There are few things as tricky as a good prototype.
Prototyping is done with equal parts ambiguity, research, design, and courage, and enough technical know-how to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Some see prototyping as a “preliminary model”, something to tweak and get right (i.e. the materials, the code, the processes, etc.) before productizing or mass-producing. But I like to think of a prototype as a poem. Doubts and assertions and serendipity are all wrapped up in the making of a prototype. It’s a tangible question you pose to the world.
I’ve worked on a variety of software and hardware prototypes over the last 15 years, but I’ve been writing poems for more than 30 years. Write poems for that long and it doesn’t just color the way you see the world, it becomes a kind of framework, a reflex. I remember the first poem I wrote in college—not what it was about or how it sounded (I’m fairly certain it was awful), but what it felt like to write it, pushing on past midnight, experimenting with the language. And the same thing happens when I’m working on a prototype. Time falls away while I’m exploring some idea or problem or interaction. I’m sketching and weighing out one possibility after another. I’ve found that there are quite a few similarities in the process of writing poems and prototyping; parallel ways of thinking that are touchstones for doing the work. And because I can’t help myself, these similarities have become metaphors, unlikely comparisons that keep me in the right frame of mind when I’m prototyping and running up against a difficult problem. So the following are three prototype metaphors that I return to time and again, to help me remember what’s most important.
A Prototype Is a Distillery
Just like a good whisky, a prototype or poem is the product of expert distillation—separating, condensing, and refining, all at once. Poets often take something as rangy and complicated and maddening as love, and try to distill some aspect of it down into a page or two, within a handful of stanzas, using the shortest of lines. They’ve been doing this for hundreds of years. Kobayashi Issa, the 19th century Japanese poet, wrote a haiku that serves as a great example of this, crystalizing the narrator’s complicated emotions concerning his marriage:
My grumbling wife
if only she were here!
This moon tonight …
And there is a similar dynamic at play when working on a prototype. In response to pressures to add features or increase scope, we often try to distill prototypes into a few key things that are important to explore and get feedback on.
I remember working on a big project with the goal of redesigning how people watch TV. The effort was ambitious, and took on a variety of major changes, including a shift from channel-based to content-based navigation, restructuring the program guide, and redesigning the shape, size, color, and placement of buttons on the TV remote control. Had we tried to incorporate all of this into a single prototype it would have been impossible to understand which aspects were on the right track, and which ones weren’t. Only by breaking it down into smaller, more focused pieces were we able to be more intelligent about our guesswork, more confident about which paths to take.
A Prototype Is like Puberty
Wavering between two opposing actions or desires—or actually embracing them at the same time—is behavior that prototypers and poets explore all the time. Contradiction and paradox are a fundamental part of being human—a kind of extended puberty that we live with until the very end. Some of the best poems I know remind us of how complicated our feelings and perspectives can be. We can feel intense joy and isolation in our relationships, and we can feel sadness and anger and relief at the passing of a loved one. It’s why irony is so commonplace in literature and in our lives. Richard Hugo, in his essay collection The Triggering Town, says that poems have a triggering subject and a real subject—what we think the poem is about when we start writing, and what the poem actually turns out to be; we can start with reunion and end up with loss, we can begin with joy then come around to melancholy.
And prototyping confronts this same complexity. Each prototype needs to accommodate a variety of needs, desires, and circumstances. And just like a teenager, it tries to get a handle on what it wants, tries on various emotions or priorities, swinging from one to the other and back again.
I once redesigned the medication list for an electronic medical record application. It was a seemingly easy task, but as the team and I dug in, we discovered a dizzying number of contradictions. Doctors wanted to see only their prescribed medications in the list, but also wanted to know what other specialists had prescribed. They wanted to see only active medications, but also wanted to see a complete history of all that had been prescribed. They needed medications grouped and ungrouped, medications with and without their instructions, medications listed by brand name and by generic name. All of this, of course, was necessary because treating patients is serious and complicated business. Our prototype needed to explore a variety of complex usages while remaining as simple and intuitive as possible. A paradox to help understand paradox. It’s thorny and difficult, but that’s to be expected. Prototyping is many things, but easy is not one of them.
A Prototype Is a Little Door Left Open
“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” wrote the poet and physician William Carlos Williams, “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Prototypes and poems are important vehicles for expressing what is difficult to express. Poems try to get at what is meaningful to us, what is important or significant in our lives, in our relationships with each other and with the world around us. The American poet Yusef Komunyakaa talks about how his poems strive to be a “composite of surprises,” with his endings trying to explore meaning in multiple ways:
I hope for a last line that is an open-ended release.
Working back up through the poem, listing all the possible closures,
I search for a little door I can leave ajar.
Prototyping may not have the same gravitas as poetry in this regard, but it also explores what is meaningful—doing new things, connecting with people in new ways, learning more about the world. Of course, a prototype can also investigate how to improve or streamline the things we already do, and this is good and useful work. But there is often the opportunity for us to push our prototyping farther, to uncover something that startles us.
I recently led a team that was tasked with researching how people use the variety of devices they carry around with them. Out of this research we produced a concept for a dual-screen laptop (one that has an additional screen on its cover), and as luck would have it, the computer manufacturer ASUS actually built and released the dual-screen Taichi several months later. Because the device was a laptop, we initially gravitated toward experiences that were about productivity. But as we explored the possibility of that external screen broadcasting information outward, we realized there was an opportunity for people to display words and images that expressed themselves. As we refined our ideas and created our prototype, we were able to explore a new experience for self-expression, transforming the laptop from a productivity tool into a social device as well.
There is an often-used writer’s adage, “no surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader.” If a poem doesn’t push on the language, ideas, and subject matter, it can come off flat and predictable. The same applies to prototyping. We need to go beyond what is easiest or expected. We need to look at the problem sideways, stretch our assumptions, and leave the door open a little for our prototypes to uncover what is most useful and most meaningful to us.
These things happen, more or less, in the process of the work—in the writing, designing, and tinkering. And it never really ends. One more thought about poetry and prototyping: both are a perpetual series of beginnings. Each effort always seems to lead to another, or several others. Each ending is simply a prelude, and the process starts all over again. To most people, all of this might seem more than a little exhausting. But for those of us who write or prototype, I suspect it’s why we do it.
Image of paper house courtesy Shutterstock.