Prototyping and Boundary Objects

Matt Cooper-Wright
3 min readNov 28, 2012

I work at IDEO in London, a big part of the way we work is the idea of ‘building to think’. We specifically refer to this way of working as it’s a proven method for sharing ideas and moving towards a solution more quickly than simply talking and planning. We look for ways to prototype our emerging ideas as often and as soon as possible, this isn’t always an easy thing to convince clients to do, in fact more often than not it represents an alien way to work for them.

Lots of my colleagues have written about the importance of prototyping and building to think elsewhere. It is a central tenant of the IDEO philosophy it translates into the mantra “Stop Talking, Start Making”. Watch IDEO founding father David Kelley talking about it in the General Assembly video:

But why is building/making/prototyping better than talking when it comes to the creative process? Why shouldn’t we be able to simply talk through a problem and agree on a solution? Well, in the world of cross disciplinary teams, specialist practitioners and clients, the reality is that no two groups speak the same language. Coders speak in code, graphic designers talk in pictures, project managers, business designers and photographers all see the world in different ways. In an ideal world the best practitioners can talk across disciplines; but even then no one can talk across all disciplines. We all benefit from finding common ground and common points of reference, they help us calibrate the way we work together. And that’s where prototypes come in, a thing we can all gather around. In fact there is a sociological concept that sums up what a prototype is: A Boundary Object.

Boundary Objects

A boundary object is a ‘thing’ that is both defined enough that several communities can recognise it as the same thing, yet flexible enough that each community can use it according to their own needs. In the conceptual sense they can be abstract or concrete, but either way they exist outside of peoples’ heads. A conversation can’t be a boundary object for example as it doesn’t live beyond the people having the conversation. An annual report however, is a boundary object; it lives by itself independently of any one person. There’s more about boundary objects here from the Wikipedia Page.

The beauty of a prototype/boundary object is that you can show it to a group of people and they can all stand around and point at it, interact with it, build on it and above all see the inherent complexity. It’s also much easier to understand the trade-off and decisions that have been made – even in a very low resolution prototype. Where a conversation could take literally hours to deliver consensus, a prototype can shortcut the process.

The real power of a process like this is that it forces everyone involved to consider their area of input alongside everyone else. So it’s harder for a decisions to be made in isolation.

Better Protoyping

So if we understand the importance of prototypes as a way to facilitate communication between different groups, what can the theory of Boundary Objects tell us and help us make better prototypes? In reading around for this blog post I came across a recent paper about the subject (which also references Mr. Kelley), it goes into much more detail than I have here but they pull out some key benefits of the prototype approach:

- Prototypes are a manifestation for feedback. For clients and designers alike
- Prototypes improve the team experience, by building confidence and emotional engagement
- Prototypes converge thinking

If we focus on these three key facets it’s easy to see how out prototypes can be designed to suit each of these needs:

1. Build Prototypes that are incomplete and demand feedback.
2. Prototype for the benefit of your team and your clients
3. Make prototypes early and iterate rapidly

There’s much more to be said about the world of boundary objects and the process of prototyping, hopefully understanding some of the theory that underpins it will help convince more clients to embrace the power of the prototype.