9 methods for prototyping your idea(s)

A few tools, tips, and tricks for prototyping your next big idea

Joshua Lavra
Hopelab

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Prototyping gets mentioned a lot in the world of product design and development. In its simplest form, it’s a way to express an idea to garner feedback and reactions.

If you want a more formal definition, let’s ask the robots:

a definition of ‘prototyping’ generated from ChatGPT

I like to think of it as a way to think, learn, and storytell. A few human-generated examples:

  • Think. You want students to use their phones less during the school day. To start, you draw out some ideas with paper and markers in a quick, easy, non-judgemental way. Locking storage bags? Signal scramblers? Zapping buzzers? Flip phone trade-in? These ideas will help you get closer to ones you can build to test and learn from.
  • Learn. You have a method for helping teens cope with the stress of climate anxiety, but aren’t sure what form it should take. So, you prototype a chatbot, a website, and write a script for an in-person version of the method. Each is tested with teens to get their feedback.
  • Storytell. I want a group of people to better understand the realities of someone trying to find a therapist that is LGBTQ+ affirming. I’m not sure what will resonate with people, so I screen record myself searching therapy websites and voice-over how I feel with the process.

No matter your reason for prototyping, here are a few methods to try:

1. Draw your idea (even if you're not an ‘artist’)

Two of the simplest, and most accessible tools for prototyping? Something to write with, and something to write on. Post-Its and Sharpies, Whiteboards and markers, paper and crayons, pencil and paper, all do the same trick. The idea here is to sketch out your idea in whatever form you can. By getting it out of our mind and onto a page, you can start to collect feedback and evolve that seed of an idea. Here’s a short video with examples, if you’re not ready to start sketching.

2. Sketch out a few screens

If you’re going the digital route, start simple! Free templates like these are all over the internet, and can be a helpful place to start sketching your screens. If you own a smartphone, or have used a web browser (which spoiler alert: that’s you right now) you already have some sense where you might want people to click, scroll, log-in, watch a video, etc. Making some simple sketches, and lining them up into a flow can help tell the story of your idea, learn if the flow makes sense, and think through ways to ensure you’re not just building another app.

3. Build a simple website

Nowadays, you don’t need to know how to code to build a website. There are many great website builders like Squarespace, Readymag, and Cargo that offer templates and plenty of helpful tutorials. You can go even simpler and test an idea for a product or service with a landing page using tools like Unbounce or Webflow. You might be surprised how an hour or so of creating a website can create the illusion of a full product. Use this as a way to gather feedback before you invest more time and money into the real thing.

4. Test out texts

Most anyone who interacts with technology has encountered text messages in one way or another (SMS, iMessage, DMs, emails, etc.) making this a great way to test an idea in a space that many people already spend their time. Twilio and TextIt are two tools we’ve used for building chatbots, testing daily affirmation like content, and giving users a way to access content from their messaging apps.

5. Make a deck

Using slides in non-conventional ways can help you capture your idea or express it to others for feedback. Have an idea for a business? Create a pitch deck to test your value proposition, business model, or solution. Keynote and Google Slides can also be great tools to sketch ideas using basic shapes. Here’s a toolkit to create a wireframe in Slides.

6. Use a story(board)

Storytelling is an important tool for getting people on board with your idea, helping them understand your vision, and getting them to give helpful feedback. Storyboarding is a method for storytelling the journey of your product or service or idea. Here’s a helpful walkthrough from our friends at IDEO.org.

7. ‘Wizard of Oz’ it

Remember the film? A guy behind a curtain controlling things to make it seem like something magical was happening? You can do that too. If you’re creating something that requires a whole backend or set of connections to make happen, try to fake it. Here’s a primer on the process.

8. Sketch out your business model

While having a great idea is a helpful place to start, if it doesn’t answer a need for users, or doesn’t offer a way to sustain, your chances of success shrink quite a bit. Luckily, there are a whole set of widely used tools like the Business Model and Value Proposition Canvases to help you understand your business. You can even find versions for non-profits online, too. Print these out, fill them in, and see what you uncover.

9. Physically build it

Even if you’re working in digital space, physically building prototypes can help move ideas forward. This is especially true if you’re prototyping a service or experience or something in the physical world. Cardboard and foam core are you friend, and can be transformed into many different ideas.

BONUS: Find a helpful partner

At Hopelab, we have a team of designers and researchers and strategists who are invested, literally and figuratively, in supporting people, teams, and organizations who are creating things to support young people. If that sounds like you and you’re wanting some help with your idea, let’s chat!

Check out this prototype we created, to get you started: hopelab.studio/chat/

And finally, no matter the method you choose, one of the most important things you can do is test with your users (or potential users). Get feedback, improve the prototype, and keep going. You won’t get it perfect (that’s not the goal) but you’ll get closer to what is supportive and useful for your users.

Here are a few of my favorite prototyping tools:

all Illustrations by Julia K from Ouch!

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Joshua Lavra
Hopelab

focused on human ways to support the health and happiness of young queer people @Hopelab. formerly @IDEO @EY_Doberman @AirLiquideGroup