experiential prototype

Experience Prototyping in Extreme Environments

I often get asked to talk about the importance of prototyping, the different types and fidelities of prototyping and how to evaluate prototypes.  Here’s a short blurb about “Experience Prototyping” for environments that are considered “Extreme” as the car.

Why Prototype?

My day job is at the User Experience Research lab at Intel Labs.  The mission of our lab is to promote and evolve user experience innovation as applied to technological interactions. We aim to re-imagine the computing experience of the future, defining new user experiences and new user platforms. IXR researchers consisting of both user interface technologists and social scientists to create the next generation of user experiences. Design is a big part of our work, and so we prototype a LOT!  Below is a summary of the tools we use and why we prototype experience in extreme environments.

Note: Lots of the information here was borrowed from Buchenau, M., & Suri, J. F. (2000) paper on Experience Prototyping.  Full paper here.

William Lidwell (Universal Design Principles) defines a prototype as “a simplified and incomplete model of a design to explore ideas, elaborate requirements, refine specifications, and test functionality.”  With all the advantages of creating these “incomplete models” it is hard to argue against it.  Making prototypes saves time and money, inspires the team, ensures the voice of the end user is explicit during the design cycle and ultimately creates better products.

What is Experience Prototyping?

Prototyping can be considered as a large array of tools.  The word “prototype” has different “meaning” for different trades.  For experience design, prototypes alone usually lacks context, social circumstances, time pressures and environmental conditions, thus we prefer to create “experiential prototypes” to convey our designs.

Before defining what experience prototyping means, let’s agree on the terminology of “experience”.  Buchenau, M., & Suri, J. F. (2000) define an experience the dynamic, complex and subjective phenomenon that depends upon the perception of multiple sensory qualities of a design. This experience is interpreted through filters relating to contextual factors.  Experience prototyping is then a step beyond prototyping to enable people to go through this phenomenon we are designing for.

These prototypes emphasize the experiential aspect of whatever representations are needed to successfully (re)live or convey an experience with a product, space or system.  Just like regular prototypes, experience prototyping is less a set of techniques,  han it is an attitude, allowing the designer to think of the design problem in terms of designing an integrated  experience, rather than one or more specific artifacts

In short, an Experience Prototype is any kind of representation, in any medium, that is designed to understand, explore or communicate what it might be like to engage with the product, space or system we are designing.  It is a tool to allow designers, clients or users to “experience it  themselves” rather than witnessing a demonstration or someone else’s experience.

Some examples include: condition of typical use, suspend belief, day in the life of, day to day, etc. There is no hard-and-fast rule about implementing experience prototypes, essentially, you want to make them as realistic and believable as possible, and the specific circumstances of each experience prototype dictate the level of realism you can achieve. Buchenau and Suri state “The sooner you can implement experience prototypes into the design process, the faster you will see results and the greater impact they will have on the design process.”

Extreme Environments and The Car

The Human Factors and Ergonomics society defines extreme environments as:

“Settings that possess extraordinary physical, psychological, and interpersonal demands that require significant human adaptation for performance (and survival).”
Some examples of those include spaceflight, high-altitude aviation, mountaineering, and polar, desert, and underwater environments.  So you might be thinking, how does the car fit into this category?  Well the car is a dangerous machinery, lots of the interactions/consequences are out of the users’ control, it requires training (practice), adaptability, alertness and it is often used under harsh conditions (weather, distractors, etc).

The car is also “extreme” for designers, since evaluating experience in it becomes rather difficult.  For example, we can’t just ask people to try a paper interface as they are driving, or even a higher fidelity product, because it could create dangerous situations that we would not want to put people in.  I would even argue that evaluating concepts in some of the “extreme” environments mentioned before could be easier than evaluating in a car.  For example,  it might be easier to create something that divers can take with them during their dive to test it, or in the desert, or even in space.  Although constructing these prototypes might be difficult (they would have to sustain water, heat or work in space) the consequences of people using them during their experience might be less dangerous than the car. Although it is an activity we conduct daily, it is not possible to treat prototyping in the car as you would treat prototyping on the phone.  It is such a complex environment, that some of the elements have to be re-created:  the mental load (split task), the noise, the un-predicability, etc. If you would like to get some directional data that has any kind of merit to explore and evaluate ideas they have to be tested in-situ, or something similar…I can’t claim that we have an answer yet, but I’d like to walk you through 3 scenarios to give you an idea of our challenges, and how we attempted to solve them.

A Few Battle Stories
Affective UI:  The team designed interfaces and wanted to incorporate elements of personality and humor.  The hypothesis was that these elements could add fun and novelty to an otherwise mundane drive.  Thus we predicted that adding these elements to car systems could enhance the User Experience.

We built a prototype on a tablet to convey the experience:


But it wasn’t until we were able to put it in context that we truly were able to understand the reaction of people to our system:


Capture and share:  This concept explored how someone could capture a “moment” (something they see during their drive) by touching the window.  They system would then provide the option to either share the artifact with other passengers and friends or simply store the image for future reference.

This project was done by our awesome interns during the summer.  They used a touch screen to prototype the concept, then made the system connected to another tablet to send the information.


But in order to understand the elements of the design that might delight people or that might create nuances, they had to put it into context.  Taking the prototype into a “car” environment got the team thinking further about their concept, enabled them to convey it to stakeholders and well as test it with people in the office.


Car as an immersive system:  This concept explored how we could allow people to “relieve” a moment that was previously experienced in the car, such as a trip to the beach.

This project was also built by our interns, and after their previous project, they didn’t even attempt to build just a prototype.  They added all kind of components to make the concept as realistic as possible.  Here they are, adding sounds with a blowdryer.


I hope this provides some inspiration to take prototypes a step further and add more experiential components to it, in particular when designing things for extreme environments!

Reference: Buchenau, M., & Suri, J. F. (2000, August). Experience prototyping. InProceedings of the 3rd conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques (pp. 424-433). ACM.

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