Modular Toolkit of Interface Components

Magnus Feil, Frances Tung
University of Washington


Magnus Feil / Frances Tung
University of Washington / Division of Design

A solid industrial design education involves learning about how the nuances of form create affordances that convey the intended usage of a product. While the understanding of form language is essential to successful product design, today’s world of products increasingly involve digital interfaces with a mixture of physical and screen-based interactions. From home appliances to car dashboards, the world of physical product design is becoming inundated with interfaces. Student-level industrial design projects typically result in an appearance model or a prototype with limited functionality. These project outputs are great for evaluating factors such as ergonomics and basic mechanical movement but lack a testing-ground for interface design.

The interactive nature of an interface proves to be a unique challenge for creating prototypes. There are several successful products that enable students as early as grade school to assemble interactive gadgets such as Lego Mindstorms and Littlebits. The modularity, easy assembly and simplified programming interface make these products appealing to students and instructors alike. However, these kits mostly teach the very basics of technical assembly and do not delve further into how interactivity in the context of semantic language has impact on consumer products. A toolkit designed for design students and educators would not only have to significantly reduce the technical barrier in a similar manner as these other kits have done, but also provide a starting point for assembling control elements.

Composed of modular components representing the basic spectrum of interface elements encountered in devices and control panels, this toolkit will enable students to quickly assemble and test an interface. Elements of this basic set will include universal functions such as buttons and knobs that have been distilled into their neutral and unadorned forms. By providing a blank canvas for exploring interactivity, the toolkit will also encourages students to design their own components to work with the existing library and thus expand the learning opportunities even further.

As the realm of product design is becoming increasingly connected with user experience and software design, teaching developing industrial designers the principles of interaction design in the context of embedded user interfaces is an opportunity that would lead to better prepared students for tackling complex multidisciplinary problems.