man holding hands in a square improv

Summary: Prototyping intangible experiences involving services or product-service systems requires the use of Physical Mockups, Improvisation (improv), and role-playing.  Also called experience prototyping or service prototyping, getting physical with your prototype scenarios lets you see gaps, breakpoints, and emotions. 

Prototyping is the art of creating a quick-and-dirty mock-up of a proposed design direction. We previously captured 50 reasons why prototyping saves you time, concentrated on wireframes, but what about intangible experiences?

What's an Intangible Experience?

Firstly, tangible experiences are products, things you can see and touch, for example, buttons. But what about products that are blended with services? Services are sometimes difficult to see and difficult to design. Secondly, what about rules, policies, or systems that power service-product delivery?

Intangible experiences are common in Service Design scenarios. Services are full of intangible experiences. To accommodate for intangibles, Service Design takes a systems thinking view of customer experiences-- and avoids the narrow lens of product-feature perspectives.

Examples of intangible experiences include magic that happens and customers do not always know why or appreciate the orchestration of employee or system actions behind 'the curtain'.  For example, a clinic in Sweden uses a patient status board to manage waiting expectations. Because the clinic prioritizes high-need patients, users can see their color change on a waiting room board (red, amber, green). Users might not know why their color changed, only that it is a message for where they are in the dynamic queue. 

Why is prototyping a product-service experience important?

Traditional UX Designers prototype digital experiences with wireframes. However, in a world where “the lines between hardware, software, and services are blurred or are disappearing” (Tim Cook, CEO of Apple), how do we prototype multiple touchpoints across multiple channels? In addition, how do we design for product as well as service experience? 

Designing a consistent experience across channels is the first step. Second, understanding what moments customers are having as they hop from product to service and back again is key. Sadly, traditional UX prototyping methods can only take you so far. Instead, UX Designers need a way to "feel out" a service encounter (think doctor's office check-in, to continue the example above):

Traditional product-feature approaches would focus on the iPad informational or entertainment experience that will fill the service moment of checking in. It might miss, what users see, who they bump into, where they get the device or information and how they interact with it while holding the iPad, piece of paper, or whatever. So what to do? Enter Improvisation. 

Methods for prototyping intangibles

 Improv is certainly the most important "low fidelity" prototyping tool used in service prototyping. It's also a core UX expert soft skill. And it's critical for doing 3D prototyping. Let's look at some methods for prototyping intangible experiences or blended product-service systems.

  • Physical Mock-Ups: Like the counterpart digital mock-ups, physical mock-ups include foam core, cardboard, or plywood representations of props around the experience. PMU's help you control the layout and flow of an experience. Note: They may include digital mock-ups (wireframes) within the service since mixed product-service experiences are basically default these days. 
  • Improvisation: Improv is what stand-up comics do. They respond fluidly to whatever comes their way. It begins with "Yes, and.." is the classic catalyst question when prompting an improvisation. 
  • Bodystorming: This technique leverages Improv in a more structured way. First, it occurs in the location where the experience, service, or product will be used. Next, roles are assigned to participants. Finally, a physical improv occurs, followed by a recap. 
  • Business Origami: A template set that you can use, modify, or create your own. Business Origami looks like a 'miniature movie set with props, actors and stories' (McMullin). It shows interdependencies, customer and ecosystem interactions. 
  • Role-Playing: Role-playing is a theater technique. Role-playing and improv go together. The more theatrical enactment, of the employee serving the customer, for example, the better. 
  • Movies: Video-taping a role-playing interaction or creating a 'highlight reel' showing the new service or behavior and having stakeholders and end-users critique it can reveal uncomfortable or difficult-to-explain scenarios.

In conclusion, prototyping intangible experiences requires you to get up, get physical, use space, and think through with your body in the physical context of the experience. Similarly, it focuses on how a product will sit and unfold within a service or context moment of experience. Instead of staring at a screen and waiting for prompts, prototyping product-service systems requires you to act it out and figure it out, all while have a great deal of fun. 

Learn more: Prototyping Product-Service systems MasterClass at Frank Spillers' UX Inner Circle