Creating the right prototype: Part One

In this three part series, I will guide you through the building blocks to creating not just the right prototype, but the foundation of a great product.

Presenting prototypes and concepts in one of our workshops

What is prototyping about?

There is often a big misconception with clients and partners that prototypes are finished products. But this is not the case, we believe in the power of tangibility. Prototypes are tools to learn and advance ideas, they reveal so much that mere theory cannot.

“Don’t think of it as failure, think of it as designing experiments through which you’re going to learn” — Tim Brown, CEO, IDEO

When prototyping, we fail early and often. We can spend a surprising amount of time not knowing the answer and this is often uncomfortable. But we still crack on and forge ahead.

During the process of creating a prototype we can demonstrate ideas by simply putting something tangible in the hands of those humans we are designing for (as well as stakeholders).

Learning from prototypes

It’s important to remember when creating prototypes that by only focusing on success, you are missing out on a wealth of information available in failures.

Prototyping is about learning, not getting it right the first time.

Failures can teach a multitude of lessons and give valuable insight into how to improve in the future. Only by observing, listening, thinking, building, and refining our way to an answer do we get closer to designing and building great products.

Step 1. Humans, not users

At the start of a project, one of the first questions a team should ask is “who is it that we are designing for?”

I’ll help you out, try using the term ‘humans’ instead of users. As odd as it might sound it switches your perspective. Suddenly you can connect with the target audience, you realise they are a person, with thoughts, feeling and places to be.

An Empathy map can help understand the human you’re designing for

When we use the term ‘users’ we loose a connection to who we are designing for. When you talk about humans you get that connection back, you realise that who you are designing for have lives beyond your product.

You are able to put yourselves into another humans shoes and explore how a product will fit into their lives. It is this empathy that will help you identify what it is that stops people from performing the behaviours we, as designers, seek.

Immerse yourself in the problem and business that your are confronted with and speak to humans. It is imperative to understand what problems they have and where they lie. You might find that the problem that you need to solve isn’t the one you thought!

Let’s be realistic. Unless you’re part of a masive company with budget to burn, you might not have time to conduct a ‘full-on’ user research session. I have found that in a fast paced project you need to get information from these humans, fast. But how can you do that?

Charles Liu has come up with 3 Better Questions to Ask that you need to kickstart your thinking and understand the problems humans are having. They are simple questions, but they spark the correct conversations with your audience. Thanks Charles!

Customers do not use your product. They hire it.

Know that you don’t have to come up with personas and understand what brand of shower gel a person uses or what kind of umbrella they like. Once you have spoken to uses you can begin to paint a picture of the job that humans are hiring your business or product to do. I like to combine Empathy Maps with BJ Fogg’s behavioural model to start this foundation, it’s an incredibly powerful way to quickly (a 2 hour workshop) understand who you are designing for.

Personas, generally in the form of demographics, do not bring a team closer to understanding a customer’s consumption, or non-consumption, of a product. The characteristics of a Persona (someone’s age, sex, race, and weekend habits) does not explain why they drank the milkshake or ate a snickers.

Uncovering user motivations, abilities and triggers to help uncover the Job to be done

At Etch we use the Jobs To Be Done framework. This helps us understand that despite solutions and technologies, human motivation changes very slowly. In some cases, human motivation hasn’t changed at all.

“I need to get this package from A to B with confidence, certainty and speed.” — Julius Caesar

This is example of a Job To Be Done that has been around for a VERY long time. The likes of Julius Caesar had to do the first job often, and he hired men and horses to solve it. Today we have UPS. The job hasn’t changed.

It’s this understanding of motivation that can shape the outcome of a project. Be careful not to keep it too low level, a job to be done is often nothing to do with what you are actually building.

For example, when designing a privacy policy for a FinTech, the Job-to-be-done is likely to be “I want to open a bank account” not “I want to read a privacy policy”. A person will want to read a privacy policy from a trigger within that process (often just as they look to accept the T&C’s).

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking what you are designing is the focus of what a user is trying to accomplish. It can often be a push or pull factor in the overall journey.

When you first speak to users, make the conversation about life and aims, not the product you are building. This enables you to understand what it is they aiming for in their life. Understand how can our product help them reach their goal.


In Part II of this series, I’ll dive into detail about setting the stage for your prototype. This article was first featured on the Etch blog.

Stay tuned — and stay human.


Matt’s focus at Etch is designing for Humans, not users. Working with ambitious clients to create experiences, both online and off, that consider how we really interact with the world around us.