It’s About More than Duct Tape

Expanding the Value of Prototyping: Four Experience Design Fundamentals

In this series on experience design, I’ll share key insights and frameworks from my own practice. I believe this re-framing is essential if the field is going to mature and contribute to complex problem solving and systems adaptation.

I have spent thousands of hours over the last decade working directly with the public to understand their needs and design experiences that delight. Most of this time has been spent conceptualizing and then testing scrappy rapid prototypes. This is the “duct tape & cardboard” work increasingly associated with human centered design. Over the years I have refined ways of rapidly engaging people by building things together. This means unlocking the additive mindsets needed to think iteratively and adaptively. My motivation for writing this online toolkit is to help expand the ability of professionals to rapidly adopt these frames for positive impact.

What’s the purpose of your work?

It’s easy to mistake methods for mindsets. Rapid scrappy prototyping has never been more popular. It’s also never been more oversimplified. It’s true, just making something is a great way to start. Just testing it in context will help you focus, refine and possibly connect with your users. However, experience design and rapid prototyping can offer so much more strategic value. I’ll start by describing one essential mindset (iteration). Then I’ll break down four* core reasons to build and test a scrappy prototype within it. This is an article about the WHY of prototyping, not the HOW.

*There are way more than four, but I’ve picked the most important areas that you definitely need to start to think about. As we continue to share more investigations into the future of service design and experience design I’ll flesh out the other areas.

First things First: Adopt An Iterative Mindset

Professionally we talk a lot these days about failing forward, embracing risk, and being comfortable with ambiguity. Do these terms focus too much on the process and the present? Do they leave enough room for what could emerge in the future? Instead of failure let’s talk about iteration.

Nothing is permanent

Every solution we provide — no matter how energy intensive, expensive or large scale — is effectively temporary. At some point it will have to be remade, restructured or reinforced. In its early stages a solution might seem stable. But over time, even the most robust planning and contingencies will be made susceptible to change. This doesn’t happen because the solution was wrong, but because the system around it shifts in unpredictable ways. The energy required to plan for every contingency is too great. What if we put that energy into planning it’s renewal instead?


The Four Value Frames for Prototyping

As I’ve mentioned before, this is not an exhaustive resource on HOW to prototype (more on that will come later in the series). This is a set of patterns that I’ve encountered about WHY prototyping is an important part of using design to make strategic decisions and impact systems. It’s easy to jump to #2 — testing your idea/solution — but that is just one small area of opportunity. The four are not a linear progression either. Think about the different kinds of prototypes as belonging to one interconnected ecosystem.

You can prototype to understand any part of the system.

A prototype for one frame might look very similar to the experiment created necessary for another. What will be different is the CORE QUESTION used to drive your observations and the CONTEXT you put the prototype into in order to generate data. It’s possible to design a kind of “minimum viable experiment” for each. Ask yourself: What is the smallest strategic test you can do to generate new data?

Type 1: Prototype to confirm a need:

Core Question: What do people want (to do)?
Key things to observe: What do people DO & What to they SAY when they experience your prototype.
Think about this: you can’t read people’s minds — we can only interpret their actions.
Prototype to learn what people want by watching what they do in response to an experience.

Type 2: Prototype to test a possible solution (what might work is…)

Core Question: What parts of my design are essential?
Think about this: Have I pushed my test it far enough? Don’t just prototype enough to fall in love with your idea. Test it until it breaks so you understand it deeply.
Prototype to refine the essential components of your solution.

Type 3: Prototype to understand the system (how are these things connected)

Core Question: How does the bigger system react to your prototype?
Think about: Watching for ripples or reactions that are external to your experience. Do you get kicked out of the experiment site by a security team (a signal of risk aversion, territory battles?), does it attract new partners (is an untapped community present?)
Prototype to “get on the balcony” and see how the bigger system is performing.

Type 4: Prototype to understand yourself.

Core Question: What mindsets, assumptions and perspectives are we bringing to the problem? Are they sufficient?
Think about: Is the test revealing cultural undercurrents in the team deploying it? Is it reinforcing those biases or helping to balance the system? Am I comfortable? Is that changing the way I’m thinking about the problem?
Are the ways that you are thinking about the problem helpful?

But what about Agile, Lean, Design Thinking, HCD…?

The design professions are busy codifying their work as different methods: Agile, Lean, Design thinking and Human Centred Design etc. Common to all of these methods is some kind of cycle and discrete steps. Usually experimentation has a defined and specific place. These processes don’t capture the cross cutting potential of prototyping. The challenge is to connect what you learn in the experiment with strategic thinking. Placing the learnings within a larger context so that we oscillate between higher levels of system understanding and tactical action.

The Meta Prototype Recipe: Observe / Interpret / Intervene

Every organism learns adaptively using the same iterative sequence: Observe, Interpret, Intervene. From Algae to Amazon.com this repeats to produce incredible complexity and sophistication. Many methods try to restrict this entropy driven pattern. They truncate the natural cycle and then trigger unintended system wide consequences.

The solution? I don’t have one. But perhaps incorporating prototyping practices into every stage is one way to channel the emergent energy of a system. We still need to develop this practice in our field. The prototype to empathize and the prototype to ideate and the prototype to prototype each need a different mindset and frame.

Permission to think differently

What should be stressed in that future is a need to integrate this kind of thinking with a diversity of other ways of looking at the world. Think like a scientist, and a ballerina, and a parent, and, and, and…

We are living in a world which demands you stake out a territory or pick a side. State your allegiance to one tribe or another — never more than one. This tribalism is not sufficient in the face of complex and global problems.

We need more grey in our thinking. We need more uncertainty in our methods. We need to grope through the dark — paying deep and constant attention to the signals that our environment is feeding back. We need to improvise. We need to craft.

We also need to remember that we have the privilege of making things for people. I’ll caution that a fully anthropocentric worldview will only lead us into progress traps. We cannot forget that our civilization (and professions) can only exist on a planet that can still sustain life.

A few final thoughts on Documentation:

Documentation will affect the breadth, complexity and success of a prototype. One of the easiest ways to overcomplicate an experiment is to overcomplicate the documentation. Nothing will kill emergent data than preformating the observations you intend to make.

The way you document something changes the way you will explore the problem.

So what’s your documentation minimum viable product? Is it a folded napkin and the stub of a pencil? That might not be enough to convince anyone that you did anything of meaning. Is it at the other end of an observational spectrum — a pre-designed and comprehensive observational system? Maybe you’ve gone too far.

Seek a middle ground that helps telegraphs the speed / scrappiness AND legitimizes the action at the same time. One page, that’s probably all that you need: What did you try, what happened that you could observe, what should change if you try it next. Avoid too much synthesis in the field. Take verbatim notes. Separate your assumptions from your observations. You might also capture the hunches that come up during testing. But be careful to keep them in that context — they are still only hunches.

Sample Documentation Template

What I tried
What happened (what did it make people do and say?)
What would I try next
I have a hunch…..

In the next edition of this series I’ll discuss some of the mindsets and perspectives that an experience designer needs to bring to public engagement.