Issue Number Zero: Prototyping Prototyping

Prototypes in Design: Materializing Futures

The two excerpts that follow are drawn from my Ph.D. research User Assemblages in Design: An Ethnographic Study. The thesis is an examination of the role of multiple users in user-centered design (UCD) processes and is based on a six-month ethnographic field study of designers employed to apply the principles and practices of UCD as part of the research and development efforts of a multinational microprocessor manufacturer. It is written from the perspective of science and technology studies, in particular developments in actor-network theory, and draws on the notion of the assemblage from the work of Deleuze and Guattari. The central argument of this thesis is that multiple users are assembled along with the new technologies whose design they resource, as well as with new configurations of socio- cultural life that they bring into view. ‘Excerpt One’ forms part of an introduction into an empirical study of a health and fitness prototype being designed to address the increasing prevalence of obesity in North American and Western Europe. Excerpt two is drawn from the conclusion of my thesis and points to how prototyping, within user-centered and participatory design practices, can be understood as a material and formal method for managing the future.

Excerpt One

Before tackling the case in hand, I first want to sketch out the role of prototypes as socio-material devices for ordering the future in the present. There are many approaches to prototyping in design. Bødker and Grønbæk (1991: 198) provide a useful and critical summary of four applications of prototyping in design practice, including system requirements evaluation, complete system specification, exploratory artefacts and ‘cooperative prototypes’. In brief, prototypes used in system evaluation allow for adjustments to be made to system specifications. Prototypes as complete system specification provide a full and formal description of what a future system will do. Exploratory prototypes are rapidly made and disposable mock-ups that aid the clarification of system requirements. Lastly, cooperative prototypes mediate the capacity of both users and designers to formulate system requirements. This approach, closely associated with the role of prototypes in PD (e.g. Ehn, 1988; Ehn & Kyng, 1991) and CSCW (e.g Bødker & Grønbæk, 1989), challenges the conventional view that systems should be designed by expert designers. Instead, cooperative prototyping incorporates the knowledge of end-users in the design of technological systems, such as trade-union members, as discussed in chapter two. As such, prototypes act as both literary devices, where system specifications are abstractly inscribed, and as socio-material configurations that embody practices in durable artefacts (Suchman et al., 2002: 166).

Now, one particularly salient aspect of prototypes is their capacity to reify the future in the present – not least in the coding of future practices. As socio-material artefacts that are indexical to designer-user interactions, prototypes operate to durably align various interests (Suchman et al., 2002: 168). As such, prototyping can be viewed as the local and material enactment of a future system design in the present, wherein users are mobilized in the design process as either active and ‘creative’ actors or passive instruments for system evaluation (Grønbæk, 1990: 8).[1] Accordingly, prototypes function as performative artefacts (Danholt, 2005: 1) with which designers materially envision and construct the future in the present, which in turn works to bring about a future. That is to say, prototypes entail the management of substantive representations of the future in the present (cf. Michael, 2000: 22), where visions of the future determine the present and where the future is determined in the present.

According to Ehn (1988, pp. 128-129) and Mogensen (1992: 1), the central dilemma of prototyping concerns the choice between two alternative prospects: to support existing practices or to bring into being entirely new practices. Ehn characterises this as the dialectical opposition between tradition and transcendence. As a future-making practice, viewed alongside other methods of managing and coordinating uncertainty such as Foresight, risk analysis and DELPHI (De Laat, 2000), prototyping can be understood to provide its own methodological vectors into the future. On this score, Floyd et al. (1984) describe the practice of prototyping as a ‘learning vehicle’ in which the specifications of a future system are determined in the present through progressive steps extrapolating the present into the future. Thus prototypes operate as heuristic artefacts that allow designers to explore socio-material alignments between future users and technology (‘paths’). Bødker (1998: 112), drawing on Norman’s (1991) application of the notion of affordance in design, argues that prototypes delineate development along a single temporal path whilst resisting others. In other words, prototypes afford particular temporal directions; however, ‘breakdowns’ brought about by alternative prototypes and representations of a system can force a change in direction. Danholt (2005) elaborates on these interpretations of the prototype – as heuristic, path determining and progressive – by describing how users and technology are co-constituted during the prototyping of a ‘diet diary’. Here, novel diabetic subjectivities, bodies and healthcare technologies are performed through what Danholt (2005: 6), drawing on Stengers’ (2000: 148) view of scientific knowledge, refers to as ‘vectors of becoming’.

To my mind, the notion of vector provides a useful way to understand the temporalities of prototypes and the patternings of technological change, especially in relation to the concept of the assemblage. A common metaphor to describe the temporality of technical objects in STS is the notion of technological trajectory. As Mackenzie points out, the notion of technological trajectory makes it possible to extrapolate growth and development into the future. Although the notion of trajectory does have appropriate connotations, for example the ‘social’ patterning of technological change through which a technology is constructed, such as the pre-programmed accuracy of a ballistic missile (MacKenzie, 1990: 168), like Mackenzie, however, I also find the notion of technological trajectory misleading. It suggests a mechanical understanding of technological change: one that evokes Newtonian physics and laws of motion. It also suggests, as Mackenzie points out, that change is ‘natural’ and self-sustaining. In short, it provides an explanation of change that is determined by either natural laws or social conditions. Rather than letting these associations interfere with my analysis, I use a different word that doesn’t carry the baggage of a natural or social trajectory. The term vector is useful here, and it is possible to say that in design practice, efforts and resources coalesce around a vector occasioning a patterning of technological changes, which in turn contribute to the vector or necessitate a change in direction. Moreover, vector also suggests dynamic multiplicity and directionality without reduction to a single spatio-temporal logic. For the case in hand, this is important as it allows me to speak about the manifold interests and directions that a prototype can resource, not just efforts to address the increasing prevalence of obesity in global populations. Whereas trajectory speaks of a singular development and change, vectors speak about multilinear ensembles that can follow different directions that can be broken, subject to change and drift.[2] Lastly, mathematics speaks of vector-objects, which points to objects that are in continual processes of becoming that cannot be abstracted from their spatio-temporal circumstances.

Against this reading of prototyping as a socio-material technique for performing the future in the present, I examine the local enactment of the DEP as the making of multiple futures. In what follows, I examine the diversity of technologies, users and practices through which a prototype is occasioned. Invoking Ong and Collier (2005: 12), I present the case in hand as ‘the product of multiple determinations that are not reducible to one single logic’. This includes the emergent temporalities of the prototype and prompts me to consider the different sociotechnical arrangements formatted in and by the prototype. That is to say, how the prototype engenders much more than a single vector into the future. My analysis therefore attends to the multiplicity of the prototype mediated by putative users, anticipated contexts of use, the prospective provision of healthcare, and research agendas in HCI, particularly ubicomp; as well as individual career paths. Finally, my attention to the DEP as a distributed and somewhat loose configuration of users, technology and discourse that is locally enacted does not rely on the explanatory power of cohesion, consistency and order. In what follows, I demonstrate how the DEP accommodates interpretation as both an artefact patterning multiple interests, resources and future visions, as well as a material-semiotic entanglement that works by virtue of being provisional, flexible and open to change.

Excerpt Two

Frequently allied to the enactment of users in the design process is the practice of prototyping and vice versa. Accordingly, this thesis is littered with accounts of actual technologies in the making, where I have argued that prototyping is a material and semiotic form of experimentation, and where competencies and expectations are assembled in the present. To my mind this evokes Garfinkel’s (1967: 57) breaching experiments in which the background assumptions of people engaged in everyday situations, especially in relation to conversational processes, were subject to breakdown and disturbance. For Garfinkel, breaching was a means to explore the fragility and maintenance of situated social order by bringing about disorder through ‘deliberately modifying scenic events’ (ibid.). Though, on occasion, prototypes also purposely breach situated social order, they act in a very different manner, not least through intervention in material, as well as semiotic in-situ processes. For Garfinkel, breaching acted to break down social order and disappoint people’s normative expectations, which inevitably required some form of repair. Prototypes, on the other hand act to reconfigure social order in a constructive manner. They break open, rather than break down. They enthuse rather than disappoint. They enrol, mobilize and conscript heterogeneous allies as a means to strengthen the expectations they embody, and support the competencies they promote, rather than antagonize their users. Prototypes thus redefine expectations with concrete prospects of future relations in the present that require construction, not re-construction to pre-existing norms or relations.[3] In this way, user assemblages, entangled with prototypes, act as socio-material scripts for the future (cf. De Laat, 2000) – artefacts which in practice embody explicit technological promises and future trajectories. However, contrary to de Laat’s assertion (ibid.: 200) that futurology is concerned with ‘macro-evolutions’, my study of UCD (viewed as a set of techniques for managing the future) demonstrates how users traverse macro and micro scales – across populations’ and individuals’ situated practices, for example. In the following section, I will expand on how users criss-cross and blur these conventional sociological registers.

Works Cited

Asaro, P. M. (1999). Transforming Society by Transforming Technology: The Science and Politics of Participatory Design, Critical Management Studies Conference. Manchester School of Management.

Bodker, S. (1998). ‘Understanding Representation in Design’, Human-Computer Interaction.

Bødker, S., & Grønbæk, K. (1989). “Cooperative Prototyping Experiments – Users and Designers Envision a Dentist Case Record System,” In J. Bowers & S. Benford (Eds.), First European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, EC-CSCW (pp. 343-357). London.

Bødker, S., & Grønbæk, K. (1991). ‘Design in Action: From Prototyping by Demostration to Cooperative Prototyping’ in J. M. Greenbaum & M. Kyng (eds), Design at Work : Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Danholt, P. (2005). Prototypes as Performative. Aarhus, Denmark: ACM Press.

De Laat, B. (2000). ‘Scripts for the Future: Using Innovation Studies to Design Foresight Tools’, pp. 175-208 in N. Brown, B. Rappert & A. Webster (eds), Contested Futures: A Sociology of Prospective Techno-Science. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Deleuze, G. (1992). ‘What Is a Dispositif?’, pp. 159-168 in T. J. Armstrong (ed), Michel Foucault Philosopher: Essays Translated from the French and German. New York: London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Ehn, P. (1988). Work-Oriented Design of Computer Artifacts. Stockholm: Arbetslivscentrum.

Ehn, P., & Kyng, M. (1991). ‘Cardboard Computers: Mocking It up or Hands on the Future’ in J. M. Greenbaum & M. Kyng (eds), Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Floyd, C. (1984). ‘A Systematic View of Prototyping’, pp. xi, 458 p. in R. Budde, K. Kuhlenkamp & L. Mathiassen (eds), Approaches to Prototyping. Berlin ; New York: Springer Verlag.

Grønbæk, K. (1990). ‘Supporting Active User Involvement in Prototyping’, Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 2, 3-24.

MacKenzie, D. A. (1990). Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press.

Michael, M. (2000). ‘Futures of the Present: From Performativity to Prehension’, pp. 21-39 in N. Brown, B. Rappert & A. Webster (eds), Contested Futures: A Sociology of Prospective Techno-Science. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Mogensen, P. (1992). ‘Towards a Provotyping Approach in Systems Development’, Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 4, 31-53.

Norman, D. (1991). ‘Cognitive Artifacts’, pp. 17-38 in J. M. Carrol (ed), Designing Interaction: Psychology as the Human-Computer Interface. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ong, A., & Collier, S. J. (2005). Global Assemblages : Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Spinuzzi, C. (2002). “A Scandinavian Challenge, a Us Response: Methodological Assumptions in Scandinavian and Us Prototyping Approaches,” 20th annual international conference on Computer documentation. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: ACM Press.

Stengers, I. (2000). The Invention of Modern Science. Minneapolis ; London: University of Minnesota Press.

Suchman, L., Trigg, R., & Blomberg, J. (2002). ‘Working Artefacts: Ethnomethods of the Prototype’, British Journal of Sociology, 53(2), 163-179.


[1] See (Asaro, 1999; Spinuzzi, 2002) for accounts of various prototyping traditions (e.g. JAD and PD) informing UCD practices, as discussed in chapter two.
[2] I am paraphrasing Deleuze’s (1992: 159) description of Foucault’s notion of a dispositif. Deleuze (ibid.: 162) argues that dispositifs “are composed of the following elements: lines of visibility and enunciation, lines of force, lines of subjectification, lines of splitting, breakage, fracture, all of which criss-cross and mingle together, some lines reproducing or giving rise to others, by means of variations or even changes to the way they are grouped.” Thus, the notion of lines, or vectors, can incorporate various logics, movements and interactions, which might include trajectories for that matter.
[3] See (Mann et al., 2003; Crabtree, 2004) for alternative accounts, also drawing on ethnomethodology, of prototype technologies as experimental breaching devices.