Synthesize: What is the role of prototyping in the context of a large-scale social problem?

Our second Synthesize session led to a great discussion about the topic, “What is the role of prototyping in the context of a large-scale social problem?” After describing the various forms of prototyping available for two and three dimensional design, we began to investigate the tools available for a four-dimensional design problem, such as a digital prototype or a service. It quickly became apparent that a design prototype in this time based context needed to provoke – it needed to create a new situation that could be observed and then critically analyzed. This is the role of interactive prototypes – interactive simulations aren’t simply “higher fidelity paper prototypes”, as there’s a deeper level of provocation that occurs once the user can enjoy a more emotional set of interactions that come with a temporal prototype.

Social problems, however, don’t afford provocation in the same way as do less time critical, anxiety ridden applications or products. And, the entire span of time that is relevant changes dramatically when thinking about social problem solving; instead of considering a single “use case”, use exists and extends over a period of time that can extend into years or decades. Our group used an earthquake as a point of conversation, describing how a prototype could be introduced into a situational episode (perhaps a play, body storming activity, or method acting). But that situational episode need not be at the heart of the earthquake itself – provocation can occur throughout the six or nine months following the devastation, and with various degrees of response. In all cases, a prototype would quickly ally with a certain set of stakeholders and would then become political in nature.

The conversation quickly turned to one of appropriateness, and the language of design shifts from “design for” to “design with”. Yet as is always the case with a conversation of design as a service endeavor rather than an autocratic activity, this is threatening – it pushes the role of designer as genius creator to one of designer as facilitator or educator. That can be unsettling for some, as it appears to question our entire role. That’s not the case, and Jonas Löwgren was quick to point out the largest contribution a designer can bring is our tacit and intimate understanding of materiality. That’s evident in the craftsman model of industrial and furniture design; for the interaction designer, the materiality is still critical, but is much less visible. For our material is either bits and bytes, in the case of digital embodiment, or the psychology and perception of people, in the case of human behavior.

[Crosspost to the AC4D Blog]