So You Think You Need a Functional Prototype?

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As a UX Researcher, I am always working with people. Frequently, I find myself facilitating conversations with individuals or groups of stakeholders and users to understand what content, features and functions would help them have the best possible experience on a given site or with a certain app. Often times, it’s easiest to get feedback by showing people something . . . but there’s not always time or budget to build a full-blown prototype.

Enter “boundary objects”! Simply put, boundary objects are low-fidelity design tools aimed at creating a shared understanding across multiple audiences. They will engage users, help you gather useful data concisely, and save resources that you would otherwise spend on building functional prototypes. Let me explain with an example.

We recently wrapped up a project to design a new mobile app for a global fitness franchise. The app will allow users to book fitness classes, see their past performances, track their goals and easily connect with their community both inside and outside the studio.

We interviewed potential users to explore their needs and get qualitative feedback on in-progress design ideas and had a couple of challenges in front of us. First, we only had 30 minutes with each participant at the fitness studio and we wanted to get feedback on all the major aspects of the newly designed app. Also, the client was unwilling to disclose the new designs before the app launch.

To overcome these challenges, we designed two boundary objects to engage users efficiently at the fitness studio:

1) A low-fidelity card sorting activity where users prioritized data related to their workout performance.

We printed out all of the different performance visualizations we’d designed for the app. We then asked users to pick the four that were most important for them to see at the highest level of the app and place those in the purple rectangle. We gave them an opportunity to choose up to six cards as the secondary information that they would need to see within the app. This activity helped push users to think about what information they really need — not just what they might want.

2) A “design your feed” activity using a physical phone prototype and magnets.

We created magnets to represent the elements and information users might want in their homepage feed. During the interview, we prompted users to choose the information that would help them feel motivated to not only work out, but also feel connected with the fitness community at their studio. Users created a social media-like feed that helped us determine what would provide the most useful and engaging content at the highest level of the experience.

In both activities, we allowed users to choose from existing visualizations and information, as well as create their own. Many users built on each other’s ideas, which is one of the biggest advantages of using boundary objects. We used the boundary objects to guide our conversations effectively. Users expressed their ideas in the form of cards and discussed the reasoning behind their choices as they picked cards and magnets in both activities. We were able to quickly analyze the resulting data due to its clear and concise nature.

Those are some of the project benefits of boundary objects, but did I mention that they are also really fun to make? Our team loved using our craft skills, and our users were equally delighted to hold a giant “phone” in their hands. I would encourage other researchers to consider the value boundary objects could bring to your projects in the future.

Illustration by Michael McAghon

The author

Image of Nidhi Jalwal

Nidhi Jalwal

UX Researcher