Prototyping Services in Human Spaces

As the (perhaps once outlandish) thought of a complete merge of the analog, physical, digital, and virtual has been established as “the new normal”, we increasingly see the need to integrate interactive services in physical space and objects. And even though designers from all fields have different tools, methods, and approaches to their respective fields, there are certain things that unite us. Our lingua franca consists of mindsets such as divergent thinking, methods such as explorative qualitative research, and techniques such as sketching and visualizations. Most design disciplines also rely heavily on prototyping. But for the urban planner who integrates sensors and machine learning aspects in her city plans, and for the industrial designer whose physical artifacts are crammed with digital technology, and for the service designer who is designing intangible services in physical, yet digital and interactive spaces — what kind of prototyping will these future Designer-Mergers of the analog and the digital use?

Types of prototypes

Let’s have a look at the prototyping landscape in some of the most prominent design disciplines of today:

In industrial design, a prototype is often an object-based version of the future product concept. It is created to examine and evaluate shape and form. Sometimes it is done to scale, so that we can test some aspects of functionality (a “works like” version), and sometimes it is done in miniature (a “looks like” version) as is often the case with a car model.

Typically, industrial design prototypes focus on:
- form
- size
- scale
- materials
- function

All these aspects (with the possible exception of “function”) are related to the “objecticality” of the prototype.

Photo by Flemming Fuchs on Unsplash

When it comes to interactive digital artifacts and software (such as websites, apps, or chatbots), prototypes are quite often focused on interactive flows. The fidelity is dependent on the classical dimensions of breadth, depth, interactivity, visual fidelity, and data fidelity.

Note: This is why interaction designers sometimes stay away from the crude low- vs high-fidelity scale; simply because that is insufficiently descriptive of what dimensions the prototype actually focuses on.

Software prototypes typically focus on:
- interaction elements
- content and data
- structure
- flow
- functionality
- media environment or context
- look and feel

Apart from “look and feel”, all these aspects are related to temporality and behavior.

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

In architecture, the prototyping focus is fairly similar to industrial design. There are some unique aspects however, which are related to scale. Buildings, travel centers, squares, and living spaces are bigger both in terms of sheer scale, but also in terms of how many people are using the “artifact” at the same time. Prototypes are often scale models, but recently a surge of 3D models rendered in VR headsets allows architectural prototyping to be experienced increasingly to scale.

Architectural and physical space prototypes typically focus on:
- layout and space
- size
- scale
- materials
- form
- function

Much like in industrial design, all aspects except “function” are based on objects in the physical space.

Photo by Robert Andall on Unsplash

In service design, a lot of the prototyping centers around human behavior over time, and the interplay of touchpoint interactions in different channels and devices. In addition, service design also often add the element of business value models and ecosystems. Some of the common tools service designers use to “prototype” service experiences are for example: business model canvases and value propositions, future-state customer journey maps, service blueprints, Wizard of Oz and concierge approaches, service walkthroughs, and a host of other familiar techniques and methods from interaction design and user experience design.

Service design aims to take a “holistic” view on the experince, which transcends physical and virtual. But in all honesty, most service designers I have had the pleasure to work with, are mostly grounded in the temporal aspects of behavior, flow and interactivity, and less inclined to think in terms of “objects”.

Photo by QuickOrder on Unsplash

Prototypes of the Designer-Merger

The problem is that most service designers are not simultaneously professionally trained architects, industrial designers, and interaction designers. Likewise, architects are neither service designers nor interaction designers; and industrial designers are not service designers, and so on.

Perhaps these fields and disciplines are already becoming archaic — unfit to describe a new type of Designer-Merger? Or would that view lead to an eviscerated view of these traditional design disciplines?

From my experience of working within a variety of different design contexts, ranging from purely digital work to close collaboration with architects and urban planners, I have had great opportunities to try different prototyping approaches from different fields. I have great humility towards the skillsets that each design field brings to the table, but I also see a new nische that needs filling. Much like the ubiquitous gaps in service delivery due to a service organization’s silos, we have blind spots in terms of how to prototype the interplay between physical, analog, virtual, and digital. In its crudest form, I think the first conceptual gap to put under examination is the difference between the object-based prototype (industrial designers and architects), and the temporal-based prototype (interaction designers and service designers).

How would a new type of Wizard-of-Oz method for objects in space work? What benefits would come out of a service blueprint based on geographical maps? How can we prototype how a data-rich, AI-enhanced interactive mockup would affect not only the behavior, but even the shape and form, of a handheld or worn physical artifact?

I look forward to prototyping tools that allows me to prototype interactive behavior in buildings, or that model data-dense AI services that affect the layout and behavior of big spaces, etc. Such tools need prototyping. And we need to prototype them now.

What are your thoughts on the future prototypes of the Designer-Merger?

Director of Service Design and Human-Centered AI at inUse. PhD and Associate Professor at Halmstad University. Father of two. I ride my bike to work.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store