Unconventional Prototyping for Product Managers at Unbox 2017

Greg Sham
Greg Sham
Oct 4, 2017 · 3 min read

Shanfan Huang is a senior product designer at Pivotal Labs and has been a featured speaker at Boston-area tech events. We’re delighted to have her lead a workshop on product prototyping at Unbox this year. I spoke with Shanfan, and here’s what PMs can expect to learn at her Unbox session.

As a product designer at Pivotal, how does prototyping fit into your workflow and why is it important?

SH: Prototyping is my biggest contribution to my team. It’s a wide range of skills—figuring out when and why prototypes are needed, what level of fidelity and abstraction is called for, and having a testing plan so you can generate product insights.

Underneath prototyping is the mindset of trying out anything imaginable. Design is generative. When you envision the future with various of outcomes, testing those proto-futures will help you refine your path forward, so you don’t end up spending a ton of resources building the wrong product.

From your experience, how can product managers best contribute to the prototyping process when working with a designer?

SH: Product managers have a lot to offer. In fact, the project is most successful when the product managers share the ownership of prototyping with me. At Pivotal, product managers and designers identify assumptions and articulate the hypothesis together. We prioritize design tasks for the riskiest assumptions. We brainstorm ideas to build, and scout the target users. We often take turns to facilitate user interviews, and always synthesize as a team.

This level of collaboration requires us to feel secure at our job, and to see beyond our titles. Some product managers can be very creative and hands-on. Some designers can be very analytical and metrics-driven. When we come together as a team, it is our collective skills that define how work gets done.

What are the tools that you like to use for prototyping?

SH: Sketch and Invision are my most frequently used tools. Paper and pens could come right after. I’ve used (and liked) Principle, Flinto, and Framer for different iOS projects. For web apps, I often prototype directly with HTML/CSS/Javascript. Last year at UXPA conference, I actually presented In Browser Prototyping for Designers, where I compared many different prototyping tools, and ended with coding.

I’m tool-agnostic though. Don’t let the tools define your prototype. Let your prototype decide what tool to use.

Designers have a lot of specialized tools at their disposal. What if a product manager doesn’t have designers on their team? How can a solo product manager start prototyping?

SH: It’s important to remember that prototyping is just the means for learning and validating. Whether you have a designer on your team or not, drawing tools like Photoshop or Sketch are not the prerequisite to build prototypes. Bottom line, if a prototype doesn’t help you to gain insights, it is not worth building. So before you begin, first ask “What are we trying to learn here?” Then ask, “what is the cheapest and fastest thing I can build to start learning?”

Use your management muscle and creativity. Think out of the box! A prototype doesn’t have to be a fancy UI mockup. You might write some HTML code. You could be sending an email to a potential customer. Or you might ask your engineer to deploy a button on your landing page and watch its clicking rate. Come to Unbox Prototyping Workshop and find out why and how!


The prototyping workshop at Unbox 2017 will be an excellent way to learn more about this crucial PM skill from an expert. We look forward to having Shanfan share more about prototyping best practices and her design philosophy. Get your ticket today and join us on October 23rd!

Boston Product helps frontline product managers succeed so their companies can too. We host regular meetups around the Boston area and offer an online community via Slack. Sign up if you’re ready to elevate your career in product.

Boston Product

The collective insights of over 500 product professionals working to elevate our careers and show that Boston is where great people build great products.

Greg Sham

Written by

Greg Sham

EdTech product manager, co-organizer @bosproduct

Boston Product

The collective insights of over 500 product professionals working to elevate our careers and show that Boston is where great people build great products.

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