Teaching Prototypically

As a teacher, embracing the values of prototyping has meant a solid commitment, understanding and breakdown of its underlying components that I renew through continuing my professional practice. From that practice, I believe that underlying assumptions of prototyping need to be reviewed and re-constructed with learners each time any prototyping process is facilitated. How else am I to impart its values and not only teach “how it has been done” across a variety of disciplines, but also remain integral to its iterative nature by placing the learner at the center—to hand over its cyclic process to relentless learner-testing, questioning, and reflection by new generations of learners?  Instead of arguing for the steps one would take to prototype, I approach its teaching more akin to how prototyping is practiced in real-world scenarios. With learners, we open up the toolbox that many companies in the digital media industry rely on when they prototype applications. We test these tools, take what works and throw away what doesn’t. We make it better…then…do it again.

The art of teaching for me is similar. I embrace a prototypical design of instruction, reflect-in-action and on-action (Schon, 1983) and make modifications based on learner-feedback, documented discussions with members of the digital media industry, and colleagues I co-design the program with. The process of cyclic planning, implementing, testing, reviewing and sharing what I learn publicly, is essential if I am to consider myself an emerging scholar in the field of prototyping.

User-Centred and Learner-Centred design

Prototyping requires a lexicon of skills, tools and processes—some that I have been teaching for the past ten years and others that I have been practicing for more than twenty-five years as an improvising comedian at the piano, composer and sound designer in live spectacle and digital media productions. In my experience, which draws heavily from user-centred design, I have found that before going to digital, the embodiment of paper prototyping, physical prototyping and embodied prototyping provides learners with some valuable lessons in terms of bringing to light their assumptions of the user, the intended scope of their project, and clarity of the features they wish to co-construct. A rigorous rapid prototyping process challenges learners to articulate why they have made specific design decisions and refine what has informed the interactions that they aspire to design.

Innovative methods of teaching prototyping

Since many prototypes are dependent on small collaborative teams with an inherent need for agility and adaptability, I have facilitated specific exercises drawn from improvised disciplines like improvised theatre, music, dance and physical theatre. The benefits afford learners the ability to exercise and develop improv abilities based on the improvement of specific competencies organized in four broad categories, including how teams innovate, collaborate, design and manage.

In terms of supporting how learners manage production pipelines, I have relied on teaching agility and facilitating Agile project management processes and tools since these support the cyclic and adaptable nature of prototyping leading to product design. Understanding Scrum, a Scrum board, user stories, features, tasks and dependencies are all supportive of the product ‘pipeline’ that prototyping demands in various industries including mobile app development, mobile games, animation, software development, hardware/software integration, VFX, and web development.

User testing scholarship

It is applied research in the area of rapid prototyping that compels me to investigate the process itself in situ. For me, teaching rapid prototyping and its research are intertwined. Inquiry is built into the rapid prototyping process manifesting in the idea of documented retrospectives—team-based reflection and documentation on the process itself in order to improve upon it in subsequent cycles. While I have relied on the methodology of the Case Study for the past eight years in order to investigate digital prototyping within project-based learning environments, I have most recently drawn from Action Research. This is mainly due to Action Research’s support of a community of practitioners (academic and industry) that at its core embraces a ‘flat’ and transparent team-based cyclic process of product development.

To support my teaching, I draw from the varied fields of digital prototyping, UX, user-interface design, game development, persistently adopting user-centred design approaches to inform learner-centred design practices.

Conclusions

I believe that one of the core values of teaching is ‘transformation through reflection’. Reflexivity is a core value that I teach as part of any prototyping process, and it is integrated into my own teaching process. Through thematic analysis of interviews conducted with members of the digital media industry (games, vfx, animation) in Vancouver (2015), the demand for self-regulating team members has emerged as a ‘must-have’ competency that learners need to be encouraged to develop if they want to transition as central participants into that community of practice.

While the tools of the digital prototyper will always shift and evolve—tools like Powerpoint, Keynote, Flash, Unity 3D, Axure, Balsamiq, Prototpying on Paper, and more recently Principle, Blippar and Aurasma (AR)—the reflexive process of digital prototpying grounded in ‘analog’ forms will afford learners greater learning opportunities. Through persistent and guided reflection, learners may better understand what constitutes a prototype, how they can solve problems and innovate through prototypical creation, and that prototypes are scalable—that each version of a prototype informs the next and provides a user a direct experience of the product at different levels of completion and emphasizing different minimal core features.

The state of digital prototyping is an exciting one and offers intersecting opportunities for teaching, research and scalable product design. Hybrid physical and digital prototypes using RFID and NFC with mobile devices, arduino multi-player PC games, L.E.D’s triggered by arduino sensitized spring joysticks, hybrid VR/MR experiences merged with live actors, living sculptures combined with wearable tech and augmented reality installations in public parks, all foretell a future of interaction design that envisions deeper integration and new experiences that are fundamentally changing how we live, engage socially and design our play.

As an educator and practitioner in the field of interaction design both live and digital, I am constantly invigorated when I facilitate teaching and learning environments that empower learners to contribute to the field through prototyping. New product/project development is what inspires me, what motivates me to learn, to improve my own craft of teaching and share my understanding of the prototyping process so that learners can in turn not only develop their own innovative ideas and co-creations, but embrace the iterative and fearless values of prototyping. And when they transition into various communities of practice, they too can inspire new ways of thinking, new ways of approaching prototypes that may one day produce innovative solutions to some of the problems and challenges in our culture(s) that have yet to be solved.