Chapter 04: Prototype

Chapter 04: Prototype

In this Chapter

In the prototyping phase you will explore and create tangible representations of your ideas — models built quickly and cheaply, intended to be shared with others, used to test and validate (or invalidate!) your proposed solutions.

Build to Think

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.” – Saying at IDEO

Prototyping is getting ideas and explorations out of your head and into the physical world. Building prototypes means exploring, evolving, and communicating ideas, using  people, paper, or pixels. At IDEO they describe this part of the design thinking method as “a bias toward action,” (rather than endless strategizing, planning, and debate). These models enable and inspire others to engage with, talk and ask questions about, and offer feedback on — your proposed solution.

As a result, creating and sharing even early and very rough prototypes, involves thinking through your idea in practical and preliminary ways. Even a quick napkin sketch is useful if it helps you to collect direct responses from potential end-users, or inspires ideas to further improve and refine a solution.

Prototyping products, services, and experiences will quickly highlight possibilities, opportunities, as well as problems and mistaken assumptions that must be fixed sooner rather than later. As Google’s Jake Knapp writes in FastCompany Design, “untested assumptions are like takeout containers in your fridge: If you leave them for very long, things get nasty.”[1]

A prototype can be anything that takes a physical form – be it a wall of post-it notes, a role-playing activity, a space, an object, an interface, or even a storyboard. The resolution of your prototype should be commensurate with your progress in your project. In early explorations keep your prototypes rough and rapid to allow yourself to learn quickly and investigate a lot of different possibilities. Prototypes are most successful when people (the design team, the user, and others) can experience and interact with them. What you learn from those interactions can help drive deeper empathy, as well as shape successful solutions.

Make your ideas tangible.

You don’t know if an idea will work until you try to make it. Make a version of your idea with the materials you have at hand. Creating mockups and models is the best way to make progress toward your goal, because the act of creating a prototype forces you to make decisions and choices as you translate your idea into something tangible. In other words, it’s about building to think.

Start with low fidelity.

Regardless of what format you select to express your idea, keep it simple. Prototyping is not about getting it right the first time: the best prototypes change significantly over time.

Make it and break it … quickly.

Low-fidelity prototyping is about is about detecting and figuring out ways to fix design problems early in your creative process. It is of course better to “fail fast” with a new idea before you get too far down the road, before you overthink, or waste resources on the wrong solution, or before you realize you’re solving the wrong problem altogether.

In Tim Brown’s experience the more “finished” a prototype is, the less likely you will welcome and want to act on constructive feedback, therefore sharing raw representations of what you are building should start early in the life of a project.[2]

As interaction designer Marc Rettig explains, “Spend enough time crafting something and you are likely to fall in love with it.”[3] And as an inventor, you want to fall in love with your user’s problems, not get wedded to your solutions.

You’ll learn a lot by starting with simple expressions of your ideas, then later developing them to be closer to the final solution. Keep a “parking lot” for questions that come up while you build prototypes. Revisit and answer them as you develop and refine your idea further.

As explained on the IDEO website, “because prototypes are meant only to convey an idea—not to be perfect—you can quickly move through a variety of iterations, building on what you’ve learned from the people you’re designing for.” [4]

Plan ahead. 

Most concepts cannot be fully realized with just one prototype. Continuous iteration on your concept, requires various resources and capabilities, namely, money, time and people.

To make your idea come to life:

  • Make note of all the materials you will need to build out your concept. Do you have access to them?
  • Calculate the funds you will need and consider where to get them.
  • Identify the people and partners who will need to get onboard to realize your solution. What special skills and capacities will they need to bring to the project?
  • Consider who will champion and pitch your idea? What networks of people will you need access to?
  • Reflect on how you will raise awareness of your offering? Where will you share your innovation story?

Prototyping as problem-solving.

Because prototypes are often somewhat unfinished, typically the initial model will fall well short of capturing either your complete vision or the perfect solution, Roger Martin advises. [5] Instead, prototypes are a tool to accelerate your learning, because they help to surface opportunities and limitations early on.  “While prototyping,” Kees Dorst writes, “your comprehension of both the problem and the solution deepens at the same time, thus you can speak of the co-evolution of the problem and its solution.”[6] Therefore prototyping is a very efficient method of problem solving.

Suggested Deliverables for the Prototyping Stage:

There is rarely one way to best express your ideas to others. When you want to share an idea with your group or community you might:

  • Tell a story
  • Share a website mockup
  • Perform a role-play
  • Create an advertisement
  • Create a video or animation
  • Sing a song
  • Present a storyboard
  • Draw your idea
  • Make a collage
  • Sketch a wireframe


Final Thoughts

To sum up, in this chapter we’ve covered prototyping as a method for experimenting with and refining design solutions. “Rather than discussing, analyzing, or hypothesizing in abstract terms before acting on an idea or initiative,” designer Jane Fulton Suri of IDEO advises, “build to think” by creating tangible expressions of your ideas early on. [7] By having a bias toward action and thinking with your hands, Suri explains, you may not get an idea completely developed, but the very act of building it will always push your thinking

Low-fidelity prototyping encourages you to practice a highly flexible stance while developing solutions, enabling you to make changes on the fly, to learn along the way, and to incorporate those learnings into new ideas as you develop increasingly higher resolution models of your innovations.

Attributions: material from the following open source texts was adapted and integrated into this chapter

“Design Thinking for Educators” IDEO. Circa 2013. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

“Collective Action Toolkit” Frog Design. Circa 2016. CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

“Design Thinking for 11th Graders” Bridget McGraw. Circa 2016. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

“The K12 Lab Network wiki” Circa 2015. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

  1. Jake Knapp. "How To Decide What Ideas To Prototype" nd. FastCompany
  2. Tim Brown, "Change by Design" Wiley Online Library. 2011.
  3. Marc Rettig cited by Laura Busche in "Skeptic’s Guide To Low-Fidelity Prototyping" 2014.
  5. Roger Martin. "The design of business: Why design thinking is the next competitive advantage: Harvard Business Press. 2009.
  6. Kees Dorst. "Frame Innovation" MIT Press. 2015.
  7. Jane Fulton Suri. "Prototypes as (Design) Tools for Behavioural and Organizational Change A Design-Based Approach to Help Organizations Change Work Behaviours" The journal of applied behavioural science 43.1 (2007): 122-134


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