Prototyping: you’re halfway there

A sketch of a journey that is 50% complete to illustrate the idea that prototyping is only half the story.
The journey to great ideas passes through many steps in the design process.

I recently gave a guest lecture on Prototyping in Scott Witthoft’s Furniture Experiments class at the University of Texas School of Design and Creative Technologies. I gathered together some of my past work to share stories of lessons I’ve learned (mostly the hard way) in the past few years. I synthesized the most salient insights (and spared you the long winded stories) here.

TL;DR: Prototyping is not the end of the road. It’s, at best, the halfway point. I wanted to share a few ways that you and your team might leverage prototyping to your advantage. Let’s start with the big one…

It’s not just about that specific step in a design process, or when you’ve got to prove an idea so you have to make something. Prototyping is a way of thinking and an attitude about how to approach a challenge. It is a way of working.

The opposite of prototyping is an “all-in” attitude, kind of like doing a backflip off the diving board (a decision rife with assumptions and potentially primed for massive failure). It might feel good to proclaim an idea with confidence, but going all-in without prototyping can have dire outcomes like John Deasy’s decision for the LA United School District to spend $1.3 Billion dollars on iPads with flawed education software, no training, and major infrastructure gaps.

If we first approach challenges with the attitude to test several potential ideas, then we can release the expectation to have the “right” idea and solution at the outset.

The Mindset of Prototyping is about a cycle of experimentation, testing, learning, and making.

It’s about approaching a problem with a question that might best be answered by taking action. It’s important to be able to make and test ideas so they don’t just stay in the hypothetical. Practice embracing the attitude of prototyping — of making and testing — when you want to explore beyond just the basics of an idea.

Prototypes are tools for furthering the development of ideas and concepts.

A sketch of someone viewing a shape from only one side and missing the whole picture seen in the shadow.
A prototype can help us get new perspectives so we don’t miss the whole picture.

Ideas are exciting and inspiring, but when an idea is just in your head it can also be misleading. It’s incomplete because you think you have everything figured out. Often, you are focusing on the same aspects of the idea and forgetting the larger picture or missing a key perspective.

Prototyping requires you to make an idea real. It has to exit your head and take form so that you can then share it with others. It can be as simple as a written description or a sketch, and as sophisticated as a fully formed product. Jessica Helfand has a wonderful article on the Art of Thinking through Making in the Design Observer. With prototypes you can discover new elements while you are building. Prototyping is a great way to continue to think through your ideas as you are making them.

Prototypes are about giving people something to authentically experience. For example, a classroom curriculum is not just about the syllabus or the assignments, it’s about the experiences in the classroom between students and teachers and all the parts of life that they bring into the classroom, too.

So, what experience are you trying to create with your prototype? Are you trying to shift behavior? Are you trying to elicit emotion? Do you want repeat customers?

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make something. While your idea may be a product, or an app, or a service, you should still consider the full engagement of the users and stakeholders. Consider them as whole people with rich full lives that will be a part of the context of their use.

Let me give you an example. I worked on a project with a private school that wanted to reimagine their school day schedule. After months of research and ideating with the teachers and students, we developed a weekly “open” day for highschool students that simulated a college-like experience, allowing students the flexibility to choose what they would work on all day instead of a traditional structured class day. We could have presented this idea and gotten feedback, but to really learn something we needed to prototype a real attempt at the “open” school day. So we worked with almost 100 students, teachers, and staff to see if students were productive, if teachers still felt connected to students, and answers to so many more questions that could only come from a real experience.

Consider what you might learn through the making and testing of your prototype. What are the questions you are trying to answer with this prototype? My hunch is you don’t have every idea fully formed and perfectly figured out. So it’s important to consider what you don’t know, and what you want to know more about.

If you’re prototyping, then now is your chance to build, test, and learn. Are you hoping to learn more about engagement? Maybe you are unsure about what part of the journey your idea should intersect? Tom and David Kelley from IDEO have a great thoughts about Why a Designer Should Never Go to a Meeting Without a Prototype.

Every project I’ve worked on has some inherent questions that have guided the work from the start, and also along the way new questions will emerge. In 2017, I worked with an amazing group of friends to create a National Endowment for Arts funded project called The Wonderphone. It was a sophisticated design, but in many ways it was a prototype with many questions to be answered. Some of them were technical like, “How do we hack old analog technology with new digital interventions?” And others were experiential, “How long is someone interested in listening to a story on a payphone?”

Get the most out of your prototype by using it as a tool to answer questions and further the development of your ideas.

A sketch of a tinfoil giraffe, saying “Fire me,” related to the story about prototypes being aligned with your idea.
Look for a balance of the quality of the prototype and what you are hoping to learn.

I once taught a workshop and during a classic prototyping exercise, I had everyone externalize their ideas by building something with tin foil. It’s meant to be quick. Tin foil is easy to cut, mold, tape, etc. and they can then share that first idea with a colleague.

I overheard someone at a table say, “If I showed this to my boss, I would be fired.”

That person is totally right! And that moment also helped me articulate a commonly misunderstood lesson about prototyping: Build a prototype that is on par with the idea you are testing and the audience you are sharing it with.

In the early days of an idea, make it fast and low-cost. Take a simple sketched interface into someone’s home and ask them for some feedback. Once you feel like you’re asking bigger and more sophisticated questions about your idea, then consider a more sophisticated prototype that you can test. By the time you get to the pitch competition stage or the C-Suite presentation you can share the many iterations of your ideas, and share all the lessons and insights you’ve learned along the way. You don’t have to say “We hope customers like it!,” but instead can say “We’ve done extensive testing in real world situations and have these quotes from customers about the new product.”

Sometimes, I worry that prototyping is taught or revered for what is made. But the prototype itself is not the goal. I’ve outlined above some reframes about Prototyping as a mindset, as an experience, as a question, and as a tool.

Often folks new to design are approaching prototyping as assignments or the end result. They make something and believe that’s the achievement. But the greatest opportunity comes from realizing that prototypes are only one part of any project. It’s a halfway point at best. The prototypes are helping to give you more information, additional ideas, and a chance to get feedback from real people (not on your design team).

Prototyping isn’t the end of the road, but an important resource along the way. If you think about this mindset and attitude as something that you and your team can deploy at any time then you’re able to navigate the complexity and ambiguity of work and life so much better.

Jump in, make something, have fun, and see what you learn along the way.

A sketch of the tinfoil giraffe as the new CEO because he learned how to prototype.
Great ideas tend to rise to the top when they are prototyped.

There are many wonderful thinkers, writers, designers, and makers talking about prototyping. I wanted to share a few more resources if you are excited to learn more.

Scott Witthoft has this wonderful series of interviews about prototyping. The first is with Victor Saad here

I love this example from the film The Founder that is a prototype of the original McDonald’s Speedee Service System layout.

This classic prototype from IDEO for the Elmo’s Monster Maker App

The story Hannah Fox of the Derby Museum Silk Mill and how they prototyped a whole museum.

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