Sometimes the User is Non-Human

When solving complex problems in novel ways a crucial factor is the ability to foresee unknown circumstances important for the problem and the realization of the final solution. With the increasing focus on human-centered design I often feel a lack of focus on more technical or mechanical related details related to unknown unknowns. Therefore it is one of my deep passions spread the word that prototypes build in the early stages of the development process should be focused on much more than only the users. Sometimes the most relevant users are non-human.

Rapid Prototyping Workshop at Technoport

This was the message of the workshop I hosted at Technoport (a huge yearly Tech-Conference in Trondheim). In order to give the participants a case to work around I introduced the familiar case of: “A friend is calling you telling that he lost his key down in the sewer. He can still see it, but wants you to built a device that can help him get it up!”

The Key Challenge

Prototyping Solutions and circumstances at the same time.
Prototyping Solutions and circumstances at the same time.

Limiting the Details about the Challenge

In the beginning the details around the challenge was very few and initially the participants in groups had to come up with ideas and assumptions around the challenge. This is normally how one would attack a certain problem. Soon they came to realize that they did not know that much about how every thing would work in real-life and I encourage them tom prototype not only the picking-up device but also the sewer where the key was hidden. To understand a product it is as important to understand the context in which it has to perform.


Non-human actors

To illustrate that unknown unknowns often also has to do with mechanics of physical properties of the surroundings I made an interview with both the key and the sewer instead of just providing the participants with technical properties of the key and the sewer as size, length, magnetic or not etc.


In the end the real dimensions of the sewer was introduced by to cardboard pipes taped together presenting a length of 4 m. We needed to use a latter to test their solutions.

And did the participants manage to get the small non-magnetic key up? Well not all of them, but everybody built a least three prototypes of ideas and solutions to explore hypotheses connected with magnetism, weight, darkness etc. This was really the main goal of the workshop.

Testing the final solutions
Testing the final solutions