3.1 To what extent did Ghanaian novice designers’ reported behaviors follow prototyping best practices?
Participants reported using prototypes in some ways that aligned with best practices. There were also instances in which students did not report using prototypes in recommended ways. The number of participants who reported use of prototyping best practices are summarized in Figure 1 and numerical results can be found in Table 7 in the Appendix.
Figure 1. Number of participants who reported use of a specific prototyping best practice.
Communication was the most frequently reported prototyping behavior. Five participants reported activities that aligned with this prototyping best practice, and 23 showed some evidence of an intermediate behavior. Participant 31 provided a summary of what the majority of the participants in this study experienced:
‘Sometimes I am working on a project and…those around me don’t understand it as I understand it. I can talk to you for hours about this, but a picture conveys a better idea than me talking about it. So that’s the main essence for better communication to my audience.’
Participant 1 also discussed this insight with a similar statement:
‘Sometimes you have in mind what you are doing, you would say this is what you want to represent. But when you don’t show it to someone…[they] will be thinking of something else.’
Communication occurred between a variety of people, and Participant 19 found that prototypes helped to make sure that communication within the team was effective and that people had a good understanding of what others were thinking:
‘Sketches were used to communicate, as in we were a group and we were discussing, looking at possible solutions. So if somebody brings an idea, if we don’t sketch it down, other people might not understand what the person is trying to imply so that’s why we were putting the sketches down. So somebody will come out with a sketch and we’ll be like no this part needs to change that part, so we will have an idea where we are moving to and what we are really talking about, so that’s how come we used sketches throughout.’
This point was also communicated by Participant 25:
‘Sketches just made people, or made our colleagues understand what we really wanted to come up with.’
In more detail, Participant 3 described how prototypes were essential as communication tools for the completion of their project:
‘I think it would have been very impossible to complete our project without [a] prototype, because at various stages of the design process, we had to communicate with each other…With sketches and 3D models, we were able to get the idea of members of the team and we were able to build on that to get a better design. In fact it improved the communication with our team.’
Participant 4 explained how prototypes were essential for sharing information outside of his team, here classmates and instructors:
‘Without [prototypes], we don’t think we will be able to show to the class, to prove to our supervisors that we’ve done a great job. We were able to prove ourselves and show that we’ve done something.’
Some participants involved stakeholders outside of the design team and academic advisors, but deliberately shared prototypes only selectively. Participant 29 based this selective behavior on the fact that the design team did not expect all stakeholders to be prepared to provide input on their prototype:
‘I didn’t show it to nurses – Ok I showed it to the technician alone, not the nurses, because they don’t understand technical stuff like that, so it was my supervisors and the technicians who had [a] chance to look at that and then approve before I move on to the next stage.’
Communication is a crucial activity that occurs frequently during the design process and participants found that the use of prototypes improved the exchange of information among team members. However, communication with individuals outside of participants’ own teams was often challenging, and participants sometimes expected stakeholders with no design experience, or stakeholders not familiar with product development, would not be able to respond to prototypes.
Testing a concept was the second most frequently reported prototyping best practice behavior. Nine participants reported behaviors that aligned with this prototyping best practice, and 12 showed some evidence of an intermediate behavior. Participant 1 described in general terms the importance of testing:
‘I have to evaluate my product to see if it suits my customers’ requirement. So I have to make sure I validate that, whether I’m doing, am I’m following in line with what I said from the beginning. Have I been able to achieve my specifications, have I met my target, and have I met my customers’ needs?’
Participant 30 laid out an iterative approach to testing that allowed the team to move through several iterations of her project:
‘So based on the result of the simulations, I noticed it was going to work so I decided to put it in a mock-up and come up with something to show physically, something, not a computer [model]. So I bought the aluminum and I designed it.’
Participant 12 provided more detail and explained how the team tested the insulating properties of his design for a device to transport blood. The team started with virtual models and moved to physical testing to verify their findings:
‘We did simulation with the MATLAB. We had data that we see [in] the graphs, the warming process, this is the heat going in and this is the temperature of the blood bag that was changing. We were taking the temperature of the blood bag at specific time periods as well as the voltage that we were using. So we were able to obtain some data on it and we could see that ok, this is the warming process over 10 minutes. So we see this kind of curve; it peaks and then it plateaus.’
However, testing was not always a straightforward activity for participants, and Participant 6 described a struggle based on compromised material selection:
‘I went on testing if that concept would actually work. I was able to get some readings but then because of the selection that I made for the electrodes…It was supposed to be nickel and copper…but…I had to settle on lead and, so because of that, that actually gave me a very weak signal.’
More than one third of the participants (12) showed little to no evidence of this prototyping best practice behavior. Participant 25 explained that the team did not have enough time to learn the necessary skills for testing, a challenge also experienced by other teams:
‘Because we had to learn the software, procedure and other techniques and do it at the same time, it was a bit stressful. The time too was short so we couldn’t really finish up the work.’
Participant 11 also reported limitations to their testing activities that influenced their decision-making process:
‘We actually were supposed to test…but unfortunately because we couldn’t do that, we just decided…we didn’t actually [have] empirical evidence to prove that here will be better than here or maybe here. I’m sure probably if we had been able to test, we would have made some adjustments.’
This was also discussed by Participant 31 who expanded on how the team was not able to simulate flow with his CAD model, and used an alternative, mathematical method instead:
‘I wanted to use AutoCAD to do the free flow and I don’t have the software, so basically I wish I could have got help from somebody. I interacted with so many people but I didn’t get anybody to help me. So I resorted to using Excel Solver to just run optimizations based on the equation I had.’
Participant 9 explained how his team also had to compromise based on time and skills but was able to proceed with a software simulation. However, the team did not think this approach was as successful as if they had constructed a functional prototype:
‘Because we didn’t really build a final working, let me say prototype, we used SolidWorks to simulate maybe the pumping and then the absorption of water by maybe a silica gel. So we saw how the whole thing will be like and then the SolidWorks generated a Word document that is kind of like a report of the testing. So we would have done some kind of like testing, real hands on testing if we had the prototype, maybe the working prototype, but because we didn’t go that far because of the time for the semester and then other courses that we need to be taking we ended up, we had to opt for the software.’
Participants frequently found testing difficult and reported time constraints and limited access to resources such as materials and tools as well as insufficient training for creating and testing prototypes as reasons for these challenges.
Identify functional blocks was the third most frequently reported prototyping best practice behavior. Functional blocks are key components, elements, or individual functions of a complex system, product or process. Identifying and working on individual functional blocks can support solving complex design problems by enabling designers to work at the often more manageable component level instead of the whole system (Christie et al.
2012; Hilton et al.
2015; Yock et al.
2015). Eight participants reported behaviors that aligned with this prototyping best practice, and 10 showed some evidence of an intermediate behavior. Participant 27 explained the functional components of a device to prevent mosquito bites:
‘We had three main ways that the mosquitoes get attracted…The fan that sucks the mosquitoes into the device…And then for the extermination we considered electrocuting the mosquitoes after they’ve been attracted, or using a sticky trap to trap them.’
Participant 11 discussed how asking specific questions helped the team with the design of a cooking stove:
‘What are some of the ways of maybe conducting the heat? Maybe the heat regulation, we decided to put a regulator there and a conducting system. Where our smoke is going to come out? So we decided to incorporate a chimney system into it. And that’s where we decided to place our filtering system.’
Likewise, Participant 2, who worked on a glucose-monitoring device, described in detail how breaking up the device into functional blocks helped the team address several questions:
‘So I had to look at the power of the pump, the weight of the pump because you’re going to wear it on the arm. I had to consider the electrodes, the size of the electrodes, what amount of current will pass through the electrodes. The weight, the mechanisms, how finely it can be tuned, the flow rate, how much power it needs. The insulin chamber, the injection, the size of the needle, because that really affects how much pain the patients goes through, and I’m trying to make it as less painful as possible.’
However, 15 participants did not identify functional blocks and instead considered their project as a complete system. Participant 16 explained:
‘Ok we were analyzing the system as a whole we didn’t divide it into sections.’
Similarly, Participant 26, who worked on a portable massager, did not build any physical prototypes or investigate individual functional blocks. Instead, the team based assumptions on virtual sketches and estimations of the complete solution they designed:
‘Let’s say if I took the weight, because the actual prototype wasn’t built, but it was in sketches, so I didn’t know the actual mass but I intuitively…I think it was less than 500 to 750 grams yeah…
Not all teams identified and worked on functional blocks. Instead, some participants addressed the whole product, making it potentially harder to develop a solution, especially when designing a complex product.
Another critical prototyping best practice that is closely related to communication is engage with stakeholders. Only one participant reported using this best practice at an advanced level, and six participants reported evidence consistent with an intermediate behavior. Participant 31, who reported advanced use of the practice, explained how existing products were used to get feedback from stakeholders on the appropriate weight of a device component:
‘I communicated with them like “What do you really define as not too big?” They picked an ultra sound Doppler, so they said this is ok, so I checked the weight of the ultra sound’
Participant 19 described how various prototypes not only helped the team with explaining the work they had completed, but also with gathering feedback from stakeholders:
‘When you communicate with people with just words, people have different conceptions about what you are trying to put across, but when you show them a prototype, sketches or the CAD model, they can actually confide what they are thinking about a specific design. So it helped us put across all the work that we did from material selection, concept generation, idea generation into that model.’
Similarly, Participant 24 described how stakeholders helped the team better understand the problem, and also how they provided feedback on early suggestions:
‘They told me more about the problems…A few gave me ideas, but then I proposed ideas to them: “Do you think that if you had something that was much smaller, would it be fine?” And they will say: “Yeah, maybe this will be so good.” “You think something that is much softer to clean the ear, would it be ok?” They say: “Yeah, I think something which is soft is good for the ear, not something which is too hard.”’
Little to no evidence among the 26 participants was reported for using prototypes to engage with stakeholders. Many stated a lack of time for not engaging with stakeholders and relied on personal experience and literature reviews instead. Participant 10 explained:
‘It was from literature review and it was from personal experience that we got the ideas. We had confidence that we were correct because based on where we got the information [from] we had confidence that it was correct…It would have been helpful for us if we would have gotten more stakeholders to be involved in the work.’
Participant 14 also mentioned referencing literature and the team using themselves as stakeholders:
‘Like we could have involved them [stakeholders] in the selection of the concept, but because it was an academic work, we just decided to select the concept and give it our own and score it based on the literature.’
Participant 10 justified why the team did not engage more with stakeholders and referred to the course structure and a lack of time:
‘I think it all depends on our course that we did. If they could allow us to have some let’s say time slot within the academic schedules where we can go out there to have contact with our stakeholders.’
Time was the most frequently reported limiting factor for engaging stakeholders as Participant 13 explained:
‘Basically, we didn’t go to the stakeholders as I said earlier but we took ourselves as stakeholders and looked at it at that way.’ Similarly, Participant 21 said: ‘So time didn’t permit us, that’s the main reason why we didn’t go to the hospitals and catch doctors and maybe get enough ideas to support the work.’
Similarly, Participant 21 said:
‘So time didn’t permit us, that’s the main reason why we didn’t go to the hospitals and catch doctors and maybe get enough ideas to support the work.’
Participant 12, who tried to engage with medical professionals, found that their stakeholders were too busy, which motivated the design team to make decisions on their behalf:
‘We didn’t really have that [conversations] because they’re always busy so we don’t have that direct contact with them. At some point we needed to make a decision on their behalf. We needed to adapt the Apple rule: Design the thing that people don’t know [they need], but design things that they think people will like.’
Participants often reported a lack of time and challenges when trying to engage with stakeholders as reasons for referring to literature or using their own opinions to motivate design decisions.
3.2 What types of prototypes did Ghanaian novice designers use during their project-based design courses?
Participants reported using virtual prototypes more often, and reported using best prototyping practices more often with virtual prototypes than with tangible prototypes. Frequencies of best practice usage are represented for both virtual and tangible prototype types in Figure 2, numerical results can be found in Table 7 in the Appendix, and the individual behaviors are discussed subsequently.
Figure 2. Frequencies of the reported use of virtual and tangible prototypes for prototyping best practices by Ghanaian novice designers.
The majority of participants (28) reported using virtual prototypes for communication, and five participants reported using tangible prototypes to communicate. The participants who reported using tangible prototypes for communication emphasized the benefits of this approach. For example, Participant 22 explained how their stakeholders provided feedback on the proposed design once the team introduced physical models:
‘The impact of building the physical models, it really gave the lecturers, our supervisors the idea of what we were really trying to do because when we started it, we had more questions coming to us, like how is it going look like. So the time we presented our model, we had less questions, it wasn’t even a question, it was a comment.’
Most participants described using virtual prototypes for communication. For example, Participant 11 noticed that once the team used prototypes, people became more interested in their project because they added a sense of realism:
‘When we started using the CAD…you know some of those people, they started gaining interest: “Wow, so this is how the whole thing is like’ and they were very happy. So when we started using it and they realized that ‘Oh after all, this thing is feasible.” So it’s like before you use the CAD sometimes you find the thing so difficult to achieve or maybe you don’t see the feasibility of it but it was when we started using the CAD that we started getting something.’
Participant 2 felt similarly:
‘CAD was very helpful because it helped people see what you are trying to do. It helped people understand. The CAD model, it made it like, “Oh ok, this is it. Oh ok, it moves from here to here to here”. ’
Participant 2 added that, for this particular activity, virtual prototypes were easier to create than physical ones:
‘It made it very easy and helpful and it was easier to use than building the physical model component. It was far easier than actually building it.’
Participant 19, who had already acknowledged the benefits of using prototypes, added distinctions between different levels of prototype refinement:
‘If it was just the sketches, it will not be as easy as it was with the video form from CAD design.’
Participant 14 explained how the team used sketches to get feedback and input from stakeholders:
‘So we had to like draw this for them, with the dimensions, this fetal monitor…we showed them the dimension of this or that, which one will you prefer. They gave us like “Oh it should be shorter than this, this part should be shorter, this part should be taller.” They gave us all the dimensions then we approximated them to get the length.’
Participants reported that communication improved when using prototypes, both within the design team as well as with stakeholders. The few participants who reported using physical models felt that using tangible prototypes to gather feedback from stakeholders improved the input they received.
Twenty participants reported the use of virtual, and seven reported the use of tangible prototypes to test concepts. The participants who described the use of physical prototypes to test their device often also reported the use of virtual prototypes. Frequently, the physical models were used to verify the virtual test results. Participant 31 explained how the team moved from earlier, virtual testing to building a physical model to verify their results:
‘The goal for building a physical model was to validate the operation of the device. Just to see how in reality, whether they will perform in a similar manner as [the virtual] model.’
Participant 12 also explained how the team performed physical tests to verify their earlier, virtual test results:
‘We built a physical model and we analyzed. Yeah we had a physical bag, but later on not with the blood; for the blood it was difficult to actually test with the blood so…we were using sachet water. Yeah so based on that we know that if we warm the water it might be close to warm blood. So it was just the simulation that was trying to test to see whether the warming process is [real].’
Several participants realized the benefits that tangible prototypes could afford, even if they were not able to use them in their projects. Participant 17 described how the team found physical models better suited for testing than virtual prototypes:
‘CAD or software or sketches, some might be, some could be used alright but I think the most efficient one to try and use will be the physical model.’
Similarly, Participant 14 started with a virtual simulation and then built a physical prototype to test the concept:
‘So I first did the simulation [in] Proteus with the Arduino, then I came to the physical model to prove my concept that what I have done is feasible. My physical [model] goes to verify [the concept].’
Participant 5 recognized limitations of a virtual model and posited that a computer-generated prototype might not always match the results of testing a physical model:
‘For the computer model, it can work on a computer simulation but when you bring it out of there to the physical model, it might fail you, it might not perform actually what you saw on the computer.’
This uncertainty in the virtual environment was also voiced by Participant 9, who expressed concerns about the validity of the materials that were available in a simulated environment:
‘The material has certain properties that maybe were modeled mathematically into the program so we can’t trust that code 100% that it will do efficient work or what it would have done if you had brought the thing real.’
However, the majority of the participants (20) reported using virtual prototypes for testing. Participant 13 described how they successfully used simulation software to test their concept:
‘We used COMSOL multi physics software to test for the temperature with time. With the PBC, it gave a red signal, and it means it wasn’t able to conserve the temperature for much period of time. But then with ABS, it gave a blue, I mean the total border was blue, that means it had a good temperature-conserving property.’
All participants reported challenges when using simulation software and not everybody was successful using virtual tools for testing. Participant 8 described how they attempted to test their design through software simulation, but did not succeed because they were not able to create a custom material:
‘Solid Works to do the testing and then because we chose we selected polymer blending, then we couldn’t get a blend because if we were to get the blend we were supposed to specify percentages, the percentage of say PVC and percentage of ABS and we put it together to have that design, but we were not able to.’
Similarly, Participant 11 explained how the team used sketches to design a system that allowed for maximum airflow:
‘Yes, we did the hand sketches, we did the flow. We kind of tried to use all those ideas here to see and basically that’s what actually helped us to come up with the passage of the system where we can get a maximum amount of air flowing in.’
Participants found testing a challenging activity and several pointed out that they needed additional skills to test the models they created. Specifically for the virtual prototypes, participants had to learn these skills on their own and not all of them were able to test their prototypes.
Eighteen participants reported using virtual prototypes and two participants reported using tangible prototypes to identify functional blocks. Participant 2 described how working with physical components was helpful in determining how individual functional blocks would fit together:
‘So I broke it down into different pieces – the glucose monitor right, it’s basically made up of two electrodes and these electrodes have some substances that it reacts with glucose and stuff and then it a has a sensor that will monitor or that will give you a reading. So it’s not really a big component right, that’s why it could be made into a watch…Then I had to fit an insulin chamber where it would store insulin and ideally I was trying to get about 300 ml…Then I had to talk about the pump because I needed to cause fluid to flow.’
Similarly, Participant 25 described how the team identified functional blocks to improve temperature retention in his device:
‘We looked at [the] specific heat capacity, we realized that when you heat coffee and you put it in the mug, the temperature of the coffee doesn’t really drop when it is covered because of the difference of the specific heat capacity of the material and the steel.’
A much larger number of participants (18) reported using virtual prototypes, and Participant 14 described how the team identified functional components, and how this activity helped to visualize the internal functions of a device:
‘Let’s just say I’m taking a signal, so how I will acquire the signal? Then my signal processing, do we have [a] notification filter, then I will send a signal. I’m doing SD card, so I’m doing storage, I’m doing this, I’m doing a buzzer. This is my functional structure, like how the internal components work…Now I came to see how the internal working structure was.’
Participant 31 elaborated how the team identified functional blocks, researched existing solutions, and finally selected the most suitable approach:
‘For every function or sub function, I picked a system, I checked out how other people do it. Sometimes I do sketches to show whether this one will work or other ones will work. So let’s say for tying (fastening) of the [item], I considered…a gear system to lock it up where I can translate my rotational motioning to lock it. For every idea, every sub function, I got about 2 to 3 to 4 means of addressing the function and I compared them using a decision matrix in relation to the objectives. So I did the same for all sub functions and eventually combined them to get what the device is supposed to do.’
Participant 3 explained in detail how the team addressed weight and force requirements for their design of a device to help stroke patients with rehabilitation exercises:
‘If you are going to move the leg with a pulley and you have a person with a maximum weight of 300 pounds, and the leg is going to have this proportion of weight, we used anthropometric data to find which proportion of the weight. So what kind of force are you supposed to apply to move this leg? So based on that, we analyzed the movement of the leg so that if we are going to use this system then this amount of force and this amount of weight. Is it sufficient or does it meet our user requirement, does it meet our specification?’
About half of the participants reported identifying and working on functional blocks. Particularly those working on complex design challenges found it helpful to think of individual elements that comprise the overall solution instead of the complete product.