Why visual prototypes are indispensable to product owners
Visual prototypes can be hugely valuable for product owners in a agile team. Not only can they help to communicate the design concepts that are being discussed in the team, but they can also help to test out the viability of potential user interfaces and design patterns. By creating visual prototypes in an agile team, the product owner can ensure that their ideas are communicated effectively and that their designs are tested before they are implemented in the software development cycle.
A prototype is a design. But it’s not a design as we know it. A prototype is a design not made to solve a problem. A prototype is a design made to find the problem. A prototype is a design made to discuss the problem. A prototype is a design made to dive deep into the problem. Contrary to popular belief, the most powerful way to use design is not to solve problems but to find them. Once you have found the right problem, solving it is not that hard.
Learn as quickly as possible
When you are facing a complex problem, the most optimal way to solve it is to learn as quickly as possible. Complexity means you cannot oversee all the variables that are at play. Complexity means things are connected. Complexity means things are unknown. Even the unknowns are unknown. You don’t know what you don’t know. So you can’t figure out the best solution by breaking it down into parts and then solving the parts. You have an inkling of what the real problem might be but you don’t know the real problem. All you have is a hypothesis and a ton of assumptions.
You can discuss requirements, ideas, options for a very long time. Discussions will be abstract. Discussions will be vague. Discussions will be wide. Experience taught me you can best move to concrete prototypes as soon as possible. When you make things concrete, when you make things tangible, when you make things visible, the problem will show itself. Discussions will be more concrete. Questions will be found. You will make mistakes in the prototypes but that is good. You have to learn. Manifest your assumptions and test them. The more you miss the mark, the more you learn. And that is the purpose of a prototype. And if you learn about the problem, you dramatically increase the chances you will find an effective solution. You will also align stakeholders because discussions become more concrete. Assumptions will show themselves. Bad solutions will lead to better solutions. Prototype and learn.
I have been in so many meetings where discussions were abstract, assumptions were not visible, people didn’t understand each other, opinions weighed heavier than facts. Until you introduce a prototype. Then things become concrete.
Anyone can prototype
Prototypes can look like regular designs. They may be more sketchy, more crude, more unfinished. They may look like bad designs. That is because they need to be made fast. You want to learn fast so you don’t want to spend too much time and resources on making the prototypes pretty. Make them as pretty as they need to be to learn, not more. You don’t need a design degree to make a prototype. Anyone can make a prototype with any tool. Pen and paper. Powerpoint. Miro. Pick the tool that you master. Just sketch how you see the design of the solution. Put it in front of other people and start the discussion. Throw away your first prototype and make a new one. It will do wonders for the discussion and effectiveness of your team.
This is design thinking. IDEO, the design agency that made design thinking popular had a rule for meetings that said: “No prototype, no meeting.” If you didn’t bring a prototype to a meeting, the meeting was cancelled. So much time is waisted on meetings with abstract conversations.
What are we talking about? How do you see this? What do we know? What are possible options we see? How can we learn?
Prototypes are tangible, visible. That means you access a part of your brain that is not about words but about images. Visual thinking is a way of thinking that will add to just verbal thinking. You have to “see” the solution. You can see solutions once you start sketching them out. This is what designers do. They make something, look at it, see what works, change it. Designs are not thought up in advance, they emerge. So do solutions to complex problems. Otto Sharmer (TheoryU) calls them landing strips for the future:
“Prototyping means to create a landing strip for the future you want to create, and to build something that allows you to explore an emerging idea or concept by doing something.” — Otto Scharmer
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