Same again?

Getting the design of a new product right before it reaches the market is essential, but over-reliance on consumer testing can often lead to ‘me too’ results. Scott Billings looks at differing approaches to the use of prototyping in research

It’s hard to imagine just how many tests, adjustments, tweaks and overhauls consumer electronics might undergo before they end up in our hands and homes. Every button, function and finish will be considered and reconsidered, just as shape, size and form may go through numerous iterations. Mass-produced consumer products in particular are objects of huge investment and getting it right before the factory line rolls is imperative. In fact, research and development stages are arguably more critical to a product’s success than the persuasive marketing and advertising that will follow: if people don’t like it, or don’t like using it, they ain’t gonna buy it.

Part and parcel of this process is prototyping. From rough, colourless scale models through to facsimiles of the final article, prototypes aid designers, clients and consumers in ensuring everything is on track. Mark Delaney, director of design at Nokia’s mass-market division Connect, says that prototyping is ‘absolutely core’ to the way that the company’s phone handsets are developed. ‘Designs come out of your head and on to the sketch sheet, move rapidly to CAD – which is “real” and responds to the internal components you’re working with – and then straight after that we’re looking at a wax model in 3D. Literally from day one, models will be appearing,’ he says.

Prototypes for Nokia’s recent 6303 handset, for example, include an initial and basic form proposal 3D ‘print’, moving on to an aluminium
model that demonstrates the weight and material feel of the product. ‘Grey’ models then experiment with visual details and proportional differences created by the arrangement of internal components and finally a full appearance model is produced as part of a larger colour and materials study.

Similarly, when motion-capture hardware company Vicon wanted to refresh its image in the professional marketplace, design consultancy PDD used prototypes to develop a cleaner minimal aesthetic for its T-Series cameras. ‘They wanted to rebrand the products alongside the company and the visual aspects of the cameras were part of this,’ says PDD senior design consultant Oliver Stokes. Initial foam prototypes showed the camera’s form and scale, while sprayed foam models explored split-lines and colours.

As well as helping designers to judge things like scale, form and tolerances, prototypes are also regularly used in consumer testing, as LG Electronics head of design Europe Luke Miles explains. ‘Initiating dialogue with consumers is a useful way to gain feedback on general concepts and enables designers to make adjustments in the early stages,’ he says. ‘Initial “white” models can be printed with an extremely quick turnaround and are used to help analyse proportion and ergonomics, while milled models at the second stage [provide] more detail, specifically the build culture and its effect on the prototype’s external appearance. These models are often tested with consumers to get a clearer analysis on form, colour and materiality.’

There are many different ways to produce a prototype model, so it is crucial that the right approach is chosen, says Mark Hester, senior consultant in design development at PDD. ‘It’s very important to tie in research with design and prototyping, so we work with our research department to find out what kinds of prototype are best for different situations. For example, if you’re consumer-validating the finish of a material, it can be distracting if the form and size are not quite right. In consumer electronics especially, the limitations of a prototype or model shouldn’t be allowed to affect the outcome of research,’ he says.

According to Stokes, using prototypes to test ideas with consumers can increase the chances of market success and cut costs by weeding out poor designs at the early stages. However, consumer electronics design is often concerned with breaking new territory, and innovation through novel forms, materials and interfaces is something we’ve come to expect. Yet consumer testing is not known for generating mould-breaking ideas; quite the contrary. What, then, is the danger of death by focus group?

‘With new products and features you can often get quite negative responses from testers, simply because they are new,’ says Delaney. ‘We really have to unpick why people are saying “no” to something in prototype and we’ll do this in quite a lot of detail, looking at their world view, tastes, background and so on.’

If you want to shake up the market, standard consumer tests should be avoided. Patrick Hunt, director at product design group Therefore, believes that so-called ‘disruptive’ products – much sought after by consumer electronics brands – call for a new approach to consumer testing altogether. ‘Generally, our clients do much less concept testing directly with customers today than, say, five years ago. Top-tier brands have their own product vision and a desire to get new products to market quickly and it’s long been known among designers that consumer research can mean driving forward while looking in the rear view. The type of research where developers test prototypes on consumers behind a oneway mirror is declining in technology-driven products [because] paradigm-breaking products do not survive this process.’

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