Introduction: Rapid Prototyping!
You may have heard it a dozen times, but unless you have done it yourself, you probably do not know just how amazing rapid prototyping can be! Save costs in the long run and walk away with better solutions!
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Step 1: Observe
Before new ideas can be explored, it is important to study the weaknesses of current designs. In most cases, start by asking experienced people about their own observations with a device. What are the current design's shortcomings? What parts of the designs are most likely to break? What features of the current design do you they the most important? A similar line of questioning should also be asked to yourself after each prototype is made. Observing the way current designs work is the springboard off which to conceive new ideas.
Look carefully at the simple tools around you and you are sure to find dozens of subtle design choices that make them more effiecient and intuitive to use. Notice the little ridge on the "J" key to allow the user to re-center their fingers without needing to look down at the keyboard.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Once knowledge of the current solution shortcomings has been gained, it is possible to think in new directions to try to alleviate as many of the problems as possible. It is often not feasible to solve all of the problems you have observed, so I find that ranking them in order of importance helps to keep new ideas on track towards becoming helpful solutions. Think of as many ideas as you can and write down everything. Silly or unreasonable ideas should not be thrown thrown out as they often shift perspective in ways that may open new doors to novel solutions. Brainstorming should be exactly as it sounds; let the ideas pour from your mind.
Sometimes it helps to have some though-provoking buzzwords or scenarios to get the group thinking if they are still warming up. Here are some examples:
collapsable, foldable, stackable, musical, spring-loaded, dry, insulated, secure, thin, locking, memoryless, conducting, durrable, heavy, ratcheting, springy, flexable, easy-open, frictionless, thick, pocket-sized, sliding, moistened, light, rotating, overhung, twistable, fast-acting, networked, connectivity, synergy
Below you can see a drawing made during a brainstorming session used to consider how web content should be delivered to the user. The key here is get many different ideas written down so that later you can take a step back from them and decide which ideas have the greatest chance of working or teaching you the most about the problem/design space.
Step 3: Prototype
Many ideas look good on paper, but few actually survive this step. The purpose of a prototype is to develop a better understanding of a potential idea by exploring its key components and features. A prototype should not be designed as a final product. Rather, a prototype should be designed as an exploratory mock-up with emphasis on the aspects most important to your idea. Prototyping is the key to allowing multiple innovation cycles with the hope that each cycle will offer a level of improvement and insight over the previous cycles.
Do not let your mind get stuck in a rut! Consider using different materials and fabrication/manufacturing techniques to explore your problem from a different perspective.
Here are some materials to consider using:
Piezo, wood, fabric, oil, carpet, cardboard, aerogel, styrofoam, leather, aluminum, tile, paint, adhesive, glue, wax, food, ice, LEDs, spring, rubber, tape, plastic, water, graphite, wire, gel, stone, screws, foam, glass, caulking, concrete, polyurethane, hot-glue, steel, pins, alcohol, putty, paper, motors, cast structures, cork, magnets, velcro, plexi-glass, plaster, brass, chain, aerosol, carbon-fiber, foil, rope, fiberglass, zipper, snow, lens, filters
Below is an image of a crude prototype of an idea for a fan with no rotating parts. It is built from a cheap speaker, some machines acrylic, a latex glove, and some bolts/nuts to hold it all together. This was cheap and easy to build and proved to be a great proof-of-concept of the idea I was exploring. It showed me that I was on the right track, but most importantly, I was able to quickly learn from it and consider ways to make the device work better.
Step 4: Repeat!
If the prototype does not solve the problem in the way you expected or it sheds light on a new element of the problem or design space, why not start the innovation cycle again? Most prototypes are cheap as compared to a final product and the difference one more rapid prototyping cycle can make is oftentimes quite significant. Only when you are satisfied with your current design or time/cost demands you to make a final design should you take a break from the innovation cycle. But don't worry, you can always pick up where you left off later.
In the picture below you can see the nature of rapid prototyping. These prototypes were all made in less than a couple months, with sometimes as many as 4 different protypes being created each day. The final solution was quite unique and different than anything else we could find. It was the insight gained from dozens of different rapidly created prototypes that allowed us to conceive our final design which included a novel actuation method, the Elacoil.
(Explorations in the field of Compliant Robotic Manipulation, CSAIL, M.I.T., 2005)