In the last issue of ACM Interactions, there is an intriguing article about prototyping with junk by Nancy Frishberg. The idea is to go beyond paper by using the materials of kindergarten to the world of design. This can be used to achive four goals: encourages communication both within a team, gives a product concept or workflow a physical instantiation, quickly visualizes proposed solutions with little investment of time or money and promotes fun at work (this would please people from imagination lab).
What Is Junk?
Materials collected from the recycling bin are great additions to those found at school supply shops, the dollar store, and sale tables of your favorite craft counter. Picnic supplies, such as paper plates, as well as cafeteria (or fast food) cardboard trays work well as a base or frame for other structures. Pipecleaners, packing materials, coffee stirrers, toothpicks, wooden ice cream sticks, wire hangers, egg cartons, and the usual selection of old magazines or gently used gift-wrapping paper and ribbons also make great prototyping materials. We supply inexpensive plastic toys, party supplies, twist-ties, modeling clay, candy past its expiration date, and beads, as well as various sorts of cutting implements, glue, and tape. Paper, pens, and crayons are invited as well
The only drawback the author mentions is:
"One downside of prototyping with junk is that its benefits accrue to physically present participants. We've attempted to include people remotely by audio or even video conference, but so far have found it difficult to integrate the local and remote.
The overt, externalized results appear as these representations made of otherwise useless materials. The covert, intangible results include lasting communication within an ephemeral or stable work group."
Why do I blog this? even though we often use this kind of technique during our workshop, I am sometimes dubious of the outcome of such activities. Some others have pointed on the drawbacks of prototyping: it can't emulate complex interactions, it can't find complex issues or it can't simulate “real” interaction with a live system. But perhaps the point in prototyping sometime is not to create something altogether but rather to tighten team relationship, make colleagues/partners aware of specific phenomenon and for instance, for R&D/foresight people to translate ideas, concepts and content to marketing or people more in the production process. And this is already a huge achievement (given certain types of organization for which ideas are difficult to transfer to support innonovation). And then that's why we still do that :)
Anyway, the whole issue of the journal about this topic and there are worthwile paper about good examples!