|Rising material costs have demanded a more
conservative approach to material selection. For instance, in a recent
9-month period, cold-rolled stainless steel increased more than 65 percent
in price. Additionally, an increasingly competitive landscape has required
designers to focus on brand, creating a coherent, unified family of products
for the marketplace. Amidst all of these increases, however, two things
remain unchanged—the time and budget allotted to bringing new products
to market are never enough.
In an effort to help reduce time and costs during the development
cycle, appliance designers have long relied on creating prototypes.
Crude mockups made of foam core, followed by higher fidelity
resin models, allow designers to see and convey their initial
sketches and renderings in physical form. A more recent prototyping
tool in the design of kitchen housewares is computer simulation.
Like its physical model counterparts, computer simulation can
help speed up the design process and reduce some of the uncertainty
around a new product, particularly the way users are expected
to interact with it. The best may still be around the corner,
however. Virtual reality and haptic technologies represent the
next level of prototyping available to housewares designers,
one that may completely revolutionize current prototyping methods.
of CAVE (CAVE Automated Virtual Environment).
Photo courtesy of Dr. Eric
Wernert, UITS, Advanced Visualization
Lab, Indiana University.
Traditionally, the housewares industry has made extensive use
of physical prototypes during the design process. Styrofoam mockups,
gray foam, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), and Stereolithography
(SLA) models are all relatively quick and inexpensive to produce.
These models afford the design team an opportunity to assess
the overall footprint of the product, its possible orientations
on the kitchen countertop, and its relationship to other products
within the same family.
The price paid for a quick and inexpensive physical model, however,
is typically a lack of fidelity, resulting in models that are
rarely representative of the final product’s weight, texture,
or individual parts. This can limit the design team’s ability
to evaluate such models effectively with target consumers. The
one-piece design of most physical prototypes also makes it hard
to incorporate changes, resulting in entirely new models being
created for each iteration.
In concert with the foam and resin models created by the designers,
the human factors engineer will commonly use paper prototypes
of the system’s interface to evaluate initial concepts for the
system’s interaction model. This typically occurs very early
in the design phase to allow for maximum user testing and iterations.
For simple products such as toasters and hand-held blenders,
paper prototypes may be more than sufficient to evaluate the
design questions at hand. As the complexity of the product increases,
however, features such as scrolling text messages, audio signals,
and flashing lights introduce a level of interaction that can
be hard, if not impossible, to simulate using paper.
Computer-based prototypes offer design teams a valuable supplement
to physical and paper prototyping methods. Similar to paper prototyping
methods, computer-based prototypes excel at letting design teams
test their assumptions regarding the product’s interface. Will
users be able to turn it on? How will they operate the primary
features? How will they monitor their progress? In contrast to
paper prototyping, however, computer-based prototypes offer an
increased level of fidelity and interaction, making it possible
to represent a product much more accurately.
At the most basic level, Microsoft PowerPoint and similar presentation
software programs provide acceptable prototyping tools, capable
of combining images, text, and sounds, together with hot spots
that allow users to navigate through a proposed design. Macromedia’s
Flash and Director software applications are perhaps the most
popular programs on the market today for creating intermediate
to advanced computer-based prototypes. Both are capable of combining
images, text, audio, and animation to create more polished prototypes
that can easily be distributed via CD-ROM or the World Wide Web.
As with the physical and paper prototyping methods, today’s
computer-based methods require that designers have access to
the necessary skills and software to create the prototypes in
a timely manner. As with any prototyping method, designers need
to be aware of both the advantages and disadvantages associated
with computer-based prototyping (see Table 1).
of computer-based prototypes:
the number of more costly and time-consuming
prototypes required in the design process
the design team understand the product’s
interaction model early in the design phase,
thereby avoiding uncertainty and confusion
among team members about the final design’s
human factors engineers to evaluate the
product’s interaction model with actual
users early and often throughout the design
marketing to verify early concepts with
be edited easily to incorporate new ideas
or address problems identified during evaluations
and then re-tested again as part of the
iterative design process
customer service personnel with valuable
support tools during customer service calls
of computer-based prototypes:
product behaviors lack fidelity in a computer
simulation due to the requirement that
users interact with a computer mouse or
other input device, rather than the actual
object itself (e.g., turning a dial, lifting
a lid, flipping a switch)
end up being a “throwaway” tool once they
have served their initial purpose since
the actual coding required for the final
product generally needs to be redeveloped
from scratch following the simulation.
Companies such as eSim (maker of RapidPlus)
and Amulet Technologies are two software
producers currently tackling this problem
by offering applications that more effectively
reuse the code from the prototyping process.
In a recent project at KitchenAid, the design team had questions
about the design of its latest blender. Jar weight and user interaction
topped the list at that particular point in the project. To investigate
the issue of jar weight, physical prototypes were the only recourse
for the team. By the time the necessary tooling costs, production
time, testing, and recommendations had been completed, more than
3 months and several thousands of dollars had been expended.
In contrast, the interaction question was addressed by visiting
Whirlpool’s Vizlab, a specialized studio of computer animation
and 3D modeling professionals with the ability to create high-resolution
renderings and interactive models for presentation and testing.
In this case, three different Flash-based animations of the blender
control panel were produced within a week. Incorporating
audio files for the various blender speeds and corresponding
LED lights to indicate the currently selected feature, the computer-based
prototype provided the design team with high-quality, highly
realistic models that were then available for actual users to
interact with during usability testing.
Interestingly, the prerequisite activity of mapping out the
interaction model in order to create the prototype was a valuable
exercise in itself, as it required the design team to consider
the finer details of their proposed interface. User testing subsequently
confirmed some of the anticipated issues with the proposed controls,
and adjustments were made prior to final production. The entire
time required for prototype development and testing combined
was less than 2 weeks and was completed at a fraction of the
cost required for the physical prototyping.
Future of Prototyping
So what might prototyping in the kitchen appliance industry
look like a few years down the road? If the current virtual reality
environments that exist at major research universities are considered,
and it is assumed that the costs and configurations of CAVE (CAVE
automatic virtual environment) systems will drop in price similar
to other technological advancements, it is reasonable to believe
that current physical prototyping methods may soon become obsolete.
Imagine members of the design team immersed in a virtual reality
environment, able to experience how their full-size, rendered
models are going to look from any angle, as well as how they
might be integrated into multiple kitchen environments. Add to
this scenario the ability to sense haptic, or tactile feedback,
such as that being developed by Sensable Technologies, and it’s
easy to imagine target consumers easily interacting with what
are truly virtual blenders, directly experiencing their size,
shape, and weight, and even the forces required to manipulate
them. Observe a user turn a dial or lift a blender jar and express
dissatisfaction with the forces required? No problem. The researcher
will simply adjust the product’s specifications on the fly and
ask the user to give it another try. Following a series of such
sessions, designers will return to their desks, equipped with
specific, quantitative data that will allow them to close in
on the optimal design for their product.
In short, it seems safe to say that prototyping will fundamentally
change in the coming years. Advanced computer simulation technologies
will allow design teams to combine their physical and computer
prototyping into a single, seamless effort, letting them validate
their interaction models at the same time as they validate the
aesthetic and ergonomic assumptions that are inherent in their
designs. By permitting design teams and target consumers to view,
touch, manipulate, and fully experience new appliance concepts
in this high fidelity, highly realistic manner, products may
soon pass through an entire design cycle with the first physical
model being the finished appliance that comes off the production
Zazelenchuk, Ph.D. is a human factors researcher with
the KitchenAid Portables design team of Whirlpool Corporation
in Benton Harbor, MI, U.S. Acknowledgements to Dr.
Eric Wernert, Dr. Philip Hodgson, Ali Vassigh, and
Philip Thompson for their insights on early versions
of this article.