Experience (Virtual) Prototyping
The use of virtual technologies to support experience-driven design process

Year: 2016
Author: Camere, Serena
Supervisor: Bordegoni, Monica
Institution: Politecnico di Milano


During the last decades, the design world has changed consistently, becoming less and less concerned with aesthetics and styling; we design less chairs, more technology and definitely more services and practices. Design is expanding its scope and application to answer the needs of our current society (Manzini 2015), which asks for powerful instruments, as design thinking can be, to analyse and interpret the future. After all, to design is to imagine and to create a future world, one artefact at a time. The reason why design may cover this important role is that its thinking modality, compared to others, is useful when dealing with complexity and uncertainty. These two terms efficiently synthetize traits of our contemporaneity, such as high distances, continuous flow of information, eradicated living, access to knowledge everywhere, every moment, hyper expansion of possibilities, technological revolutions every 18 months, creation of new synthetic materials everyday, systemic crisis, limitless production in a world of finite resources, and so on (Thackara 2005; Manzini 1989). To design today, for our next future, means first of all the responsibility to seek a meaning in what we create, materialising an understanding of our present world. Interestingly, this is no different from one of the lessons learned from Italian Great Masters, already in mid XXth century. Even if the result of their design activities were still ‘conventional’ products, chairs, kettles and so on, their claimed intention was the ‘quest for a meaning’, i.e. the establishment of a discussion over the constructed world. In other words, “they were dissatisfied by the world they saw, and for this reason, they kept imagining a new one”, by one artefact at a time (Sottsass 2010).
Today, the design profession has changed so radically that it is challenging to define the object of our practices. ‘Designers of what?’, someone may ask. Although there is an evident difference in the expertise needed to design a square or a bookshelf, the underlying approach is not so dissimilar. To design is first of all to undertake a thinking modality that aims at creating a value for people: the object, the ‘what’ of the design activity is a mean to aspire to that value. As Dorst (2011) efficiently pointed out, the core of design thinking lies in its ability to frame a problem, a situation, in which all the variables are ill-defined. Its way to produce results is a form of abduction, while other modalities, as induction and deduction, fall short in answering problems with no clear boundaries. By no coincidence, Dorst applies his theoretical framework in the context of social innovation and service design, in which the outcome is not a tangible product, but ‘a change in an existing situation into a preferred one’ (Simon 1969). This brief introduction over the multifaceted nature of design practice and the constructed world is necessary to explain why Experience Design has become a central topic in design research. In related literature, it is common to read either marketing-oriented or ethics-oriented rationales. The marketing-oriented perspective seeks the potential of Experience Design to create more appealing, successful products, capable of attracting consumers’ preferences over competitors’. The ethics-oriented outlook sees instead Experience Design as a way to create meaningful products, which will enrich user experiences and ultimately improve users’ lives. Both of them are valuable concerns, but we see them more as consequences than true rationales. The real motivation for the great investment from many scholars is the demystification of the notion of Experience itself. This will create knowledge on human-product interactions and as a consequence, the construction of meanings and values to aspire to. The majority of resources on the topic deal with methodologies and methods to define these values. Nevertheless, it emerges the necessity of designers to understand what to create, and how to do it, to achieve the intended user experience. Designers sketch, create mindmaps, conduct user studies, build mock-ups, setup bodystorming sessions, involve users, etc. This way of thing-ing, i.e. to think and act simultaneously, is a distinguishing trait of design practice. In this thesis, we refer to this way of raising design questions and find answers as Prototyping. Specifically, we argue about the conventional definition of prototyping as the creation of physical, ‘first-of-a-kind’ artefact, discussing it in light of current approaches to design practice. This thesis introduces an expanded definition of Prototyping, in which the focus is on problems and situations, rather than solutions. The thesis frames this definition in the context of the state of the art, presenting a model of Experience Prototyping that describes the activity in details. Furthermore, among all the possible media, it investigates the role of advanced computer technologies, such as virtual prototyping and motion capture, for Experience Prototyping. We argue that this new wave of digital devices can present several benefits for designers; however, their use has been limitedly explored for several reasons, described in the thesis. The ultimate goal of this dissertation was then to explore the scopes and possibilities of Experience (Virtual) Prototyping, developing the necessary knowledge to test virtual technologies in design practice.

Keywords: Virtual Prorotyping, Experience Prototyping, Product Design, Virtual technology

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