Written by Ezequiel Williams, Business Designer & Strategist
You may have heard the Silicon Valley mantra to “fail fast, fail often.” It’s used as shorthand for opening ideas or products to scrutiny before they’re complete. While I agree waiting for perfection doesn’t yield the best results, for me, prototyping is about enabling organizations to avoid failure in the future through fast experiments. Here are some thoughts on when to use it, and how to make it work best. Plus, grab the downloadable tool at the end to help you get started.
WHAT PROTOTYPING IS
When approached with the right mindset prototyping allows teams to gather valuable feedback quickly and refine ideas. Another way to think of prototyping is “building to think.” You’ll mock up a solution that helps your team create space for different conversations and interactions. The process moves people beyond words to grapple with problems and engage each other in a more clear, concrete and tactile way than talking or white boards allow.
Where you might normally address a problem by brainstorming, planning, developing and presenting a finished product or service, prototyping introduces a pattern interrupt. It asks people to participate in a dynamic process that looks more like this:
Here’s a concept: does it work?
Let’s test it to generate data.
How do we react to this data?
What should we change or improve?
Do we need to stop altogether and create something else?
Prototyping is also a key to human-centered design. The goal is not to push a seemingly great idea on people. Rather, use prototypes to more fully understand the lived experiences and real needs of those you’re designing with and for. You’ll develop solutions that improve people’s lives faster – with lower long-term costs.
WHEN TO USE PROTOTYPING
Prototyping is applicable to all sorts of problems. I enjoy running design jams and sprints, multi-day events where teams develop solutions such as products and new service concepts. DesignThinkers Group has even helped large, multi-national organizations prototype new policies in an afternoon. Here are some of the ways prototyping creates better experiences and outcomes for teams and the people they serve.
Rather than failing, you’re running experiments to generate data that leaves your team more certain a solution is highly desirable and effective. You quickly learn what won’t work, so you’re not going to make those mistakes once your organization invests serious money and resources to build a final solution.
To prototype a service, you have to understand the customer’s experience through dimensions of time and space. One way to gain key insights quickly is to act it out. You can do this using tabletop models such as the ones pictured with this blog. Or, simply playacting the service allows human interaction that makes the service feel more real, increasing opportunities to get the flavor of what’s happening, what’s working and what could change.
For example, if an airline wanted to prototype a new inflight beverage service, the team might line up office chairs to simulate an airplane aisle, get a rolling cart, some fake or real props, and playact scenarios of how the service could be executed.
Scale models are common for designing physical spaces, but again, design thinking takes it further by seeking to understand people’s experiences in the space. Instead, you’d build a life-size prototype using cardboard or large foam blocks, then test how people react to it. This is a great way to repurpose all those Amazon shipping boxes that come your way.
The most important part of “building to think” is it allows more precise and interesting communication than conventional meetings. Because everybody can see and touch the same thing, you’re not wasting time resolving misunderstandings over words or concepts that might hold different meaning for each participant. People can just talk about what they have in front of them and show exactly what they mean through action. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.
HOW TO MAKE PROTOTYPING WORK
Prototyping can be an exciting process, but a few guidelines will ensure you engage it fully to achieve those low-risk, high-impact results.
1. Lay the groundwork. First, spend time observing and talking with clients and customers to understand what’s going on with them. I’ve seen teams jump to develop a prototype without really comprehending the problem they’re solving for others. That just won’t lead to successful solutions. Our colleague, Adam St. John Lawrence, puts it this way: if you invest in nothing else, spend resources on research.
2. Don’t talk too much. If I see a team that gets ‘stuck’ during a design workshop or session – meaning they’re engaged in a lengthy conversation rather than building or testing – then I’ll pay the group a visit. I’ll ask questions and encourage them to show the answers by using the prototype rather than verbally responding.
3. Maintain a bias toward action. We’ve all been in meetings where, after many hours of talking, nothing changes. When prototyping, the bias towards action means you dedicate your time to make progress through building and validating – active tasks.
4. Keep it Lo-Fi. At an early stage of an idea, you want your prototype to look incomplete. That can make a lot of people in teams uncomfortable, but the value is that unfinished work gives others a feeling of freedom to critique it. If the prototype looks too polished, some people will get a subconscious cue to keep quiet if they see a need for a substantial revision.
5. Make it interactive. As much as possible, a prototype should be something a person can walk up to and interact with in some way. It’s not intended to be a pitch or sale or to convince somebody. What you’re really trying to get is data, so you want to just test how people react. What is missing for the person? What do they like? How can you respond to that with the next iteration?
6. Go fast. An adage from the world of economics, Parkinson’s Law, says, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” If you give yourself a very short amount of time to prototype, you’ll achieve what you need to. If you add too much extra time, you’ll likely waste it. Just think back to those times you were given weeks to complete a school paper but wrote the whole thing the night before it was due.
LETTING GO OF PROTOTYPES
If you’re following these tips, there’s one more thing that can be a barrier to your team’s speed and advancement – if you let it. People tend to get rather precious about their prototypes. They fall in love with their new ideas. But that usually is a recipe for solutions that don’t push the boundaries and aren’t that useful.
Instead, embrace the ephemeral process that prototyping is, and welcome the spot-on solutions that will emerge as a result of doing so. And, yes, have fun “building to think.” Prototyping allows you to tap into your creative brain by making your ideas tangible – it’s what we call “serious play.” And what could be better than getting paid to play?
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