Teaching Video Prototyping at CIID

Posted February 17, 2016

I’ve just wrapped up a couple weeks of co-teaching the Video Prototyping course at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design — where I was until very recently a student in last year’s edition of the graduate Interaction Design Program. It was a fantastic experience to be back (I hardly left, truthfully) and working with the infectiously enthusiastic, and unquestionably highly talented class of 2016, as well as two utterly marvelous partners in educational thought-crime, Adam Little and Gizem Boyacioglu. I’m really pleased with how the course went, though a bit sad it’s over, so I thought I’d share some thoughts and reflections on what we got up to.

The Course in a Nutshell

Over the two weeks, the class of twenty-three students dived deep into the process of rapidly generating ideas and creating video-based experience prototypes of them. Some of the students have had prior exposure to design methods, some have had experience shooting and/or editing video, but for almost all of them the marriage of the two was new territory. We worked with them to facilitate making a handful of different “video prototypes”, at varying levels of fidelity, and I was brought in specifically to work with them on tools and techniques for audio production.

What is Video Prototyping?

“To adequately take the social and physical context into account in pursuing a design, we must experience some manifestation of it in those contexts (the wild) while still in the design cycle — the earlier the better.

— Bill Buxton, Sketching User Experiences

The concept of prototyping may not be a novel term to many people in design circles, but it’s worth reviewing the methodology behind it, before delving into video prototypes, in particular. We make prototypes to test the feasibility and desirability of our ideas, and we make them in such a way and at such a time in the design process so as to get the most relevant feedback for that stage of the process — we aren’t interested in the colour of the carpet when we’re still trying to decide on where to build the house. And, vice-versa, if we are in the midst of choosing knobs for the cabinetry, it’s probably a bit late to be raising questions about the construction of the foundation.

This is a vitally important principle for designers to understand and practice, as we are often tasked with performing magical tasks like creating a product or a service based on treacherous notions like someone else’s gut feeling or tastes (usually a senior stakeholder) or the even more duplicitous “best practices”. The imperative and temptation to skip steps in the design process — for all the wrong reasons — can be strong! Chris Downs, who taught our Service Design class in the 2015 program, took pains to often drive home the need to always “be in control of your process”. It’s worth noting that he was insisting on this in the midst of a speculative and critical design exercise that had our various groups advancing concepts like subscription-based citizenship, mandatory quantified nationalism scores, and McDonald’s food trays as inspiration for “serving” newcomers to Denmark. It was wild and wooly, and Chris was keen that we learn that what would allow it to all hang together, to go somewhere, and to fundamentally distinguish it as “design” vs. fancy, was that we 1) knew what actions we were taking at each step, and 2) we knew the purpose and rationale for each action.

So, the act of prototyping is very much married to this idea of being in control, or at least of managing control — after all if you knew exactly where to steer the ship, you wouldn’t need the prototype. It’s shaping the space of questioning so that the right sorts of answers get in, and you have to decide what sorts of answers you’re looking for before you can phrase good questions.

Probes and Intentionally Unintended Consequences

A prototype is a kind of probe. And as anyone who’s watched any sci-fi can tell you, you never know what sorts of surprises will hitch a ride with a deep space probe on its return journey. And that gets to the heart of Bill Buxton’s quote — As designers, we need to get out/in there and experience the reality of the thing we are proposing introducing to the world, because our ability to predict and forecast what will actually happen is remarkably limited and overinflated.

^^^ spoiler alert!

And since the prospect of testing things in 1:1 reality is most likely unfeasible, we need to exercise the dark arts of performing reality and experiencing slices of it. This is where the experience/video prototype comes in. I think all video prototypes are a form of experience prototype, but of course experience prototypes can be varied in medium and format — Bodystorming being an analog example. Perhaps the most obvious selling point of video is that it gives anyone with an internet connection a historically unparalleled reach for dissemination of sensorially dense little idea-nuggets and thought-bombs. Adam opined during the course that Superflux’s “Sketch-a-Move” video is perhaps the most celebrated video prototype ever amongst interaction designers — and as quite the fan myself, I brooked no objection.

But what is perhaps less obvious about a video prototype is that it gives the people involved in its creation — the designers — an opportunity for immersion into at least some components of the “social and physical context” Buxton refers to. In this there is a certain surrender to the blind gods and goddesses of chance and emergent behaviours — You can ideate and sketch and hack things together in the lab as long as you want, but ultimately it’s not designing until you let it out into the world to breathe and start caroming off of unexpected unseen surfaces. You want it to surprise you, you need it to surprise you and to break and to be able to learn from how it breaks — or what else it breaks. And then you iterate.

Things Teaching Taught Me

Control Your Frame

Having so recently been in the shoes of the IDP 2016 students, I found the class not only a ton of fun, but also an invaluable opportunity to continue processing what I had just gone through myself. The pedagogical learnings were valuable, too, but I think the learning that cut through for me most clearly was how important it was to be in control of your process in how you framed the purpose and audience of your prototype, at every step. If you know what you are about with regards to these variables, you have a foil against which to answer questions about what you put in vs what you leave out, of the level of fidelity that is appropriate, and a myriad other questions which might seem completely open if you approached it just as a creative exercise, but not as a prototype.

The IDP 2016 students faced the unenviable challenge of trying to learn and apply these principles in the context of also trying to learn video production techniques, tools, and software. It was not hard to bring these separate agendas into conflict with each other — a video prototyping project might seem to offer a group a perfect opportunity to experiment with a technique like green screens or motion tracking in After Effects, but is that level of time commitment and resulting fidelity appropriate to the project itself? Though such impasses loomed large for the current students at this stage of the year, we could assure them that no matter what they chose to do they could not fail but to learn valuable lessons about their own process. However, I recognized resonances of that juggling act in my own professional experience, and it was a good opportunity to reflect on how often people in the field feel pressure to make choices of process based on drivers like keeping skills current — consider any page of the ongoing “should designers code” debate for a salient example.

Tough Love

The importance of getting your ideas out the door early and into the mean streets of reality, before they seem “ready” also came through loud and clear to me. Particularly when you’re in a generative phase of the design process, the last thing you need to be doing is toughening up your concepts so that they are impervious to feedback. There’s a necessity of severing your ego from things and allowing your ideas to be tortured and perhaps die horrible deaths in front of your eyes — if they require too much coddling, they’re not the right ideas! As I frequently nudged the students to put down their sticky notes, and just get out the door to start shooting and get a feel for their ideas in the wild, I couldn’t help but chuckle at my own hypocrisy, knowing that I was fully capable of dragging out this stage of the process at length myself. Having this perspective through teaching was a humbling insight, and one I was very grateful to have!

Prototypes Raise Questions

As with any tool, the only real value is in how you use it, and this course was an excellent reminder of the power of prototypes to incite questions, as opposed to answering them. There is value in being able to say to someone that your authority to answer a question about a design is bolstered by the prototyping results, but there is perhaps greater value in using a prototype to bring someone into the process — say a stakeholder or decision maker — and engage them in such a provocative but structured way. A good prototype should flush questions out of the bush, to guide your next steps, not just tick off boxes.

Prototyping is Fun

I may have already mentioned this a few times, but we had fun. And I think that’s a really valid thing to take away. There’s so much to be joyful about in this process, and even when the topics are more serious than the rather fabricated challenges we threw down for the class to train their cameras and storyboards on — like the customer experience of a municipal teleportation agency, or a service to keep people’s mobiles charged 24-7 — it can feel liberating to just take a piece of the puzzle out into the world to see how it works — or falls apart gloriously. Being especially precious about our ideas does no one any favours. On that note, I’ll end with this absolutely gonzo-awesome showreel that Gizem compiled of the students’ mid-course work on the aforementioned teleportation challenge. You won’t appreciate much of the narratives in any detail, but you can get an immediate sense of the range of approaches and contexts that they explored, and the energy they brought to the work.

Rapid video prototyping exercise in CIID IDP Master class with Adam Little, Gizem Boyacioglu and Michael Owen Liston