Prototypes as provocations

Recently I was researching the potential for a new product aimed at some very technical people. It had been really hard to find the right participants for our research. We needed experts with very specific skills. And these were busy people working in healthcare, not an environment where it’s easy to just rock up and start doing some interviews.

Once we found some participants, it was initially tricky to build rapport in our interviews, especially as I was interviewing in German — which I speak well but is not my native tongue. In German, the structure of the language introduces additional layers of formality and a feeling of distance. For example, you address people you don’t know with the formal Sie, rather than the informal Du. It’s also uncommon to use first names with someone you’ve just met in a work setting.

In the German corporate world, I’ve also found people to be much more sensitive about privacy and what they feel to be appropriate in professional interactions. Design research is not something many people are familiar with. In healthcare, privacy is particularly important and people’s instinct is to avoid any risks. We were asking people to let us into their work environment, observe them and take pictures. Even after finding participants through friendly contacts, building trust and setting people at ease was a challenge.

Our participants were wary that we were just there to sell them something. We weren’t. Our goal was to understand their context and the possible use cases for this new product, but without being familiar with the design process there was no reason for them to understand how this is different.

We asked them to show us around their workspace and mentioned we’d like to get their feedback on a prototype. In the middle of a scientific lab, reaching into our bags we pulled out a large cardboard box and a set of 3 smaller cardboard boxes in varying sizes. The large box had a logo on it, but that was it.

There we were in this hi-tech environment surrounded by all this fancy equipment. Knowing we were designers, they were probably expecting us to produce something a little snazzier. It was almost laughable.

We set the scenario. Let’s imagine you’ve just bought this machine, how do you start the process? In just a few minutes, they were handling the cardboard boxes, showing us where inputs would be and talking about how it would need to work to suit them best. And suddenly our conversation became much more open and collaborative.

By using a deliberately very lo-fi prototype, we’d provided just enough stimulus to get people responding both creatively and concretely. If we’d produced something very shiny we’d have cemented their misunderstandings about what we were there to do and narrowed down the scope of their feedback.

In research, you often want to understand how things currently are and to explore how they could be different.

When you ask people about their current experiences, they go into recall mode. In recall mode there is a natural tendency to skip things, to generalise and to post-rationalise. It’s helpful to understand how people view their own experiences but, as researchers, we also make sure we can observe people as they do something. That allows you to get a better sense of where the biggest problems actually are.

And then there’s exploring what could be. When you talk about this, people tend towards vagueness or start listing a huge number of fantasy requirements. It’s hard to think creatively when you’re presented with an empty slate and asked to respond on an intellectual level. Most of us are too locked in to our brain’s current mode. So what can you do when you want to explore ideas rather than presenting people with a possible answer?

Using this not-quite-blank-page prototype, our participants could show us what they needed instead of overthinking it. It’s a different, more playful state of mind and it’s fundamental to design research. It’s okay to be playful and have fun. When we’re playing our brains are engaging on another level.

We use prototypes a lot in design. They are there to help us learn quickly about what to do next. But I’ve noticed that we’ve started talking about them in a slightly one-dimensional way. Too often it feels like a prototype is just a stand-in for a spec.

Don’t get me wrong. Prototypes are a great way of demoing what you will or can build. They get everyone on the same page about what is possible and what you can change. It helps prevent each person having a completely different idea in their head about what we want to build or validate.

But prototypes are also about learning. And when you start playing with open-ended prototypes early in the design process, they are a great tool to explore new possibilities and ideas. You can use them to dig into a specific aspect of an idea, to get a reaction to an experience and to involve your users as co-designers. The insight you get is much more powerful when you can watch people do, not ask what they think. And as a bonus, lo-fi, low-assumption prototypes are perfect for breaking down those tricky barriers between language, hierarchy and differing expectations, a huge help when you’re addressing people in these terms “Herzlichen Dank, Herr Doktor”.

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