Everything is a Prototype

Interaction design is in constant change. Code is becoming a design medium, making prototyping a common design process. This is a step in the right direction, but is missing the point. Prototyping is not a step that designers check off the list. It’s what designers do. Everything designed is a prototype.

By everything, I mean everything. Sketches, wireframes, visual comps, clickable demos, beta releases, version 1.0 and version 2.0. They’re all a prototype for what comes next. This could be seen as arguing over semantics, so let me explain why this distinction is important.

We build prototypes with the explicit purpose of learning. Good prototypes don’t get bogged down in the details until necessary. Thus, they’re streamlined and fast. There’s a clear acknowledgement of “I don’t know”. Changed is assumed and failure, to varying degrees, is an expectation. Understanding is the product of a prototype.

When working to make something exactly right, the blinders go on. We can spend a disproportionate amount of time fussing instead of learning. More than often you find a fundamental flaw in your thinking; all your time fussing was for not. This process is inefficient and hit-or-miss.

Today’s digital products have short lives. Technologies change, expectations change. The things designers obsess over today are forgotten tomorrow. What persists is the knowledge uncovered through the process of creation. It’s those learnings that will make the next manifestation better. That’s why viewing design as a constant state of prototyping is important. It puts us in a state of fluidity, a openness to learn and respond. The focus is on learning.

The worst kept secret about design is no one knows if something will work until it’s tried. Even time-tested approaches can fall flat given the right (or perhaps wrong) circumstances. I like to say that the first try isn’t what’s important — it’s the second try. What happens between those two steps is what matters.

You’re obviously going to apply this principle differently in a sketch than a GA launch. The experiments taken with mature products will be more subtle and focused. This approach can be applied to any of the traditional steps in the design process. It’s more a way of designing than a particular kind of output.

Human beings are not perfect. As such, the things we make are imperfect as well. However, we have an amazing capacity to learn and adapt from our mistakes. It only makes sense then to focus less on perfect and more on slowly, constantly better. The process of design should improve yourself as much as what you’re designing.