The inaugural hybrid symposium of the Science, Technology, & Arts Network

19 to 22 July, 2023

Clemson University, South Carolina, USA, and online

The theme of the 2023 symposium is

Prototyping as a Research Method.

Prototypes are intentionally incomplete versions of a design, features of which have been chosen for their capacity to provide information, experience, and communication. They are design’s guesses about the future. They help us ask questions about what could or should happen before we actually get there.

Research (including design research) has as its ultimate goal developing new models of knowledge. That is, researchers attempt to create a coherent understanding of a topic from some particular perspective, building on or challenging, or otherwise in reference to, the previous work in the area. The goal is to contribute to the knowledge of the experts in the field. Contributing to the researcher’s own inexpert knowledge, or to the knowledge of people who are not experts, is not sufficient, even though it can definitely be useful.

Prototyping as research attempts to reify an idea to a sufficient degree of fidelity that knowledge gained from the prototyping can be applied back to the idea. The necessary degree of fidelity will vary according to the kind of knowledge being pursued. As Alan Galey has succinctly put it: “why speculate when we can prototype?” (Galey & Ruecker 2009). The current process is as follows: people interested in working with experimental prototypes will propose some relevant research questions, often involving user study, then write and publish about the design ideas and the user tests, with the prototypes arising as a kind of side effect of the process.

There have occasionally been efforts to address prototypes more directly, but what has tended to happen is that a brief discussion of the prototypes turns out to be insufficient for people attempting to assess their value as instances of new knowledge, and the length of the discussion increases over time until we are back to writing a paper for evaluation rather than having the prototype directly reviewed in some way. We have previously suggested that the review of prototypes might leverage experience in reviewing other kinds of scholarly output (Galey, Ruecker, & the INKE Research Group, 2010), but so far, despite a growing interest, nothing of note has emerged. All of which is not to say that experimental prototypes are not of value in the pursuit of new knowledge, and in fact, it is possible to claim that a kind of intellectual trajectory can be recognized in looking at the changes made to prototypes over time.

Our claim here is that this trajectory shows reasonably clearly that at least some academic prototypes have a relatively long lifespan as prototypes, with each successive cycle of design and development extending our understanding.

At Prototyping for Better Futures, those who are not yet active in the use of prototyping will find inspiration to begin prototyping as research in their own fields.