On a Saturday afternoon (pre-COVID), I found myself in my kitchen, hooking up an Arduino board to a heating rod with one hand, and handling an electronic thermometer and a milk-stirrer with the other. How did I end up here? A hunt for the perfectly-cooked steak—and a typical result of my obsession with prototyping.
Designers prototype everyday. It’s an essential part of the design and development process that involves translating early ideas into tangible prototypes that we can test in real life with real users. Prototyping is about being able to understand a challenge or an opportunity and find creative ways to move toward a solution, step by step. Essentially homing in on “building the right thing,” before “building that thing right.”
But the prototyping process doesn’t have to be limited to what you do for work. In fact, bringing this approach to your everyday life has the magical effect of turning common challenges into moments of playful exploration. It’s not necessarily about finding the ultimate answer, but enjoying the opportunity to experiment, improve, and learn along the way. You can prototype anything as long as you have the right mindset and get creative with your tools.
Here’s what it looked like when a sous-vide experiment took me down a prototyping rabbit hole (and how it could take you down one too).
Inspiration can come from many places, like frustration with tools or objects that are not easy to use or the simple joy of creative exploration. For me, the latter happened when I stumbled across a recipe that used sous-vide, the technique of slowly heating meat or fish to its perfect core temperature so it doesn’t become dry or overcooked.
I thought it would be fun to try out for a dinner party, but didn't want to invest in a professional sous-vide machine. A typical moment where my prototyping obsession kicks in…
An essential step while prototyping is identifying the simplest way to obtain the intended result—to achieve more with less. Isn’t the sous-vide technology just slowly heating up ingredients and stabilizing the temperature over a long period of time? That seemed pretty simple. So I gathered my materials: heat-proof bags, an electric thermostat, and of course, a couple of beautiful steaks.
I sealed the steaks in the heat-resistant bags, put them into a pot of water and used my oven to heat them up to 53°C/127 °F (the perfect core temperature for a medium rare steak). Unfortunately, the thermostat of a regular kitchen oven is relatively inaccurate, with the actual temperature being ±10°C/18°F compared to what it shows! That can make the difference between your meat being bloody as hell and completely overcooked.
That meant I had to place myself in front of my oven for over two hours, staring at the tiny LCD display of my electric thermostat and manually balancing the inaccuracy of the oven by turning the temperature up and down.
The good news: the meal was perfect—the meat medium rare—and my friends were impressed. But sitting in front of my oven, watching a thermostat for multiple hours, was less than ideal. This was the perfect starting point for the next iteration—looking into ways to automate and refine the temperature stabilization and improve my personal user experience.
That’s how I found myself on a Saturday afternoon hooking up a simple heating rod, my electronic thermostat, and a milk stirrer with an Arduino board.
I mounted my thermostat to the top of the pot and coded my Arduino board to activate the heating rod as long as the temperature of the water bath stayed below 53°C/127 °F. Triggering the milk stirrer every once in a while ensured that the temperature stayed consistent throughout the pot. My prototype ran this process every 10 seconds and freed me up to focus on other parts of the dinner preparation while delivering another round of perfectly cooked meat and fish.
Each iteration of a prototype will reveal more detailed feedback and help you get closer to an actual solution. That’s why prototyping is the best way to learn while moving forward, and to de-risk decisions on product innovation or bigger investments.
Using my sous-vide prototype several times helped me identify multiple opportunities to improve it, like how to make it as compact as possible for easy storage (a great design and prototyping task in itself!). But most importantly, by using the prototype, I realized that I missed the sensorial experience of cooking. Simply waiting for ingredients to reach their core temperature in the water bath felt like an artificial, chemical experiment and was not the rich sensory experience I was looking for when spending time in the kitchen on weekends.
So I decided to pivot. After not using the prototype for months, I disassembled it and freed up the components for my next prototyping rabbit hole. Even if the sous-vide prototype actually never made it into a final solution, it helped me better understand what I enjoy most about cooking, and taught me something that I’m sure will be applicable to a future experiment—because the prototyping obsessive’s job is never done. Now, on to the next project!