PLIX Inflatables: Reflections from the beta-testing process

June 21, 2021

A core component of PLIX is our activities, co-designed with public librarians and researchers from the MIT Media Lab. Historically, they emerged from a two-part process: residency exchanges and play-testing. With the new PLIX Inflatables activity, we tried something a little different. The initial co-design with Allie Affinito (New York Public Library), Dave Fink (Michigan City Public Library), and Kyung Yun Choi (MIT Media Lab) resembled the residency, just moved online. However, our usual play-testing with patrons wasn’t possible in the pandemic lockdown. This challenge afforded an opportunity to innovate, and we were so delighted with the results of our experiment that we made changes to our subsequent workshops and online course—and future rounds of activity development.

Dave, Avery, Allie, Cara, and Michelle show off their prototypes during the initial PLIX Inflatables co-design phase.
Dave, Avery, Allie, Cara, and Michelle show off their prototypes during the initial PLIX Inflatables co-design phase.

Our goal was to have beta-testers try out and refine the activity components, tinker with the tools, create and play, and help us make Inflatables more user-friendly before sharing it more widely with the PLIX community! We also hoped this exploratory time would uncover some ways that the beta-testers could run this activity in their own libraries.

Beta-testing launched in early February and lasted five weeks. In total, we had 17 participants join us virtually over the five-week process, from all across the United States. During the onboarding session, we discussed the context of the project, desired outcomes for beta-testing, methods of documentation and sharing, and getting started with the materials. We suggested a few ways to get started:

  • Recreate some of the examples that are shown in the design journal, created by the co-designers of this activity.
  • Explore and create using the prompts on the activity page.
  • Create your own prompt or remix!
  • Gather inspiration from the “Therms-Up” project page which documents the origins of this project, written up by Media Lab graduate student Kyung Yun Choi.

The program consisted of a few main components:

The components of our Inflatables materials kits.
The components of our Inflatables materials kits.
  • A materials kit
  • We know that one of the hardest parts of running a program is getting started and gathering the materials. To make things easy and exciting to get started, we sent materials kits to beta-testers that included various types of snacks (so we could use the mylar inside!), syringes, space blankets, aluminum foil, origami and trace paper, and mini irons! We also included some objects to help get everyone into the Inflatables mood, like bubblegum and balloons. 😉

  • Inflatables open hours
  • Each week, we hosted three drop-in playtest sessions: these were informal times to co-work with members of the PLIX team and fellow beta-testers who were interested in discussing the activity, brainstorming remixes, or were having trouble with creating inflatables.

  • Open documentation
  • While librarians engaged in independent beta-testing, we asked them to openly document the process, both using their medium of choice (like social media or a patron-facing instructables site), as well as cross-posting to a thread on the PLIX Forum.

We were delighted by the outcomes of the beta-testing process! The success of our experiment inspired us to make changes to future activity development and workshops. For example, we used the same model of open hours for the Make’n’Meets we hosted in our first-ever online Facilitating Creative Learning course in spring 2021. And we plan to have future co-designs look more like this broader beta-testing, recruiting more librarians to build on one another's ideas.

Check out just some of the wonderful contributions and discoveries from beta-testing:

Chris Dorman (from Maine State Library) had an ingenious idea: a paper-only version that used masking tape as the source of fusion. Many of our testers remarked that it would be handy if this activity were possible to complete without an iron, which is used to heat mylar (the shiny material that lines snack bags) and fuse it to itself: this way, it would be easier to facilitate for libraries with small staffs, and make it adaptable into a take-and-make activity. The development of paperflatables (inflatables made out of paper, rather than recycled snack bags) was a highlight of the beta-testing process!

Chris used wrapping paper to make a playful, inflatable tail, inspired by the Collaborative Summer Library Program 2021 theme "Tails and Tales."
Chris used wrapping paper to make a playful, inflatable tail, inspired by the Collaborative Summer Library Program 2021 theme "Tails and Tales."
Ry shows off a 100% newspaper + tape inflatable!
Ry shows off a 100% newspaper + tape inflatable!

Ry Greene at the Phoenix MACH1 Makespace had a lot of luck iterating on Chris' paperflatables idea.

Tracy Hvezda-Lehtola of Hennepin County Library created an autoinflatable, which relied on a simple chemical reaction to inflate her creation, rather than adding air mechanically.

Tracy's incredible
Tracy's incredible autoinflatable.
Tienya's starfish creations.
Tienya's starfish creations.

We have also heard that Queens Public Library is already giving it a go! As we wait to hear back how it went, enjoy these cute chip bag starfish that Tienya Smith made at QPL. 🙂

If you want to share an inflatable or related innovation you made, please be sure to share on the forum and if you use social media, tag it #PLIXInflatables 😃

Big shout-out to all of the beta-testers who joined us for this adventure, shared amazing contributions, and dedicated their time to this PLIX experiment: Shams Abdussamad, Kelley Aiken, Amber De Angilis, Barsha Bajracharya, Chris Dorman, Laurie Gaines, Ry Greene, Claudia Haines, Tracy Hvezda-Lehtola, Kris Lachowski, Heather Maganzini, Brian Oertel, Matt Skavasik, Tienya Smith, Melissa Sprenne, Tara Thomas, and Carolanne Tkach.