Prototyping Empathy

Six tips for staying focused on people while prototyping

Penny Marsh Collisson
Microsoft Design
Published in
5 min readDec 3, 2018


By Penny Collisson and Genny Mangum. Illustrations by Michaelvincent Santos.

Here’s a common scenario: Your team just spent a crazy week pulling together a prototype for upcoming user research. Schedules are tight, pressures are high. Despite all the effort, it turns out the prototype isn’t really what you needed to have an awesome conversation with a customer. But at this point, only small tweaks to the prototype are feasible — because who has time for more? And frankly, you would feel like a real jerk if you were to ask for more. The team just sunk in a massive amount of time and effort.

There’s no shortage of innovative prototyping tools that tackle this exact scenario by enabling you to work with more agility and speed. However, we recently started to wonder if what we really need is not a new tool, but rather a refined approach for ensuring our prototyping efforts are human centered. As a result of that thinking, we want to share six strategies we’ve found useful for staying focused on people while prototyping. These are a mix of things we’ve been trying, as well ideas that emerged in conversations we’ve had with dozens of researchers (within and outside of Microsoft) about how they ensure empathy is built in — versus bolted on — while prototyping.

Let’s dive in.

#1. Make people your top prototyping requirement.

It’s easy to get bogged down in technical limitations while planning a prototype. As UX-ers, it’s our responsibility to ensure prototyping is empathy-led. First, understand who you are designing your prototype for. Include and plan to learn from people with a wide range of perspectives (check out our work on inclusive design). Also, get super crisp on users’ goals and the job they’re hiring your product to do, in the users’ language. What will they find valuable? Usable? How should they feel and not feel? How will your prototype support understanding this?

#2. Optimize for a human experience, not a feature.

People rarely, if ever, experience a feature in isolation. As part of planning your prototype, think through just how interactive or complete your prototype needs to be to approximate your users’ reality. Be careful about optimizing your prototype to make testing more feasible or a prototype easier to build. This can really impact the validity and value of your research. For your data to be useful, the prototype needs to be true to what a person would experience end-to-end in the finished product. You might even need to include the place they’d be starting before they get to your product. For example, will they get to your service through a browser? Through an app?

#3. Use prototyping to explore (as well as validate).

You will create some prototypes to evaluate your team’s ideas. However, you can also use prototypes to explore ideas and develop empathy with what users really want and need in earlier design stages. Consider the following:

· Using more than one prototype to explore reactions

· Enabling people to “redraw” parts of your prototype to best fit their needs

· Iterating your prototype in a RITE study based on people’s input

The key is to design prototypes with the intent of generating new ideas, as well as evaluating current ones.

#4. Know what it looks like if you’re wrong.

By the time most of us have come up with an idea, prototyped it, and socialized it with stakeholders, we’re feeling invested. So, what happens if you get feedback from users and start to get a sense that your idea isn’t landing? Ahead of running prototype research, it’s a good best practice to outline the range of possible feedback that you might hear and what you might do about it. By doing so, you’ll be more open to hearing you’re wrong, so you have a chance to get it right.

#5. Make it more authentic with people’s real stuff.

Products today are more personal, more dynamic, more context aware, and often tailored based on history and usage. If your prototype isn’t these things too, you’re probably not getting a good read on how your product will land. Consider having participants bring in some of their own data — e.g., photos, files, or even contact lists — to your study. Even low fidelity prototypes can be designed to reflect these types of information on the fly. For instance, when using a paper prototype, you can paste users’ contacts, files, or even photos into it.

#6. Use your prototype to share people’s experience.

Imagine if your prototype literally gave your stakeholders and teammates a way to walk in the shoes of your users. That is, experience what your users experience as they interacted with the prototype. Consider if there are ways to allow your teammates to “play” the prototype through the lens of different users—for example, someone who had a good experience versus a bad experience, someone who was a power user versus a casual user, someone who had high confidence in their computer skills versus low confidence. This could include creating videos or prototyping multiple paths.

Talk with us.

These are six tips we have been recommending to other people prototyping at Microsoft, but we’re sure there are other ideas out there. What do you think? What did we miss? What did we get wrong, or even right? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Please share them in the comments.

You can also catch Penny, Genny, and Michaelvincent on LinkedIn.


Genny Mangum is a user researcher working on UX frameworks in Office.

Michaelvincent Santos is a designer working on collaboration in Office.

Penny Collisson is a user research manager working on AI in Office.

With special thanks to Trish Miner, Meghan Stockdale, Gwenyth Hardiman, and Paul Scudieri for their teamwork and contributions.



Penny Marsh Collisson
Microsoft Design

Principal User Research Manager, Microsoft Office; Design Systems & AI Experiences. Views are my own