Prototyping: Bring this fundamental tenet of Design Thinking to life.

How does Design Thinking as an approach create value and develop unique solutions to user’s problems? The difference lies in the way it requires us to engage with intended users. There are two significantly differentiating steps inherent in this approach as compared to other approaches. 

The first of the two is empathy, which is about getting to know the user and their concerns in a manner that transcends both quantitative and qualitative user feedback. It emphasizes understanding the users, in their natural settings, through detailed and non-intrusive observations. Such observations include what the users do or don’t do, their sequence of actions, their pauses and stops, their rush-throughs, and lingering at various stages while achieving their end goals. 

Empathy also includes noticing the users’  emotions – fears, triumphs, joys, on the achievement or missing of their goals. These and other such observations reveal to those trained in the art, a deep insight into the users. 

In this article, we will focus on the second differentiating step – prototyping. Let’s understand it in some detail. The dictionary meaning of prototyping is “the activity of making basic models or designs for a machine or other industrial product.” In fact, the term ‘prototype’ has emerged from the field of manufacturing. In manufacturing domain, a prototype is a scaled model of an actual product, developed to conduct testing and evaluate certain parameters of the product. The focus is on validation of assumptions and identifying any surprise elements before making the final product. 

In the Design Thinking approach, a prototype (a tangible manifestation) or prototyping (the process of making something tangible) takes a slightly different meaning. Here prototyping is the conversion of a hitherto cerebral notion into some physical form.

The ability to include users in the development process is a unique value proposition of Design Thinking and prototyping is a critical step that allows us to do this. Let us try and understand this point and then we will delve a little deeper into prototyping itself.

Most users tend to see products/services/solutions only once launched in the marketplace (even those that are supposedly being pilot tested). By then, the entire investment in the development of such products/services/solutions is so significant that if intended customers do not accept those market offerings, it could mean it could mean a failure or setback for the product or the companies who market them. Even when enough consumer research has gone into creating such offerings, it does not always help create a buy-in into the final offerings. This market reaction is probably because, in most cases, the feedback has been taken without the consumer even being able to imagine or visualize what the offering looks like. 

Accordingly, consumers make assumptions that don’t always get mentioned by themand, consequently, impact the validity of all the feedback collected. When offerings based on such consumer feedback are launched in the market, they are inevitably not as successful as predicted. What happens next is only a feeble attempt at trying to change the perceptions of customers and somehow get them to buy the offerings, often at discounts and sometimes even as free take-aways.

Prototyping is that one stage in the development of solutions that could address the above Shortcomings. It could save significant investments for the manufacturer and market reaction of unaccepted offerings for the marketeer.

Now, let’s get back to the discussion on prototyping itself. It is the stage in the Design Thinkingapproach where various ideas are converted into a physical form. This physicalmanifestation of a concept or an idea, serves a couple of purposes.

First, prototyping allows design thinkers to visually present their ideas to users who may not be able to imagine them. Secondly, from the user’s perspective, prototypes let them interact with some physical form instead of just the concept or idea. This interaction allows the users to say what they like or don’t like precisely; understand or don’t understand; figure out or not how to achieve their goal using the prototype. 

From a slightly sub-conscious perspective, it also makes the users feel in control of creating the most appropriate solution for themselves. This feeling, in turn, enhances their willingness or buy-in into the prototype’s final version (the one that gets scaled into a full-fledged offering and introduced in the market).

Most importantly, it provides the creator of such solutions an early input into what must becontinued or discontinued in their idea without investing in the final product. Further, since theprototypes themselves are not very expensive (we will see why that is in a different sectionlater), it is easy to quickly discard the unacceptable ones and move on to the other ideas ornewer manifestations of an idea. Thus, a fundamental tenet of the Design Thinking approach,namely Fail Fast, Fail Often, Fail Forward, is brought to real life by the Prototyping stage.

So, what kind of prototypes are there? Any number of them! As many as design thinkers canthink of using their creative imagination. Here are the examples of some prototypes : 

  • Simple diagrams on a paper (particularly for User Interface or User Experience prototypes)
  • A series of hand-drawn pictures (particularly when users need to feel movement from one stage to the next)
  • Origami, and another paper folding (cubes, spheres, other 3D shapes that denote some aspect of an idea
  • Card-boxes cut open and given various forms (for creating an impression of space and objects)
  • A combination of wood, plastic, paper, foam, in any shape or size (when creating a larger prototype that may have several different parts),
  • 3D building blocks or bricks (when intricate, interconnection are to be demonstrated), play dough (for multiple types of manifestations). 

Besides the material mentioned above, one can use cardboard, sticky notes, duct tape, thumbtacks, sketch pens, rubber bands, strings, straws, pieces of metal, polycarbonate sheet, cloth, leather, and so on for creating prototypes. Practically anything available at hand or is usually thrown away as waste material (non-toxic, please) can be used to develop the prototypes.

The above list should also tell you why these prototypes are inexpensive (or at least relatively inexpensive as compared to a final product). If you can imagine loosely constructed contraptions made from the material mentioned above, you would know that such prototypes can be recycled and reused, further reducing costs. Moreover, since such prototypes are loosely assembled, it is easy to make modifications, add or remove something.

For prototypes that have been through a couple of iterations and modifications and are probably closer to the final manifestations, advanced tools and techniques such as 2D, 3D, and animated imagery, Wireframes and Mock-ups, and Clay Models are available. In recent times the ease of availability and affordability of 3D Printing has taken prototyping to the next level. Sometimes it might be convenient and cost-effective to make some of the trial products using 3D Printing.

When I talk about prototyping in my design thinking sessions, I give the example of NASA scientists and engineers who came up with the idea of making a CO2 filter from material available on the Apollo 13. This prototyping activity, hastily put together on the ground by NASA engineers, eventually saved the lives of the three astronauts aboard Apollo 13, who could return home safely. This hack is an ultimate example of converting a conceptual idea into a physical manifestation that worked and solved a problem.

A critical point about using Prototypes, please treat them as tools for getting user feedback. One of the challenges design thinkers face is to be able to let go of their prototype. They get emotionally involved in their prototypes and are unable to process the feedback they get. This emotional attachment results in selective attention and leads to design thinkers only registering those comments that are in sync with their concepts. It prevents them from listening to improvements and other suggestions that could make their prototype better. Please be mindful of such a possibility.

Finally, look at all prototypes as your contribution to organisational success. Getting them in the hands of the users as early as possible would help you get precise and actionable inputs. It will reduce your development time and will get an acceptable offering in the market faster. Inin today’s world, time to market is one of the critical predictors of success in the marketplace.

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