Sketching with Technology: Rapid Prototyping a Phone for Design Research

Design Research doesn’t exist in a vacuum; its purpose is to inspire design. By bringing a high-fidelity prototype into the field, we were able to move between Design Research and Design fluidly.

“Testing designs with paper prototypes doesn’t work. It’s too different from participants’ mental models for us to get good feedback,” IHan, a fellow design researcher at frog, told me. It was the week before we left for Malawi on a five-week frogImpact program, and she had already spent several months doing design research there. We’d been brainstorming a research plan for our program: evaluating an Interactive Voice Response system (IVR) for a free health and nutrition hotline. The conversation got me thinking, “What if we don’t use paper prototypes to test our ideas? What if we actually made a phone?”

Design research as a foreigner in developing countries is challenging in many ways. One obvious obstacle: we stick out. Arriving in villages can be a big event with the whole village showing up for an interview. As a result, design research participants try to give you the answers they think you want to hear. Compound that with language barriers and cultural nuances and talking about how participants feel about a service is much less informative than observing them using a service. This is why paper prototypes are another obstacle. With this in mind, I walked over to our frog Seattle studio maker station (where I’m based) to chat with two of our Design Technologists. Ric Ewing and Kaz Saegusa were tinkering away and I asked, “Do you guys think we can build a phone-like prototype that I can take to rural Africa this Friday?” Ric, without skipping a beat, said, “Oh yeah, I’m sure we can do something.”

Thus began 48 hours of rapid prototyping, anxious anticipation of an Adafruit delivery, 3D printing on our New Matter printer, and Kaz quickly cranking out processing code. The result was an Arduino-run keypad input device with a 3D-printed phone case and a desktop application with a JSON file to redesign the phone tree and add new audio files. After a few 3D-printing snafus — and a late night hand-off in a grocery store parking lot — the prototype phone was packed in my suitcase and on its way to Africa.

Design Research doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s purpose is to inspire design. By bringing a high-fidelity prototype into the field, we were able to fluidly move between Design Research and Design. This is particularly important in developing countries were technological literacy is lower and testing ideas can be a more effective way of getting to insights than other conversations and artifacts.

We are currently iterating on the prototype design and have used v2 in both Zambia and Ghana. Have prototyping stories to share? Let us know in the comments.

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