Monday, April 12, 2010

I built a ray gun and I’m going to use it

This month’s approaching UX Group meeting, a UX ‘show and tell’ for artifacts developed in support of creating a user experience, has me thinking about UI prototypes.

Creating UI prototypes is an important part of the design process. Whether built using pen and paper, dedicated prototyping software tools, image-editing software like Adobe Photoshop, or plain old html, a UI prototype makes the design concrete and helps to build a shared understanding of what a product’s user experience will be like.

At one end of the prototyping fidelity scale is a paper prototype, which has the great merits of being inexpensive, easy to create, and eminently disposable.

At the other end of the scale is what I like to call a ray gun. What’s a ray gun? To answer that, I’ll go back to my inspiration for this particular metaphor. One of the first science fiction books that I read when I was young was Tales from the White Hart, a collection of generally humourous short stories by Arthur C. Clarke. I haven’t read it in many years, but I have fond memories of it. (I’m not sure how accurate those memories are, though!)

One of the stories, “Armaments Race”, describes a competition between the makers of rival science fiction television programs to create impressive special effects for weapons. The details of the titular armaments race are quite entertaining as each program’s team unveils increasingly realistic simulations of ray guns. At this point I’ll add a warning for those of you who haven’t yet read “Armaments Race” that the next sentence is a spoiler, albeit one that is crucial to the point of this post! The punch line of the story is, in essence, that an actual functioning ray gun with real destructive power is built in the pursuit of a great simulation.

Metaphorically, then, a ray gun is a UI prototype that crosses a line into a functioning product. I have to admit that I’ve built more than one ray gun as a user experience designer. Depending on who you talk to, that’s either a good or a bad thing.


  1. Great analogy! I really like it!
    Recently I started posting interestnig analogies I found on the web on I thought it could be a good idea to create a place where people can share useful analogies.

  2. Thanks Peter. And that's a nice idea you have there for your blog.