Prototyping Fidelity and the Design Turing Test

Prototyping is a topic I have been involved with for 30 years [c.f. 2, 3]. Prototyping technologies and conceptual advances have changed dramatically over the years, but the two reasons we must prototype have not, and will never change.

    1. Prototyping encourages user involvement and joint ownership of projects.
    2. Prototyping facilitates the mutual and concurrent learning processes of users and designers.

Numerous conceptual advance have been made to redefine and assist with modeling and designing systems for consumers and users. One of the most important concepts is related to the coarseness of the prototype. This coarseness is called prototype fidelity.  I would like to draw on the concept of prototype fidelity and relate it to our earlier research.

Adaptive Design and Prototype Fidelity

In earlier papers we identified three levels of prototyping. Level 1 was input and output design. Level 2 prototyping was called heuristic design and it involved the addition of functional operations and limited interactions to input and output design. Level 3 prototyping was called adaptive design. A prototype built using adaptive design was an actual working systems that was improved forever in an adaptive iterative process. The concept of adaptive design was articulated by Peter Keen over 35 years ago and defined as a process of learning and evolution [4].

I like the concept of prototype fidelity as discussed by Catani and Biers much better than the levels of prototyping [1]. Prototype fidelity is a clean, easy to understand concept. An excellent article by Laura Busche in 2014 captures the idea of prototyping fidelity and illustrates why developing a low fidelity prototyping is the first step in user-oriented design.

The gold standard for a prototype is to develop a high fidelity prototype that passes for what I like to refer to as the Design Turing Test (DTT).

Although we do not yet have a specific means for determining the particular characteristics that make a user interface high or low fidelity, we can loosely define fidelity by analogy to the Turing test. To the extent that a person using the prototype cannot distinguish it from the final system, the prototype is high fidelity. If the prototype can readily be distinguished from the service, then fidelity is low. [5]

In essence, prototype fidelity refers to the degree to which the prototype looks and functions like an actual system or product. We will refer to the levels of fidelity, the degree to which a prototype reaches the Design Turing Test hurdle, as the Lo-Fi prototype, the Hi-Fi prototype and the Functional working prototype. High fidelity, functional prototypes should pass the DTT.

Lo-Fi Prototypes: A low fidelity prototype could be a sketch of the input and output screens or a process diagram of how the product works. It can also be a thought experiment with a brief description. The key is communicate the essence of the concept.

Low fidelity prototypes can be done using pencil and with a drawing program, however, I am such a terrible artist that I often turn to Grafio for Alpha prototypes. My favorite tools for low fidelity prototyping are paper and pencil, any tablet drawing program, PowerPoint, Visio, and Grafio in most situations. A new on-line and desktop tool called Creately shows great promise as a low fidelity prototyping tool.

Hi-Fi Prototypes: A higher fidelity prototype would include input and output mock up screens and it should also illustrate hierarchical and navigational relationships between the various screens. High fidelity prototypes are usually developed using wire frames. A wire frame is just an image or picture of a tablet, a smart phone or a computer screen.

My turn-to tools for high fidelity prototyping are InVision for realistic wire frame mock ups, and PowerPoint, and Excel.  You must pay for the more advanced features of inVision, but you can try it out on a small project to see how it works.  I also like Prototyping on Paper or POP. This is one of the easiest tools for taking pictures of paper and pencil sketches and then making them linkable.

If tangible products are being designed computer aided design (CAD) tools can be used. Free versions of these tools are reviewed here.

Functional Prototypes: The highest fidelity prototype is supposed to act and look like the real system or product, even though it may eventually be re-coded or rebuilt using different technologies. Functional prototypes are developed using a technology that represents the flow and dynamics of the screens, as well as supporting the background processes that support the application. Functional prototypes should usually be capable of passing the prototyping Turing test, in that the person using the prototype should not be able to distinguish it from the final system.

I do not have a favorite tool for Functional prototypes. They are typically implemented in a native language such as Xcode for IOS iPhone apps and in Java-like languages for Android apps. I usually have a developer implement Alpha prototypes. They are rarely static and are continuously redesigned in an iterative fashion.

Example of Lo-Fi and Hi-Fi Prototyping

The following figure illustrates the low fidelity and high fidelity prototypes for a system for searching and rescuing a lost climber in a remote location. Figure 1 is a very terrible drawn low fidelity prototype using a pen and pencil. My collaborator took that drawing and developed a wire frame iPad mock up using inVision.

The first version of the high fidelity prototype developed in InVision was not the idea that I tried to convey. My drawing was terrible. So I used Grafio to draw a more refined diagram, a higher fidelity, but still at low fidelity prototype, that is illustrated in Figure 2. My collaborator then went on to develop the high fidelity prototype that is illustrated in Figure 3.

The  high fidelity prototype in Figure 3 is a dynamic wire-frame that was developed using InVision. If you click on a name, for example “Kate”, you can get her health and movement status. All of the members of the rescue have hot links to their movement and health status. This application would eventually be programmed in XCode or Java, depending on the smart phone platform.

The key take away from the back and forth process of developing low fidelity and high fidelity prototypes is that developing a prototype facilitated the mutual and concurrent learning processes for both of us. It was an iterative on-going reciprocal learning process.

As illustrated in Figure 4, the prototyping process is non-linear and iterative. The process can be low fidelity, high fidelity, low fidelity, fidelity, and then the creation of an actual  functioning prototype that passes the design Turing test. Or the process can begin with a low fidelity and then go directly to the development of the functional prototype. The order is determined by the complexity of the application and the degree to which the designer and user understand each other.

Conclusion

The key to design is to get the users, consumers, designer, developers and management on the same page. Prototyping encourages learning and exploration. The ideal prototypes passes the Turing Design Test. It has never been easier to develop virtual world prototypes. There are numerous 3D printing tools and digital tools for designing products that clear the Design Turing Test hurdle. Take advantage of them. It is a prototype or perish world.

Prototyping Process

Figure 4: Prototyping is a Continuous Process

 

Additional Material on prototyping concepts  and prototyping tools

References

  1. Catani, Michael B., and David W. Biers. “Usability evaluation and prototype fidelity: Users and usability professionals.” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting. Vol. 42. No. 19. SAGE Publications, 1998
  2. Cerveny, Robert , G. Lawrence Sanders and Edward J. Garrity. “The application of prototyping to systems development: A rationale and model.” Journal of Management Information Systems (1986): 52-62.
  3. Cerveny, Robert P., Edward J. Garrity, and G. Lawrence Sanders. “A problem-solving perspective on systems development.” Journal of Management Information Systems (1990): 103-122.
  4. Peter G. W. Keen. 1980. Adaptive design for decision support systems. SIGMIS Database 12, 1-2 (September 1980), 15-25. DOI=http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/1017654.1017659
  5. “Virzi, Robert A. “What can you learn from a low-fidelity prototype?.” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting. Vol. 33. No. 4. SAGE Publications, 1989, pp 224.
Figure 1

Figure 1: Low Fidelity Version 1

Figure 2

Figure 2: Low Fidelity Version 2

Figure 3

Figure 3: High Fidelity

Figure 3

Figure 3: High Fidelity

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The Best Business Plan Creates a Virtual World

A good business plan should draw on prototyping to create a virtual world that looks and acts like the real thing. Developing product and process prototypes is the cornerstone of developing a virtual business model because prototypes facilitate the understanding of how the business will work.

I see between 30 and 40 students business plans each year. It is not unusual to hear the following complaints at least five times each year: “They just don’t understand our business model.” orThey just don’t understand what we are doing.” There are many reasons that they do not  understand, including the idea might be flawed, the business idea needs to be refined, or they have simply not communicated their business concept in a clear manner.

The business plan is often the centerpiece of communicating the business model to outsiders such as investors, family, friends and other interested parties (see Figure 1). A more important use of the business plan and the executive summary is that they serve as communications platforms among the founders. It is, after all, the interplay and social dynamics among the founders that are the keys to success ( see Jennifer Houser on How to Build an Insanely Great Founding Team).

The evolution of the business model and the business plan involves hard work, but there are tools that can improve communication and facilitate the process. Prototyping, in one of its various incarnations is the centerpiece of these tools.

Prototypes are usually associated with the development of products and services. With successive iterations, or stepwise refinement, a prototype becomes more and more like a real product or service. Prototyping can also be applied to the development of the business model. With successive iterations, or stepwise refinement, a prototyped business becomes more and more like a real business. It is rarely feasible to build the product, service or entire business without some type of stepwise refinement. The executive summary, the business plan pitch and the business plan itself are not the actual business, but are actually models of what the business will produce and how it will function.

Ideas evolve over time. Prototyping is a very powerful tool because it facilitates learning and understanding and it reduces the length of time of the evolutionary process. Prototyping involves experimentation and encourages the evolution of ideas and leads to insight into the design of a viable product, a service and the business model. A blend of learning-by-doing (prototyping) and learning-about (education, reading, searching and synthesizing) is necessary and the foundation of the creative process. Research has cosnsistently shown that prototyping and collaboration facilitates the mutual and concurrent learning processes of all of the individuals involved and that it results in strong feelings of ownership towards the product, service or business model.

There are a variety of ways that prototyping and stepwise refinement can be used to develop a business model and new products and services. Here is one approach that is characteristic of how prototyping can be implemented.

  1. Initial Prototype: In the early stages, develop a pencil and paper picture of the product, the application or the process. The key is to focus on the vital and essential functions of the product or service.
  2. Review by Interested Parties: Let business stakeholders, family, friends and potential customers provide feedback on the product or service.
  3. Revise and redesign prototype: Use the feedback to refine and improve the design of the product or service. Use more advanced tools as the prototype becomes more refined and detailed. This usually leads to the use of graphics, drawings and mock-up software. Towards the later stages of development, the prototype might be a functioning product or service or an actual application with some level of functionality.
  4. Go back to step 2 after revising and redesigning the prototype.

Services and businesses processes can also be prototyped. There are a number of tools that can be used to conceptualize, design, and test the design of the service including drawings, sketches, scenario analysis and task structuring, mock-ups, storyboarding, systems, Lego mock-ups, and other tools including simulation (see http://www.servicedesigntools.org/repository ). One popular tool for designing services is service blueprinting. It is a visual and descriptive tool for modeling visible customer interactions with employees and processes that also illustrates how the hidden processes support the customer interactions.

In summary, prototyping and prototypes are very effective tools for facilitating the evolution of ideas and for presenting a virtual world, a virtual business, a virtual product or virtual service to interested parties.

In the last couple of years I have focused on having the student groups develop prototypes for their business plans. The results have been outstanding. Check out the business plans and presentations on my SkyDrive here. Also check out Chapters 6 and 7 for additional discussion on the role of prototyping in innovation and creativity.

Figure 1 Innovation, Learning and New Product Development