the power of mockups and hands on research

Have you guys ever been in a situation where you thought your sketch or project was great?

I spent this weekend, stoked, about a project. Did tons of sketches and handled the device I was solving for. Problem was, I only researched the devices I owned, and only did a internet research of competitive products… I didn’t do a hands-on of competitive products… and this turned out to be a huge mistake. This weekend was a great learning experience for me. Making mockups and doing hands on research turned out to be 100x more valuable than spending hours online and assuming how things may work and may feel like.

Ideation sketches may look good on paper, it may look slick and comfortable to hold, but without mockups and actually holding the things you design, its nearly impossible to know exactly how it actually feels in your hands. For example, I had this one sketch that I spent alot of time refining, in sketch and 3d form. Later that night, I decided I should try making a mockup of it with some foam boards. The result was shocking. With the mockups in my hand, I found out my concepts were extremely uncomfortable to hold, which was a big issue, as I was trying to solve an ergonomic issue.

Mockups are important, there is no excuse when it comes to mockuping your concepts. You dont need to own heavy machinery, some foam board and an exacto knife is more than enough to create simple mockups. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

So, have any of you got any stories where you discovered things that you werent able to see before you made mockups and got your hands on things?

When I was working on NASA projects, both in school for a sponsored studio and at my internship at Johnson Space Center, a lot of our concepts dealt with spaces that humans had to live in and interact with. We did a lot of sketching and small scale mockups, but there was really no way of knowing if something made sense or was comfortable until a full-size mockup was made.

For example, a concept for a bathroom/hygiene area seemed small and cramped in CAD, but when mocked up in full-size, it was actually gigantic for what it had to do. We made iterations and iterations of our concepts until it actually felt right in full scale. This was an extremely important part of the design process.

At JSC, I saw a lot of full-scale various fidelity (from foam core to plywood to full metal/functional) mockups of various things from stationary habitats to the newest generation moon rover. The one most applicable example I saw was a crew sleeping quarters unit, which was mocked up in wood. It seemed tiny and coffin-like from the outside, but once inside, it was actually calming and kind of spacious. Now that crew quarters unit where astronauts sleep in the International Space Station. Mockups are undoubtedly important when designing for humans in mind.