How do you go from idea to reality when you're clueless?
March 16, 2012 6:09 PM   Subscribe

How do makers, hackers, and artists go about creating prototypes when they don't know where to start?

I enjoy reading crafts and electronics blogs like MAKE, CRAFT, whip up, etc. Part of the reason is because I love being surprised and inspired by what cool things people are cobbling together. There are some creative makers out there! I always come up with fun projects after going through my blog feeds.

My question: how do people begin to design prototypes of ideas when they don't know what they're doing? I get the feeling that a lot of people have a basic knowledge of process--either a programming language for software, an artistic skill for craft, electronics for circuit-reliant projects. But what if you don't?

Advice from makers always seems to echo the idea that you should just go for it and make prototypes. How does a complete neophyte break down a project idea into a process?

Here's an example. Just today, I was thinking about how cool it would have a video game-themed scale. The scale would store data for two people: player one and player two. If a person's weight went up, there would be a negative sound effect. If the weight went down, something happy would play. It's like Sonic's losing-rings chime versus his triumphant 1-UP music.

For all my ideas, I'd have no clue how I'd even begin with such a project. How do makers figure out where to start to make their ideas reality?
posted by jfoo to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not much of a maker myself, although I'm hoping to level up in that area soon (I graduate this semester, so yay for having more time on my hands).

I *think* an idea like what you described is skipping a step or two. Instead, think about what's already out there, and try building that. So, someone on MAKE or instructables or whatever has instructions on building, say, a homemade Clapper, or an RFID door lock, or ... whatever. Go build that, following their instructions. That'll give you a better idea of what parts are out there to build electronics with; once you're comfortable with that, you can think about how to apply those same components to building a project of your own, like the one in your question.

"Okay," you say, "but I those instructions tell me to solder part A to part B, and I don't even know how to do that!" Cool. There are instructions on soldering on the web. Try soldering an LED and a resistor to a battery. (This is just an example; the more general point is, break it down. What skills might you need to do the more ambitious project you have your eye on? How can you learn those skills in a simple project, and then put them together with other skills?)

I'm at that stage myself; I have a few electronics projects I want to work on, but I know my skills are weak at this point. So first, I need to figure out how soldering works. Then I need to figure out what sorts of electronic components I can use for different simple tasks. Finally - maybe weeks or months after I've started playing with electronics - I should have a better idea of how I can combine components and techniques to build the cool ideas I've come up with on my own.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 6:27 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sometimes, there are classes you can take at the local community college or Learning Annex-type place. If happen to live in the Bay Area, there's TechShop, which offers courses in lots and lots of maker stuff (e.g.: woodworking, metal-working, CAD, sewing, and, yes, electronics).
posted by mhum at 6:38 PM on March 16, 2012

Why not head to and pick up one of the "Getting started" type books and one of the part kits? The part kits are a little spendy, but you're starting from scratch (I assume). Or you could do some of the smaller one-off kits or things like the Learn to Solder pack.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:38 PM on March 16, 2012

The Bay Area also has Noisebridge (other parts of the country have similar groups/spaces - do a google for "hackerspace" and the name of your town/region), which has informal classes, and people who'd probably be willing to hold your hand on some simple projects.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 7:09 PM on March 16, 2012

I don't think a complete neophyte can design prototypes without knowing at least something about the tools available. You need to have a technical inventory.

Take your scale. At a high level, you'll need the following elements:

- power supply
- button to switch between player 1 and player 2
- some way to digitize the output of the scale
- a computer or logic circuit to compare the current weight value with the old weight, trigger the right sound, and store the new weight
- a permanent memory element to keep track of old weight values
- a synthesizer or playback device to generate music (could be part of the computer)
- an amplifier and speaker to physically play the sounds

If you don't know what kind of parts can fulfill these requirements, you won't get that far making a prototype. You find out by doing similar projects, reading general information, or asking someone who knows.
posted by scose at 7:26 PM on March 16, 2012

how do people begin to design prototypes of ideas when they don't know what they're doing? I get the feeling that a lot of people have a basic knowledge of process--either a programming language for software, an artistic skill for craft, electronics for circuit-reliant projects. But what if you don't?

That's the fun of making stuff. You learn a skill because you're doing a project.

So for your project you'd obviously need some electronic skills. If you googled around a bit you'd probably learn that a breadboard kit, some basic components, and a microcontroller (an Arduino, for example) would be a good starting point. So go read up on basic electronics (the Make book is good), go find an Arduino forum. Do your homework. Experiment. Ask questions on the forum.

Then, when you've learned a bit, start building. You'll get stuck. Do some more homework, tear down what you've done and start again. Repeat. The good news is the fun is everywhere, in the building, the learning, the researching. It's all fun. Each new skill you learn you can then tuck away into your bag of trick

Usually when I start a project, such as a Halloween costume, I'll have a general idea of what I want to do and then I'll spend an hour or two wandering around Home Depot, or A.C. Moore, or some other store, just trying to get ideas for what I can use. The plumbing aisle at HD is great for a lot of non-plumbing stuff. Just walk, look at what they sell. Get creative. How can you use this length of pipe in a project? What are three non-electical uses for a metal junction box? What sorts of fasteners are in the "special fasteners" drawer? Things like that.

The fact that you don't know what you're doing should be enough incentive to do anything. Unless you're building rockets, very little of this is rocket science. It's measuring, cutting, and attaching stuff to other stuff. A lot of it is just having the confidence to say "I am capable of doing this. I might fuck up a couple times, but that's ok."
posted by bondcliff at 7:32 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the key is to start making *something*. Once you get some experience, the prototyping skills will come.
posted by BostonEnginerd at 8:06 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You build similar projects designed by people who know what they're doing. You start with step by step guides, and eventually you develop the skills to copy the projects of more experienced designers just by looking at them and experimenting. You keep on making those until you start having ideas of your own about how to improve the design. Then you keep improving until you've created something entirely new.
posted by milk white peacock at 8:48 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's a secret: A lot of the people who are published in Make, Craft, etc don't know what they're doing either. If they did there would already be documentation on the subject. Here is the process:

1) Try. That's it. They go out and see what you can do. This is the number 1 barrier, bar none, that people mess up when they want to make stuff. They simply don't start. 99.99% of projects don't get to this point.

2) Fail. A lot. This step is not optional. In fact this is what you'll spend most of your time doing. The best way to fail is to:

a) Fail fast. Don't bother with the stuff you know. Spend your time on the crazy crap you know nothing about. These parts are what you need to spend time on when making the prototype. Don't make it all at once, pare it down to each idea that you need to solve and do just that. For your idea, if you know how a scale works, but you don't know how to make noises or record and compare numbers, then spend your time on that. Then retreat to the stuff you know when you're tired of failing. Work on that pretty case or writing up the documentation.

b) Fail cheap. Don't make a prototype ful scale of 1/4 scale will work. Don't make a prototype out of metal if wood will do. Don't make it out of wood if cardboard or foamcore will do. Don't fasten anything in place permanently until you know it will work. (And even not then. Not if you can help it.) Use tape, not glue. Then you can take stuff apart and rekerjigger it and put it back together. (This is why makers love laser cutters and 3d printers. They allow quick adjustments without redoing a lot of work.)

3) Learn from your mistakes. Otherwise failure really was a failure. Figure out why what didn't work didn't work and try again, but do it differently. Document what you do. Document why you do. Take lots of photos. Blog it. Keep track of all the web links you use to figure out what you did.

4) Keep trying until you get it. Don't give up. Keep trying. The old Edison quote "I haven't failed, I've found 1000 ways that don't work." That. Except 1000 might be a small number.

5) Steal. Okay, maybe not steal, but do your research. Google for hacked bathroom scales, or search Instructables. There you'll find projects where people have modified commercial scales to do all sorts of stuff. Read their documentation and look up all the terms and things you don't know. Repeat for each element of your project. While I don't think your idea exists as one thing, each separate part does, somewhere. Find 'em.

6) Ask. Find a supportive community. The DIY and Make-y businesses are very supportive of beginners. The Make forums, Adafruit forums, and Arduino forums are usually very helpful for the novice. You don't have to worry about asking a stupid question.

Or find someone who has done something similar. I regularly get asked for how to approach a project. If the person has clearly done their research (tell me what you've tried) and is stuck I'll take the time to nudge them in the right direction. (My nudge: Buy an Arduino play with until you get confident with it. This kit is awesome. Then buy a Wave Shield. Then connect it to a scale with a serial connection. You'll have to do your research to find a scale that has one.)

7) Get distracted. You know what, when it starts coming together it might not be as great as you hoped. But you might find another idea that's even better using the same ideas. (Connect that scale to your gas card. If you gain too much weight you can't buy gas for your car and have to walk/bicycle. Or forget the scale. Connect it to your chore list and make a game of it. I'm just spitballing here.) Or if it's not working, put it in a box and go out to play. It's amazing what you mind can do when you don't think it's thinking.

Best of luck. Try. Keep trying. Stay up beat. Sharing what you're doing can be an invaluable help.

(Disclosure: I've written a number of articles for Make.)
posted by Ookseer at 10:27 PM on March 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

Get excited about projects that you can break into achievable chunks. Create them, chunk by chunk! After each chunk, feel really good about yourself. That will help motivate you to push on towards the next chunk! Step by step with lots of well-timed positive reinforcement along the way, you will learn a ton and create awesome things.

But it also sounds like you're just not sure how to break projects down into chunks. I like starting by writing a list of all the stuff I have to do to bring a project into minimal worthwhile reality. That first list gives me a rough outline of the tasks, and then I break those down into subtasks that are small enough to give me sufficiently frequent moments of feeling accomplished and awesome along the way. That keeps me motivated and helps me get things done.

Really, just don't be afraid to just start. Start anywhere. You'll figure it out as you go.
posted by 168 at 10:44 PM on March 16, 2012

I want your scale! I would add goals to it as well, so when you reached one, some super duper happier music would play, or cash would come shooting out of the scale, or something.

Yes, you learn as you go. The only key is to be passionate/excited/interested. These days you can learn almost anything on the internet. Start making lists of what you think you might need to know and just start to play.
posted by Vaike at 9:52 AM on March 17, 2012

All the advice upthread is awesome, I am going to add one more thing. Play. As in find some process you are interested in and give it a go. Try out arduino programing, solder a kit together, try whittling a chunk of wood into a pine wood derby racer. Everything you discover can be added to your pile of things that might be useful later.

If you are totally not sure how to begin something, find someone who has done it before and learn some keywords or jargon that will help define the scope of the problem. Googleing "arduio weight sensor" led me to this video that talks in depth of how to disassemble and interface with a digital scale. As a result, I now know that I can also google arduino strain gauge or arduino load cell to get similar projects. Each will add some clues to the puzzle.
posted by Pink Fuzzy Bunny at 3:00 PM on March 17, 2012

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