Moving from Prototyping to “Provotyping

Learn, explore and generate possible futures in the front-end of design

Not everyone lives in the future. For those of us in the design and innovation industry, our job is to help clients and their customers break free from the status quo. We’re always thinking of new ways to imagine and create a better future. One of the ways we do that is through the use of provotyping.

What is a Provotype?

Before we get into provotypes it’s important to establish what we mean by prototype. The term prototype has different meanings, depending upon the business or market you are designing for. We think of prototypes as “any representation of a design idea, regardless of medium.” A prototype in software design may look wildly different than a prototype in the automotive industry. The one thing that prototypes (across different industries) have in common is where and how they are introduced into the design development process. Prototypes are typically used to communicate and test ideas in the concept development phase.

A provotype is a provocative prototype. It is introduced in the early exploratory phases of the design development process to cause a reaction — to provoke and engage people to imagine possible futures.

Provotypes are designed artifacts that are informed and inspired by emerging technologies, user interviews, and co-creative engagement with end-users and organizational stakeholders. They can be used as a quick and effective means to explore a problem/solution space by providing tangible ideas to spark discussions. Here the goal is not to evaluate the artifact but to pick it apart, manipulate it and explore new directions. In doing so, the artifact ignites discussions around deeper unmet needs or ideas for possible futures.

But wait, how is that different from a prototype?

The squiggly line represents the nonlinear nature of the design development process.

In the ‘fuzzy front-end’ of design we encounter high levels of ambiguity. As we progress, the process becomes less exploratory and more evaluative, more linear. Prototypes live in the evaluative side of the process, while provotypes can be deployed in the front-end.

Prototyping enables the designer to communicate ideas to a wide audience in response to a defined problem. But what if the problem hasn’t yet been defined? By provoking those who engage with it, provotypes can be thought of as learning tools to discover new solution spaces before the problem has been defined. This supports the exploration of the fuzzy front-end in more tangible terms, but is not limited to a single solution space.

A provotype may look the same as a prototype, but it is where, why, and how the artifact is introduced into the design process that differentiates its role.

Why should you Provotype?

It is critical for the design thinking community to continually strive to help businesses create new experiences and services by co-designing with the end users whom the outcome will serve. Practitioners can do this by regularly incorporating emerging methods and practices to support co-designers and stakeholders in generating outcomes that are innovative and actionable. Provotyping is one such method that can drive innovation, challenge assumptions within an organization, and quickly shift the focus from the present to the future in the front-end of the design exploration phase.

In previous projects, we have introduced “What if…?” cards, generated from interviews, as a means to guide participants into a future mindset during co-design sessions. A provotype can be thought of as a physical embodiment of a “What if…?” card. It is an untested hypothesis about the future that can be accepted, rejected or reimagined by those that engage with it.

These artifacts can be future products, experiences, services or systems that an organization might develop. They can inspire or provoke discussion and new ways of thinking, further ideas about future products and services, and guide a company on how to implement a strategy to reach that desired future state.

Provotypes in Action

Provotypes can come in many different forms and be placed in different contexts depending on the goals. Here are a few examples of how Stratos and other researchers have used provotypes in co-design workshops, in the home and in the workplace.

Provotypes in Co-design Workshops: Provotypes can be deployed, in the context of a co-design session, to drive futuristic thinking. For example, in one co-design session, cyclists were presented with provotypes around bike safety in order for researchers to understand the perceptions of theft and co-create novel ideas for how people could secure their bikes. The outcome of each session informed a new provotype that was introduced to the next user group of cyclists, creating an iterative and generative process.

At Stratos, we introduced an experience provotype in the form of a storyboard, during front-end, co-creation sessions with “makers and hackers.” Our client had been thinking of specific service ideas around brand engagement for some time but hadn’t pinned it down, yet. We created a storyboard provotype and introduced it to groups of makers and hackers in order to understand how they thought it would impact them. This naturally allowed users to generate several unique alternative scenarios that did not resemble any of the initial ideas embodied in the provotypes.

Provotypes in the Home: Among other purposes, you could introduce provotypes into someone’s home to understand a future use-based scenario. For example, creating smart sensor provotypes that live in a family’s home can turn their house into a live-in lab; the impact of new technologies can be tested and understood within a context of a family’s daily life. This information can inspire further provotypes that will address needs discovered throughout the process.

Provotypes in the Workplace: Alternatively, provotypes can be displayed in an organization’s headquarters for employees to interact and ideate. Employees can engage with the artifacts and add their own ideas to an open board in the lobby during lunch or when leaving work. This can generate new ideas and help shift the organizational mindset to be more future focused and participatory. This approach can be a great way to improve employee engagement, especially when the provotype addresses employee experience issues.

Our ability to create provotypes can provide a quick and effective means of engaging an organization in generating new ideas for future experiences, services, and strategy. Provotyping can ignite conversations about disruptive ideas in the front-end of design before an organization makes a large investment. In a world where there is less time for incubating ideas and developing new solutions, provotyping provides an alternate way to quickly explore and learn in the front-end of design.

Co-authored by Anthony Weiler and David McKenzie MFA.

Have you used provotyping methods before? If so, we would love to hear about your experience and any thoughts you would like to add. If you haven’t already, go ahead and try the approach and keep us posted on how it went! Feel free to drop us a line at monica@thestratosgroup.com or @TheStratosGroup on Twitter. As always, you can find more on our website (www.thestratosgroup.com) and on our Medium blog profile (www.medium.com/@TheStratosGroup).

Additional Resources & References:

  1. Challenging industry conceptions with provotypes by Boer, L., Donovan, J., & Buur, J. (2013).
  2. Generative Prototype Iteration in the Front-end of the Design Process by McKenzie, D. (2015).
  3. Idealized design: Creating an organization’s future by Ackoff, R. L., Magidson, J., & Addison, H. J. (2006).
  4. Introduction: Design and Organizational Change by Buchanan, R. (2008).
  5. Provotypes for participatory innovation by Boer, L., & Donovan, J. (2012).
  6. What do Prototypes Prototype? by Stephanie Houde and Charles Hill (1997).