“Sketching” the next big thing

An article on Core77 mentions how sketching in hardware allows designers to focus on “exploring variations of experiences” rather than “reassembling the building blocks”. While this way of working has enabled the lean, explorative and customer-focused approach to software development, it is starting to spread into the design and production of hardware as well.

Focusing on the experience

In a design school they’ll teach you to prototype early and often. By “sketching” and initially not focusing on the details of the technology, you can shorten your time to prototype and jump ahead to focus on crafting the end experience as soon as possible.

You can even do this with little or no actual technology. In the human-computer interaction field there’s Wizard-of-Oz prototyping, in which technology effects are simulated with a human “behind the curtain” controlling the experience. Wireframing lets you mockup interfaces or interactions without writing any code, and even from paper sketches. Jeff Hawkins, on inventing the Palm Pilot, carried a wooden block around with him, pretending to check his mail throughout the day, and in doing so was learning if and how someone would use such a device.

The Airbnb founders were crafting their experience by being on the ground acting as their customers would. Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn was learning if and how people would buy shoes online, by taking photos of shoes in a store, posting them on a website, and upon purchase, manually buying and delivering them to his customers.

The premise of customer development and the lean startup approach is that startups rarely fail due to lack of engineering execution – it’s not whether they can build their product, but whether they are building the right thing – something that addresses a need and customers will pay money for. Similar to the design-school approach, the message rings clear: Build a minimum viable product to get you to the point where you can launch and start learning from real situations.

Building on top of platforms

In software, the open source movement has been making it easier and faster to piece together a complete experience. Frameworks, libraries, packages, gem’s, API’s – all make it easier to tap into existing platforms to build new things. The existence of platforms have been a precursor to innovation throughout history -Tim Berners-Lee was able to build the world wide web by building on top of a lot of existing internet protocols. And while HDTV took 20 years and an ensemble of experts to become a reality, three guys were able to build Youtube in 6 months using existing web platforms. 

The hardware revolution

The exciting thing is we’re now seeing a rise in hardware development platforms. The revolution that reduced the cost and difficulty of putting a software product in front of a large audience, is starting to happen in hardware. 3D printing gives you the quick and dirty prototypes. Open source hardware (think Arduino shields) let you plug in the functionality, intelligence and interactivity you require with minimal development time or costs. And the Kickstarter model lets you simultaneously get market validation and upfront payment – offsetting the high production costs that made investment in hardware startups so scary.

There are still some growing pains but I think the building blocks are in place, and it’s an exciting path ahead.

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