a prototyping experiment

December 19, 2008 — 6 Comments

A team of designers at IDEO have been working on ideas around Design On Time. Larry Cheng created a ‘free time’ dispenser that hands out free time in ten minute increments in the form of printed tickets. What you do with that time is entirely up to you. Nice idea, but Ted Howes and Adam Vollmer decided to try it out in the real world and took the dispenser on their Caltrain ride back to San Francisco the other day. Their story of the experiment in live prototyping is posted below. For me, getting prototypes into the real world is crucial. That is when we learn all the things about our ideas that we never even thought to consider. It does take some guts though.

Here is what Adam wrote:

Evening commuters on NB Caltrain 369 were happily surprised to be presented with free Free Time Thursday evening.  Ted and I took Larry Cheng’s 10 minute machine to the road, distributing approximately 600 minutes of free time in 10 minute increments over the 38 minute journey (that’s a 15.8:1 Free Time to Real Time multiplier!).

Reactions to our offering were mixed, ranging from excitement to confusion (in many cases), curiosity, suspicion, and in at least one case, borderline hostility.  Among the many ways that Caltrainers plan to use their free time, favorites included ‘more time with my son’, ‘more time with my cat’, and ‘more time with a bottle of wine’.  Encouragingly, the notion of sharing and re-gifting seemed to catch on, and we expect Free Time to be a popular white elephant gift this holiday season.  Several people observed that they spent up to 10% of their free time spinning the worm gear on the Free Time dispenser, but no one seemed to mind.

Ted observed an interesting viral characteristic of Free Time, that once a few passengers in a car had taken their Free Time, their neighbors couldn’t resist the opportunity to play.  In some cars people nearly lined up for tickets – in others, we got turned down cold.  In more than one instance, passengers who had previously declined changed their minds after enough of their neighbors had warmed up to Free Time.

Here’s the experiment in action:

Skepticism greets the time machine

This guy was PSYCHED for his free time

Ted delivers his sales pitch.  Really, it’s free!

Celebrating train riders bartered with us for Free Time with tasty cookies

This fellow already has PLENTY of free time.

This guy got it right away – he gave his friend a Free Time ticket right there on the spot!

Curious anticipation…

Free Time puts some people to sleep

Ted, triumphant

Tim Brown


6 responses to a prototyping experiment

  1. We hardly ever think about time in that matter. We are so involved in routines and cycles that we forget to “stop and smell the roses”, or what ever it is that might bring a brief sense of happiness. I will take a virtual ticket please! Nice job!

  2. I love performance art, concept art and public play but hardly think of it as “prototying.” I don’t feel prototying is better than any of these, indeed, if anything, performance art is far more interesting.

    The same can be said of the use of “experimenting”. I assume this is some allusion to Garfinklian breaching “experiments” What was the experiment? What was the hypothesis about prototyping and what was the data collected?

    So I’m curious why it is important to put this (and other design) activity into the discourses of “science” and “engineering” rather than art, creativity, performance?

    Sounds like the total time event was interesting. Wish I could have been there.

  3. i think the nicest thing about this prototyping experiment is the innocent nature of the experience. who wouldn’t love more time to do anything? “free time” implies “not work”, a break, goofing off …for 10 luscious minutes. it’s what brands like mcdonald’s (“you deserve a break today”) and starbucks figured out a long time ago…only they want you to spend money and eat their stuff.

    this experiment was a great reminder to us all that infusing even a little balance in our lives can get us off our hamster wheels and be human again.

  4. I’ve been thinking about the buttons on devices.

    How would you distinguish a play button from a work button?

    Should there be any distinction?

  5. I think the free time ticket idea illuminates something for me: people (meaning most adults) often need permission to “play.”

    The free time ticket liberates people for… 10 minutes… to be and do what they might not have done, if their minds had not been opened to the idea that they’re free! The sad reality is that we always have that choice to play, but often opt out due to more “important” things.

    I wonder how many people enjoyed their 10 minutes of free time and then went back to their normal state.

    Thanks for sharing this prototype coming to life. Very cool stuff. :)

  6. This reminds me of a project that a friend of mine created, it’s called the Opposite Machine. You put your troubles in the Opposite Machine, and out comes The Opposite. They created a float for a parade in New Orleans, and basically they went around inviting folks to trade in their troubles. The actual troubles varied widely, as the uses for the free time did in your experiment. What the opposite was also varied – they had little gifts to give out. Some of them were perfect strawberries, others were paper hearts or sweets. Small tokens of goodness. Its a recurring event – look for it next time you are in New Orleans!

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