Bridging the Imaginative Gap in research with prototypes


As Design Researchers it's our job to find out what users want and need from a product, and also to evaluate what they think about a new concept. There are many ways to do this but one of the biggest challenges can be simply communicating this new idea in a way that is relatable and meaningful to a brand new set of eyes and ears.

Representing Experiences

Last Wednesday, the MRS (Market Research Society) and the Experience Design Consultancy ‘CX Partners’ teamed up for an evening exploring the best way to represent experiences and why it's so integral to what we do.

The theme of the evening's hour long talk centered around the concepts of imagination, communication and storytelling. Ultimately, it was looking at better ways to communicate new ideas for a product or concept that doesn't exist yet by bridging the 'imaginative gap'. What better way to build a bridge than to build a physical object - a prototype.


From a usability perspective giving people something they can interact with helps us understand the disconnect between what people say or think and what they actually do. It gives us a starting point, something to discuss and develop. Problems will naturally arise during interaction and will be brought to the forefront instead of hiding in the shadows of verbal communication. When this happens it is second nature to speculate on better ways of doing things.

Why doesn't it work like this instead?

I expected it to do this, not that!

These ‘better ways’ might not suit everyone; they might just be different ways that could also be inappropriate or unfeasible. Nevertheless, it's unlikely all those points would have been uncovered or communicated back to the product stakeholders just by talking about an idea.


Back at the event, our host presented his guests with a small challenge. Seated around the room on small tables in groups of about six we were asked to consider what a chair would look like if humans’ knees bent backwards. First of all, take a minute to get your head around how that might work.

The level of difficulty was determined by the tools available to the team members. The six tables were equipped with a slightly different prototyping set. Luckily I'd sat on a table with the full prototyping set - pens, paper and a colourful collection of pipe cleaners. Others only had pens and paper and a few had to rely on verbal communication alone. After a short ideation session it quickly became clear that those of us who'd been able to create pipe cleaner stick men, and their associated chairs, were able to visualise the issue with a good degree of clarity. With words alone, some groups remained stuck in their own heads, trying to put together an unlikely picture of themselves with knees that bent backwards! Communicating this broken image from their heads to the rest of the group proved to be the largest challenge of all.

In my group, thanks to our pipe cleaners we'd been able to mock up a person and seat them in a chair designed to fit their unusual shape. Although we'd hardly found a beautiful or elegant solution, we had found a solution that appeared to work and provide some comfort to our little pipe cleaner man. This is not something all of the groups had been able to do through words alone.

This is a great example of how prototyping and creating something tangible, can increase the validity of design research; helping people make that imaginative leap. Seeing really is believing but also it's a solid foundation for understanding. Not only that, but playing with possible solutions helps designers, consumers and any stakeholders in the project understand the problem, what it really is and not what it is perceived to be.

One idea that stood out to me in particular, having always been something of a perfectionist, was the idea of a prototype that is cheap to make is cheap to get rid of. Making a low fidelity prototype might seem counterintuitive in ways, but actually people aren't so afraid to criticise something that clearly isn't perfect yet. The more finished and polished a prototype looks the harder it can be to be truthful, particularly if that truth is negative.

The sooner you get something that represents your idea into the hands of potential users the sooner you can begin iterating and improving the concept. This concept, prototype, iterate cycle helps take out as much of the risk as possible early on in the design process. If users see no need or value in your idea, isn't it better to find that out three months in rather than three years in?

Iterative Design and Prototyping

This idea of an iterative cycle of work based on user feedback is exactly what User Centered Designers pride themselves in doing. At Kinneir Dufort we do this together, as a team. Researchers (like me) talk to users to understand what they think and how they behave. We pass this information onto our Design, Engineering and Prototyping teams who work together to create the next iteration. The cycle continues as we take their refined concept back out into the field. This integrated approach and constant iteration is something we value hugely as the best way to lead a project to success. Creating something for it's users, with their help, right from the start.

Hannah Sage, Researcher at Kinneir Dufort.