Make it Snappy, Make it Crappy!

In Praise of Ultra-Low-Fidelity Prototyping

This is a dog

Oh, Ultra-Low-Fidelity Prototype, how I love thee, in all thy junky glory!

We love our minimum viable products, our scale models, our proofs of concept,even our lowly paper prototypes. They are wonderful and important. But they are not everything.

Ultra-Low Fi Pro, you are ugly, you are dirt cheap, you require an effort-investment of approximately zilch. You are created in seconds or minutes out of the most homely of materials, held together with sticky tape and storytelling.

And yet — You engage the most cynical user, the most intimidating customer, the most indifferent colleague! How can something like you be so very, very powerful?

I know the answer: You evoke dialog about a need when the solution is barely a twinkle in its inventor’s eye.

I know the answer: You invite insight that pretty models and paper prototypes close out with their prettiness and confidence.

I know the answer: Your very existence inquires “What if?” and calls forth “Yes, and!”

How do you create your magic? You speak the language of detachment and humility. Comments about you couldn’t possibly hurt your creator’s feelings. In fact, you’re so clearly weak and unfinished that everyone wants to jump in and help! You are silly. You remind everyone to bring their most playful, imaginative self to the work of understanding a problem and creating a solution.

You must be used at the very beginning of the innovation journey, when your creator knows who to help, but not yet precisely how to help them. You are a probe, a provocation, a way to get users (and partners! And bosses!) talking about challenges and wishes. You go beyond talking! You make people want to improve you and make you better with their hands! You inspire co-creation like nothing else!

You are very short lived, U-L-F P. Your original form ends the moment someone responds to you — you are made to change because in truth, you are scarcely more than an invitation to make you better.

You gather insight about human experience even better than an interview question. You are a physical manifestation and therefore you are understood more deeply than language.

Watch out, dear Ultra-Low-Fi Prototype! You must be used with caution. Bringing an ultra-low-fi prototype to a conversation that expects a higher-fidelity prototype like a scale model, a minimum viable product, or even a paper prototype is a recipe for disaster. Please don’t try to face expectations about quality, that’s not your job! If you show up when people are looking for something pretty and finished, you won’t be a magnet for engagement, you’ll just be terrible work-product.

Beware, too, of your creator’s impulse to sell you or convince people you are good. You are not for persuasion. You are for drawing out other people’s thoughts, feelings and ideas, and persuasion is the opposite of that.

Remember though, you have a place that is all your own. Out of all of the kinds of prototypes, you are the only one that is incomplete enough to make people want to co-create.

I did a workshop about you at QConSF a while ago, and the video still warms my heart with fondness for you. The clip from about 7:30 to about 11:10 gives more detail about you and why you work. The clip from 22:40 shows how to use you to learn and collaborate with a potential customer (and there’s a very silly bit before that, around 20:35, that shows how NOT to use you). The whole 40-minute thing can be used as a hands-on workshop so people can learn more about you on their own. All they need is a partner, a bunch of junk and a timer!

I will always love you, ULF P. You may be the most important thing I learned at d-School bootcamp. You will kick off my every innovation journey, and I will share you with the world, every chance I get.

Conquer the earth, oh meekest of prototyping methods!

See you tomorrow, and every day!

My thanks to Sara Shewell who invited me to make a bunch of engineers talk to each other over messy prototypes and encouraged me to say “crappy” out loud in public.

I propose a contest: What would be a better name for “ultra-low-fidelity prototype” than ultra-low-fidelity prototype? I’m really tired of typing all those letters, and this practice is too useful to be tied down to such wonky words. Propose your neologism in the comments! Winner gets bragging rights and my best efforts in promoting the new term!

Innovation and entrepreneurship consultant. Poster child for work/life integration.