Public Lab Research note

DIY Kit Design Strategies for participation

by liz with mathew |

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While working with @mathew on cutting out some new spectrometer prototypes, an interesting question came up:

What kind of design strategies for DIY Kits are best for community engagement?

There seem to be at least two dimensions to this question:

How easy is it to 1) build your own tool form scratch; or 2) modify the tool?

Apparently, open source hardware designers think about this a lot, and now that I'm tuned into this question, I can see why. The first version of the Public Lab spectrometer was designed to be made out of cheap, readymade items like conduit boxes that are easily obtainable around the world. This can be referred to as a "found object" strategy, which can reduce barriers to getting started. The new version is designed to be cut out of paper, which is more complicated to replicate from the ground up but is arguably easy to modify/add to it with little bits of paper. This can be referred to as a "crafty" strategy".

Which of these two design strategies do you think is most engaging for you, "found object" or "crafty"?

Check out the examples below and answer in the comments!

Two notable hacks on found object conduit box spectrometer housings:

Chris Fastie's "Ebert", from EbertPlan.jpg

Scott Eustis' long range flare spectrometer, related note :


and the inside:

Two notable hacks made from crafty paper spectrometer housings:

Marc Dusseiller's Hackteria version, via Facebook:


Jeff Warren's Oil Testing Kit prototypes, see




Hrm, I'm not sure if there is a "best" for community engagement as a general subject.

I think improvization might be key to the question of engagement.

If the community in question has a lot of folks who are comfortable and willing to improvize, that favors build from scratch. Communities with a lot of nearby scrap materials and storage for such (more likely in rural than urban environments) are probably also better equipped to build from scratch.

If the community is in tight urban quarters with little access to tools or storage space, or communities where the individuals tend to shy from improvization in favor of exact materials and methods (biological scientists like explicit M&Ms), then I think modifications of preexisting kits would be favored.

Markdown I think that found object and crafty go together, or occupy much of the same space. If you can do one, the other is required to some extent. This is verses off the shelf turnkey products. I just found this site and plan to use it with gusto. Thanks for all who have made this site what it is and for the incredible amount of work that has gone into it.

Great to hear @jwms ! @Btbonval , thanks for these great points.

I agree with jwms that the two go together, and I don't quite understand the distinction between the two. Found objects rarely fit the need perfectly so need to be crafted (modified, hacked) to work. Some raw materials are usually part of the process of modifying found objects. In the examples above, paper is central to the "crafty" solution, evoking the terms handicraft, or "arts and crafts." But sometimes wood or metal is a better choice than paper. If wood or metal is required, it it still "crafty?" Is repurposing a DVD as a diffraction grating more "crafty" or "found object?" Because it requires only scissors, it seems more like craft. Is the DVD more like a raw material or a found object? If the paper used is from an old cardboard box, is that a found object or craft material?

To optimize community engagement, specialized tools and hard to find materials should be avoided. That way more people can participate successfully. So paper craft is always a good solution. But some things are hard to make from paper, so found objects (boxes, clips, ties, tubes, lasers, DVDs, webcams) are crucial parts of the solution. Sometimes a single found object can eliminate the need for lots of crafting and supplies (it's easier to build a soda bottle camera rig than to craft one out of sheet metal).

A special aesthetic is satisfied when the found objects are found lying around and have little other value. This is the ultimate repurposing. When the found objects must be purchased, they are really raw materials, just like the fancy paper Mathew uses. If the purchased objects are repurposed, that is cool, but they might still be more like raw materials.

There might not be a good answer to this question. It depends on the project and on the community you want to engage in it.

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I think @cfastie's point about raw materials being a problem for crafty objects is certainly true. The dividing line is fuzzy between repurposing and crafting, and the accessibility of those approaches.

I would say that the ability of someone with minimal tools to modify the object is an important factor. Even if we ship a complicated cardboard/paper thing, its a lot easier to modify than a metal conduit box. also, it seems more people are comfortable with tape and scissors than going to the hardware store and buying extension parts ala Ebert.

The specialness of materials reaches back to the modifiability question, but also to the ease of access issue that Chris brings up-- how easy is it to get the materials? The version of the paper desktop spectrometer I showed at the Barnraising was designed to be able to be cut at home out of 8.5"x11" construction paper and standard thickness cardboard. That wasn't very durable though, and most folks felt it too fragile. Based on that feedback we're going to make a custom box out of a thicker cardstock that is far more rigid. But that means using bigger pieces of some rather fancy paper. that said, a lot of the components will be accessible and easy to cut from construction paper, and we're going to ship a piece of fancy black cardstock with it too.

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Heard through @mathew (who was excited):

"We made a kit that had a bunch of simple, DIY accessible material parts and that could be taken apart easily and it already got redesigned by @stoft in a way we can mass produce:

We can integrate these changes within the next 3 months, and since the spectrometer is a modular piece of the Oil Testing Kit, this redesign doesn't interrupt ongoing design work on that project at all."

YAY PL design process~!

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