Prototyping is like making a nice pot of soup

One of my favourite childhood stories is Stone Soup. There are these hungry travellers looking for some hospitality and someone in the village to share a meal. The stingy villagers shut their doors until they see the three visitors curiously making soup out of stones. The travellers start to speak amongst themselves of how even more delicious the soup would be if there were carrots, which inspires the villager who has bunches to add them to the mix. A ripple effect takes hold of villagers generously volunteering their produce, and in the end, the soup is rich and full of a variety of donated vegetables from the villagers, perfect for a communal party!

For me, the process of making the most delicious stone soup is similar to building a prototype.

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Not an image of stone soup but this is ok still looks yummy

Just as the soup tasted better each time another villager brought another ingredient, constantly iterating based on user personas, needs, and feedback is key. The steps of getting to a product that people love involves getting users participating/engaged and investing early.

As users, how do we know what a ‘good’ digital experience is? For most of us, we have the tendency to compare, and so we tend to only remember those memorable and satisfying digital experiences we’ve had in the past. We associate, which can be helpful if we remember why that iPhone sling button felt so nice instead of trying to force the button into every product we make with the false pretence that it will automatically elevate our product. But a common mistake when assessing user needs is we ask people if they like the soup, when they don’t NEED soup. We ask, “do you like this?” or “does this work well?”, already limiting the scope and projecting our solution rather than investigating in an open-ended way.

In another sense, a lot of times users are very stubborn, particular, or inhospitable like the villagers. They don’t want to try some new digital product because they hate technology or have been disappointed with virtual assistants in the past. Many folks don’t know what they are looking for or what they want until they see it. The best way to do this is to be able to put something low-stakes in front of them to test and see what they need and don’t need. A prototype can be something as simple as a cardboard shaped like a tablet with different buttons. It could be sketches of a flow on sticky notes to people acting out a chatbot. It could be literally stones in a soup pot being warmed on an open fire.

As an innovation team, it’s important for us to flex our creative muscles to keep them strong and happy. And so, on a Friday afternoon, I gathered our team of developers and ran an hour long prototyping exercise that was meant to challenge and push our thinking.

With the great responsibility of being the UXer on a rapid prototyping team, I make sure to stay up-to-date with the latest learnings in the field. Most recently, I was able to sharpen my knowledge of best practices for designing digital products and services through IDEO’s Prototyping for Digital Experiences course. It was a charming class with activities geared around how to build useful, usable, and enjoyable prototypes through understanding the problem statement and then truly empathising with users.

My favourite exercise was from the ‘Build to Think’ part of the series, with the aim of the game being to design empathetically with certain feature constraints in mind.

For our task, we had to build a music-sharing app for university students without any text involved. We had to really remember who our target audience was, what kind of communication would be intuitive for this demographic group? What kind of non-text messages would appeal? Memes? GIPHs? Audio message? We had to critically think back to the initial brainstorming we did where we jotted down everything we knew about college students, keeping us humble through user-centricity by forcing us to think back to who we are designing for.

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Sticky notes of our rapid prototyping activity

Just as the travellers used rocks to creatively inspire hospitality, as designers, we need to be comfortable with incorporating certain features or user requirements without forgetting our user audience. True human-centric design is being adaptable and fluid in our processes and seeing how limitations are actually opportunities that encourage us to become more resourceful in the long-run.

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Lauren loves when good research informs products or programmes. She is all about Tech4Good and is an UX Designer in London — reach out to collaborate!

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