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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lessons from History on Prototyping

A decade ago the discipline of UX did not exist. Not that we did not practice it, but terminology was still evolving, user centered design was in the horizon, and Donald Norman's 'The Design of Everyday Things' was becoming a hit among those of us who found themselves responsible for making software easier to use by introducing the wild concept of accounting for the users in the process.

It is true that personal computers haven't been around for long either, but as the use of computers spread worldwide, several generations of users suffer the consequences of a software with terrible user interfaces at all levels - from operating systems and up - software that was designed with little consideration for ease of use, accessibility and real productivity. This is a generalization which is unfair to those who did care about the user, the user interface and the outcome - the user experience, but the statement does apply in my opinion to the majority of software vendors.

This is not unlike the situation of physical architecture. Of the billions of private residents, public buildings and industrial structures, probably only a few ever benefited from the design of an architect. Not that the solutions were necessarily bad - in fact, many of the structures we see today evolved successfully over millennia. People build their own homes - individually or as a communal effort. Read Donald Harington's 'The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks' for a wonderful account of such evolutionary process.

In the classic text 'On the Art of Building in Ten Books', Leon Battista Alberti mentions that Julius Caesar "completely demolished a house on his estate in Nemi, because it did not totally meet with his approval." and continues to recommend "the time-honored custom, practiced by the best builders, of preparing not only drawings and sketches but also models of wood or any other material." (1).

Back in the Fifteenth century Alberti described an event that took place in the First century BC. Substitute 'building' with user interface, and the business value, best practice and positive impact on the end product are still the same. The amazing find here is the reference to a prototype, to a model, that builders and their clients used early on as means of communicating the desired end result.

Alberti writes further that "Having constructed those models, it will e possible to examine clearly and consider thoroughly relationship between the site and the surrounding district, the shape of the area, the number and order of parts of a building...It will also allow one to increase or decrease the size of those elements freely, to exchange them, and make new proposals and alterations until everything fits together well and meet with approval. Furthermore, it will provide a surer indication of the likely costs - which is not unimportant - by allowing one to calculate costs".

In another example of custom use of prototyping, Baxandall writes about the Fifteenth century painter Filippo Lippi, who in 1457 was commissioned to paint a triptych for Giovanni di Cosimo de' Medici, the Italian banker and patron of the arts (1). In a letter to Giovanni, Filippo writes "...And to keep you informed, I send a drawing of how the triptych is made of wood, and with its height and breadth..."

So we did not quite invent the prototyping wheel and I'd propose that instead of floating complex ROI equations and fancy technical terminology as means to convince our business partners that investment in interactive prototyping is worth while, we can reference back to the past and lessons learned from the art of building and of fine art.

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