Prototyping is an extremely crucial stage in any design or development process. Prototyping also counts as an important phase in almost every flavor of the design thinking processes that I have come across — be it the original IDEO design thinking concept, the Stanford d.school 5D process, or Prof. Jeanne Leidtkas design thinking phases among the plethora of other flavors.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a prototype is worth a thousand meetings — IDEO
What exactly is a prototype?
A prototype is an idea made tangible. It can be anything from a quick sticky-note sketch to a functioning application. Each is a method for experimentation and a means of communication. Through prototyping, we can turn our ideas into great experiences that aim to address the needs and the problems that our team or our target audience face.
A prototype is a simple experimental model of a proposed solution used to test or validate ideas, design assumptions and other aspects of its conceptualization quickly and cheaply, so that the designer/s involved can make appropriate refinements or possible changes in direction.
Prototypes pan beyond words to something that the users (target group, team members, people involved in the process) can experience. They can help us elaborate the story of our ideas, and help us answer questions early, gain feedback, instill confidence and reduce associated risks and long term costs in some cases. With prototypes, the main goal is to “fail early to succeed sooner”. Leveraging prototypes to garner early feedback whilst in process, allows us to make inexpensive mistakes rather than finding out something isn’t working once we have reached too far down the road, and correcting the said issue would be either too complicated and would come with relatively high associated costs.
How does the Prototyping process work?
I have broken the Prototyping process down into 6 phases as per my experience, following is a quick snapshot of the process as well as a detailed explanation of each phase -
Phase 1: Identify the Problem
Identify the right problem or set of pain-points that we envision to solve. Identify our target group, get their core needs in focus. This would form the foundation of our prototyping exercise. The ideas, action points, features/functionalities and core need would all revolve around this aspect i.e. the Problem in focus.
Phase 2: Discover and Ideate
Discover what may be the real set of needs here. List down, the right set of questions that we must ask the stakeholders in need to elicit the required information. This could be done through ideation sessions, discovery workshops, brainstorming, with the target focus groups.
Phase 3: Make Ideas Tangible
Understand the problem and generate initial concepts. Create and build proof of concepts of our ideas quickly and cheaply to help realize these ideas as well as test them out with the target group. These could range from low fidelity prototypes hand sketched sticky notes, sketches on paper napkins, mockups, wireframes, cardboard models, etc. all the way up to something high fidelity like a prototype mobile application or a website or a partially functioning real world 3D printed models.
Phase 4: Craft a Story
Craft a well stitched story around the prototype to create an atmosphere for the target group. The story must include the impeding points or the needs of the users, illustrate how the prototype aims to solve these problems and yet highlight the fact that this will not in principle be the final solution, but would act as a step towards it.
Phase 5: Test and Learn
It is now time to test these ideas with the focus group. Note down the pros and the cons, note down what they liked and disliked about the current prototype. A key point to note in this stage is if the prototype does or does not address their inherent need partially or totally.
Phase 6: Repeat! (note down key takeaways)
Now that we have tested and noted down our next set of action items; It is also necessary for us to understand what is the greater outcome of our iteration or our entire exercise as a whole. These would help us include these experiential learnings into our future set of exercises.
To conclude we could use the essence of prototyping in almost everything we work on, be it design, development, learning through mistakes. We must just identify the problem, innovate, create and learn.
If you liked this article and would like to learn more on the basics of Design Thinking and how it can be used to solve problems read here.