our solutions also be used to test our assumptions? To test our ways of approaching a problem, and to figure out whether we – and our assigners – are asking the right questions in the first place? I decided to go with it and prepared a talk on Problem Prototyping to figure out what that could mean. The ways of working proposed are the same as those discussed under “discussion starters”. Below are the slides, and here’s a recap of the inspiration session by Butterfly Works. These are the main points roughly:

 

Problem Prototyping from Loes Bogers

Main points (roughly)

  • everyone is biased in some way, and that’s ok. But we need to continuously improve our strategies to avoid them ending up in ‘solutions’ we propose. Perhaps our biases they can even be used as a productive force? In design thinking you are encouraged to fail after all.
  • making your ideas concrete enables real emotional and affective response, potentially resulting in in-depth feedback because the idea becomes something you can experience. Talking about ideas in your head is limited because you cannot be sure you are actually talking about the same ’thing’. At least not until mind readers really work reliably. Read up on the embodied cognition thesis, it’s interesting stuff (eg. Hummels & Van Dijk).
  • be aware that modern western science constructed and upholds a system and hierarchy of knowledges that historically favors (masculine) analytical rationality, detached/objective and systematic approaches and rigour as virtues. Other ways of knowing are much older. The idea of prototyping is one of many ways in which ‘modern’ western science started to include other, less rigid ways of producing knowledge since the 1960s. Huge body of work that deserves its own blogpost: bottomline being that academic knowledge-making is just one of the many (Guggenheim 2010).
  • in my limited and personal experience as design research coach at a university of applied sciences, making occurs mostly at the end of design processes in interdisciplinary teams where iterative approaches and designerly ways of knowing and doing aren’t necessarily commonplace for all involved. There’s a lot of researching and discussing going in before anything is tried out in a concrete sense. That’s a bit waterfall, and privileges thinking over other ways of knowing. I don’t like privileging thinking over other ways of knowing, other ways of knowing are awesome and democratic and inclusive. They might also be less academic, and I think that’s ok (this statement deserves its own post and references).
  • if you didn’t ask the right question or formulate the right problem, can you ever find a good solution?
  • solutionism (Morozov 2011) is a real technocratic threat: could it be the case that not all difficulties have benign technocratic nature? And: are we aware than any solution probably generates as many new problems as it solves?
  • what can we do? We better fall in love with the problem, not the solution (said everyone in startups ever, and I think they probably have a point!)
  • some examples of ways I’ve been trying to put this into practice with students I work with.
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20 mins workshop??

Then I was asked to facilitate a 20 minute workshop to demonstrate the process. Incredibly short time! So with that limitation in mind I was super happy. Lots of people showed up to my workshop session after hearing my talk. Man I was so pleased with that, and incredibly flattered! We used the “what if your problem ecology were a game?” prompt to explore one of two problem ecologies: the gender wage gap, or Trump being elected president. The exercise resulted in 4 different discussion games each highlighting this ‘problem’ in a very particular way, and making it experiential while sparking discussion about the points of departure the games embodied. We briefly discussed but time didn’t allow us to go into full discussion to hash out what the games said about peoples approach, assumptions and perspectives on that problem and where they came from. I will forgive myself for that (see above: 20 mins workshop??)

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lovely place, the Butterfly Works studio

Is there a philosopher in the design studio?

After the conversations I’ve had with the audience and my workshop participants, I realized that there might be something in this idea for everyone who’s interested in having more of a critical design practice. It’s also still quite rough and I feel shaky about making these statements, so it definitely needs a lot of backing up. A few weeks later I met up with Judith van Werkhoven, who is a creative consultant with a background in philosophy and graphic design. She uses Socratic conversational methods in her practice and apparently what I’d said resonated with her. Very interesting conversation.

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Having chatted with her I started to see that perhaps I’m trying to bring a philosopher into the room, forging these connections in design practice and pedagogy. Somehow Problem Prototyping processes (I know that there’s loads of practices and method in this vain, I’m not pretending there aren’t and they also deserve their own blogpost) shares a trait with philosophy in that it is more interested in questions than in answers. I’m quite happy with that preliminary conclusion! And also feel like my next step would be to link deeply to practices all this is related to. To give it some academic weight (and see how that feels). I also became very curious what design practices are out there that engage philosophical approaches into design.

References and further reading

Guggenheim, M. (2010) “The Long History of Prototypes” in: LIMN, issue 0: Prototyping prototyping. www.limn.it/the-long-history-of-prototypes

Hummels, C & Van Dijk, J. (2015, January). “Seven Principles to Design for Embodied Sensemaking.” in: Proceedings of the ninth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction. ACM, 21-28.

Morozov, E (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist. Penguin, UK.


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