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For an upcoming customer project, I will be dealing with control center UI, including visualization on-screen software, but also hardware control panels and dashboards.

The project emphasizes on evaluating and redesigning both software and hardware interfaces including hi-fi and lo-fi prototyping. There are plenty of tools available for software UI wifreframing, but not so much for hardware UIs.

All physical interfaces already exist. The plan is to evaluate it and give suggestions for improvements.

What is the best practices for designing hardware UIs like control panels with different, but recurring control elements like buttons, sliders or handles? Existing tools like pen&paper, Balsamiq or Photoshop are limited in terms of hardware wireframing. Aside from higl-level tools like AutoCAD, what tools and approaches are there for hardware prototyping?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

foam.

At least, that's what I've seen used by industrial designers for prototyping. Go to an industrial design school or university or company to find out details.

Bear in mind: this is a physical object. You can easily mock up its screen either by using printed-out mokcups or building in a cheap android phone into the foam prototype (probably cheaper, and certainly easier than a real LCD screen), but only the foam will be able to tell you how does it feel touching, how does it look in actual, physical space.

Edit:

While I understand your approach, please bear in mind, designing a physical interface is an industrial design problem. Therefore, best practices exists in the industrial design community.

No matter how well you use the 3D tools (Sketchup is a good tool for that, Blender could be cumbersome, unless you're already used to its interface), it won't be in a physical space.

A profane, but really easy to understand example is how toilets are made: yes, the design architect draws its size on paper, but when the masons come to do one, they grab a chair, sit in the middle of the planned ground, and try to imagine how far should the different appliances be. This actually happened when we were building our family house.

If it's a flat board like an audio studio board, I'd recommend getting a cardboard and some slider handles from a shop, or perhaps rapid prototype some with a rapid prototyping factory (or in a club which has a small-scale rapid prototyper)

In my opinion, when you're designing a physical object, there's simply no substitute for physical prototyping.

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I will not design a physical interface from scratch. I am not an industrial designer and I don't have crafting materials or a workbench at hand. What I am expecting is a way of efficient redesigning a physical interface and communicating the new design to the customer. Sorry, I forgot to mention, that that the plan is to improve an existing physical interface. –  J_rgen Oct 2 '12 at 13:03
    
@J_rgen: see edit. –  Aadaam Oct 2 '12 at 14:50
    
Thanks for your thoughts. Printing out a panel in 1:1 and using dummy handles seems like a reasonable compromise, beeing easily realizable and also suitable for user testing. 3D modelling on the other side seems more appropriate for communicating a solution. –  J_rgen Oct 3 '12 at 7:18
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Google sketchUp http://www.sketchup.com/intl/en/product/gsupro.html could be an intermediate-level solution and is capable to export in cad.

Cinema 4d is the simplest to learn 3d modeling software out there http://www.maxon.net/products/cinema-4d-studio/who-should-use-it.html

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Thanks, I will definitely look into SketchUp. For 3D modelling I also had Blender in mind, it's OpenSource and free. –  J_rgen Oct 2 '12 at 14:00
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