You can't deny the lo-fi

Ever heard a co-worker or higher-up say: “I’m a visual person”?

Who isn’t? What most people mean when they say “visual” is that they need something tangible to engage with in order to really understand the fundamental idea. They should really just say: “Since I’m a person, I’m visual. Let’s make something.”

Until a thing becomes tangible, multiple people can have radically divergent interpretations of the same conversation, ideas, and experiences. Tangibility brings people from all disciplines and backgrounds together around the same object, drawing, animation, or whatnot, and highlights where your visions converge and diverge.

At gravitytank, the interaction design group uses a variety of tools to make ideas tangible. We recently shared a few of these with the Chicago IxDA chapter during the “Lo-Fi Design workshop”, led by gravitytank lead designer Craighton Berman.  We focused on the more rapid techniques we use—sketchnotes, storyboarding and video prototyping—to expose other interaction-minded professionals to some new ways of working.

Why lo-fi? Because it encourages teams to behave in new ways as they try to define innovative concepts:

It’s tangible. It allows for the direct manipulation of ideas—outside of normal tools like the computer.
It’s rapid. It encourages us to experiment and “fail fast”, rather than shoot for the “right idea.”
It’s collaborative.  Getting outside of a computer screen means others can see what we’re thinking and build on the ideas real-time.
It’s holistic.  It helps us focus on the broader experience, instead of just the details.
It’s universal.  It opens up the design process to all disciplines and makes it transparent.

For these exercises in the workshop, we focused on the big picture rather than the details as a way of forcing ourselves to stay “lo-fi” and deliver a tangible story or prototype as quickly and as effectively as possible. Here’s what 60+ participants were able to pull off, amazingly, in just over an hour:

1. Sketchnotes
Sketchnoting is a rapid visualization process where a lecture is sketched and visualized in real time. We feel this is a great way to practice the same skills one uses in brainstorming—listening, synthesizing, and visualizing—all in real time. We like to think of it as the visual equivalent of circular breathing. For this exercise, and to kick off our galactic theme, we watched Bill Stone’s presentation at TED about the possibilities of mining for fuel on the moon. Full of passion, potential and personality, Stone’s speech really set the tone, and challenged participants’ verbal and visual skill sets.

2. Sticky Storyboarding
Sticky Storyboarding is a process for designing user experiences, where we combine user scenarios with brainstorming—yielding in-context ideation. The steps of a current user-experience are rapidly sketched by members of the team on sticky notes, and then brainstormed ideas are shaped back into the scenario to create a future state. For the lo-fi workshop each team picked a space-travel scenario to brainstorm solutions for fueling up a spaceship on the moon. If Bill Stone’s vision for orbital fuel stations came true, how would different users navigate the complex interactions associated with finding gas, paying or trading for goods, and plot a course to their destination? What might be the many different interfaces and tools look like? And how would you scale that down for a family of vacationing Borgs?

3. Video prototyping
Finally, in order to make our stories tangible for others, we video prototyped one of the key interactions from each scenario. Video Prototyping is a lo-fi tool that makes use of simple cameras to cut videos on-the-fly, with no editing. This tool allows us to get a better understanding of the tangible aspects of the interaction we’re designing, as well as forces us to distill our story and clarify our ideas. Each group drew interfaces and characters, cut them out of paper, made spaceships out of bottles, yarn, anything they could get their hands on, and got to work creating the lo-fi version of their space refueling story. Using Flip video cameras and a simple shot list, each group made a short film that showed the user’s journey, highlighting key interactions along the way.

The workshop highlighted why it’s a good idea to start tangible, even on the most technical of projects. With the IxDA crowd, keeping things lo-fi didn’t create low expectations—instead, groups were ambitious about their storytelling because they didn’t get bogged down in all the details. They focused on the most salient points and delivered compelling ideas in rapid succession, making it possible for everyone to contribute to the conversation. Because really, aren’t ideas better out where they can be built upon instead of stuck inside a head or computer screen?

written by: Michael Kiser, Craighton Berman, Gigi Gormley