Exploratory Prototyping in Product Design

Prototyping for innovation in early product design stages 
— or: how we learned to love shitty prototypes.

A prototype is not just a demo of a future product, it’s a tool that helps you understand and define what a future product could and should be. Prototypes are usually used to refine a selected concept, but at Above we found prototyping invaluable earlier in the design process. In this article, we will talk about what we learned about when, what, and how to prototype in early design stages for physical products.

Prototype to explore, not just to validate!

The traditional design process goes through diverging and converging activities. Diverging phases are about capturing a lot of questions and ideas, usually involving post-its, mock-ups, foam models, or quick renderings, anything you can do fast enough to communicate your thoughts without slowing you down. Bill Buxton calls these embodiments of exploratory proposals ‘sketches’ as they are non-committal and easy to abandon. In contrast, converging phases are about refining the most promising concepts. This is where prototyping is traditionally perceived as creating the most value in the design process. Usually, prototypes implement a specific solution at a sufficient fidelity for testing, learning, and going into another iteration.

From exploratory prototyping to final product.
Prototype to calibrate your creative compass to the values that are important to your product.

In our experience, this approach works well when trying to ‘get the design right’ for a known design space, but can be problematic when trying to ‘get the right design’ in uncharted territory. When the design space is still undefined, you need to calibrate your creative compass to the values that are important to your product instead of investing in a full prototype of a specific concept. At Above, we found that working with multiple exploratory prototypes early in the process can be very effective. These prototypes are designed for understanding a problem area or context, not to be the first iteration of the end product. Putting this effort in early is important, since “a problem well-stated is half-solved” (Charles Kettering).

Build things to fail faster, learn better, and succeed sooner.

Exploratory prototypes are different than traditional prototypes. They might be built to explore a single feature of a concept and learn about specific aspects of an experience without the investment of creating something resembling the final product. While the singularity of the experience usually doesn’t allow for more holistic insights, it can be incredibly useful in validating the feature and sparking more ideas. Since they are quicker to implement, a testing session could include a variety of these experiments.

This is what most product innovation programs we have been part of feel like. Moving fast is imperative.

When you have identified strong UX principles, creating multiple prototypes that each try to satisfy just one of these principles can be an effective way of charting unknown waters. Each of these prototypes can be designed with custom features and individual aesthetics to highlight the principle they embody. While these prototypes can already resemble a future version of the product, it’s important to keep them abstract enough for people to respond to the concept, not get hung up on the aesthetic.

The physicality of a prototype can provoke a visceral response in users, designers and other stakeholders. They are effective in breaking down the language barriers between abstract conceptual thinking and the “real experience” by making concepts and ideas tangible. This allows all stakeholders to actively contribute and be part of the process together, which can create a positive impact on the whole organization. The specificity of a real experience can inspire great refinements of the idea or spark new insights in a matter of hours. Making an experience real also forces you to make decisions quickly that can take whole meetings to discuss. These decisions will not always be right, but the things you get wrong are often more interesting and will align the team about what is.

“This all sounds like a lot of work”

Understanding how to minimize the effort of making these prototypes is crucial. Investing too much work into a specific prototype can lock you into a concept too early. Exploratory prototypes should be quick to make and easy to abandon, just like sketches. Understanding the purpose of your prototype is crucial to focus your design and engineering efforts on what really matters. Do you need to evaluate a specific product feature with a specific user group, understand the social dynamics that your product could create, or create buy-in for your design within the organization? Most likely you will hear yes more than once when asking these questions, so it’s important to prioritize.

Try to follow the 80/20 rule, where 20 percent of the work gets you 80 percent of the results instead of aiming for perfection. This might mean hacking similar products instead of building something from scratch or hiding most of the technical components behind a fake wall instead of making an integrated prototype.

Some quick prototyping efforts following the 80/20 rule. Not always pretty but usually effective.

Create an evolving tool, not a static demo.

Setting up your prototype as a tool for evolving explorations to respond to new or refined questions allows you to quickly adjust whenever you learned something new. Especially in user testing, you want to be able to harvest all possible insights. Having designers and developers work hand in hand to create this framework and evolving experience is crucial. At Above we use different methods to ensure this flexibility, but the most important one is Wizard of Oz prototyping. Instead of hard-coding behavior, a designer puppeteers the experience in a way that feels real to the user. This allows us to adapt to changes much quicker as the ‘wizard’ can respond to the user’s expectations during the test, or changes in the testing protocol and prototype are implemented in between two tests. The required technical framework can often be leveraged to create the next iteration.

A Wizard of Oz interface allows the designer to puppeteer experiences that are not implemented yet.

Prototype the context, not just the product!

Incredibly important, but often overlooked, is realizing that the product is only one aspect of the experience.

Creating the appropriate context for testing prototypes is as important as the prototype itself, and should be approached with the same mentality. What are the most important social contexts for this interaction? Where would the product be located spatially? What mindset would the person be in when using this? As an example, we once created an interaction that people were delighted by, but we positioned the prototypes so the interaction was convenient to achieve. When we moved the prototypes into a more realistic position that required people to take a few steps, the former delightful experience was characterized as cumbersome. To not fall into traps like this, it’s important to collaborate with user research on these aspects to really prototype, test, and understand holistic experiences, not just products.


This is an overview of what we learned about early prototyping during the last few years at Above. We are still finding new questions, methodologies, and challenges in this way of working. Some questions we are currently exploring revolve around what constitutes a ‘successful prototype’ and how to create stimuli that is specific but still leaves room for imagination. In the future, we also want to dive deeper into the topic of prototyping context in user testing and exploring users’ expectations in co-creating sessions. If you are interested in these topics or have feedback on something we wrote, we would love to hear your thoughts!