Cheap, fast, easy — and good: A new era of interactive prototyping

The benefits of rapid prototyping have long been self-evident: earlier visibility into tricky aspects of a design and more chances to refine your ideas mean getting to market faster with fewer mistakes.

But as the typical product has become a symphony of electrical, mechanical and software components, prototyping the physical interaction between your product and its intended users before integrating the entire product—and doing so cost-effectively—has remained something of a challenge.

A recent core77 article, Sketching in Hardware is Changing Your Life, documents how hardware sketching—as it is being dubbed—is allowing companies to move well beyond the traditional boundaries of static sketches:

The napkin sketch is the lingua franca of all design. We all do it because—hundreds of years since we started doing it—it’s still the best way to get inspired, to get unstuck, to get real.

Until recently, electronic-device design has been sprinting up the steep incline of Moore’s Law. Our ability to conceptualize early ideas is tripping on its shoelaces. It’s hard to simplify the inherent dynamism of an electronic device—no matter how elaborate the margin doodle, it often confuses more than clarifies. And how could it not? Electronic devices are alive and interactive. They gather information about their environment or user, process values, and respond accordingly. Even the most well-intentioned sketch quickly reaches the limitations of the medium.

If a sketch of a static device can be thought of as a noun, a sketch of an electronic device must be closer to a verb. So while a designer can create storyboards to determine whether a phone should vibrate under specific conditions, like the intensity of light in a given space, to get a feeling for what that really means, a working device—a sketch model—needs to be built.

Sure, there have been ways to prototype physical interaction before: the HC11 and the PIC chip spring to mind. But the kicker is just how easy and accessible the new generation of interactive prototyping tools has become.

Meet the Arduino

Arduino

For about $100, you (and any plucky start-up who may be eyeing your profit margins) can own an Arduino Board and its accompanying software. Started by a group of very talented and technically savvy interaction designers, the Arduino provides everything you need to start creating fast, cheap and high-fidelity interactive hardware prototypes.

Gone is the need to code and compile instructions in C; instead the Arduino sports its own simplified editing environment based on Hernando Barragán’s Wiring project where you can browse through and reuse hundreds of pre-defined functions for accomplishing all sorts of feats.

Also gone is the hassle of getting your board, your actuators and your sensors to talk to each other. Out of the box, the Arduino can sense its environment by receiving input from a variety of sensors (including capacitive sensing) and can affect its surroundings by controlling lights, motors (servos, steppers, etc.) and a long list of other actuators. It can write to and read from “permanent” storage via EEPROM. It can communicate over Ethernet. It can act as a miniature web server. There’s even a library to allow for the transmission of X10 signals over AC power lines. The sky’s the limit. [For a full list of the available reference libraries, see the Arduino Libraries page.]

The Arduino itself has even spawned derivative projects such as Andre Knörig’s Fritzing which allows you to document and share Arduino-based designs with others.

So the next time you find yourself with a thorny user interaction problem that you can’t quite get your head around without seeing real people trying to solve it, consider taking the plunge into hardware sketching.

And if you want to learn more about the Arduino in the meantime, you can read about it in Wired or listen to a twit.tv podcast with company co-founder Massimo Banzi.

Marc Escobosa

As the lead designer for nearly all major releases of the Arena application from 2001 to 2012, Marc played the chief role in crafting the user experience for all Arena product offerings and led the Arena website redesign project. A consummate perfectionist with a passion for design, he’s never met a hyperlink he hasn’t followed, especially when it comes to product and interaction design, photography, travel and food.