How to use Speculative Prototyping to Explore the Future

Signe Bek
Signe Bek
Oct 16, 2018 · 6 min read

Spotless was recently transformed into a Future Lab to explore, build and test future scenarios within retail. The aim was to advance our prototyping competences and to explore methods to consider possible futures.

Recently the whole Spotless team left London to work on our business strategy as a service design agency and to advance our internal competences. You can read Senior Service Designer, Hannah Steele’s blog post on how to plan a company away day here.

As experience consultants and designers we explore and manage potential futures to allow and support our clients in realising their opportunities and potential. One of the areas that we aimed to advance was around speculative prototyping as a method to assess future commercial opportunities and reflect upon their feasibility.

In my previous blog post Speculate to Innovate, I touched upon why it’s important to embrace speculative prototyping in order to make potential future tangible in order for us to engage with these and seed insights. If you’d like a bit more background, you can read the article here.

Is Speculative Design Really Relevant in a Commercial Context?

Had someone asked you 30 years ago how the future supermarket experience would look, would you have suggested self-service and RFID tags? Probably not. Nevertheless, today self-service checkout tills have been commercially adopted across all major supermarkets in the UK. In Decathlon they have even integrated RFID tags instead of barcodes across all steps in their supply chain. These are all examples of how designers have challenged the status quo in the past.In 2018 Amazon opened their Amazon Go store to the public; another example of speculative design in a commercial context. The store offers seamless payments and challenge the traditional customer journey inside a supermarket.

Black Mirror is a great example of speculative design through fiction; Charlie Brooker translates a future scenario into a tangible touchpoint for us to interact with and have a conversation about.

Through future scenarios and speculative prototypes we question and create tangible points of interaction. These tangible futures allow us to gain insights on users’ mental models and expectations to the future.

It’s not about predicting the future. It’s about engaging with possible future scenarios, in order to gain actual human insights. These insights can reveal how users feel about specific futures and indicate where we’re heading. We don’t design for how the world is; we design for how we’d like it to be.

Workshopping the future of retail environments

The workshop was kicked off by announcing to the Spotless team that for the next 2 hours we’d be Spotless Future Lab. We we were going to explore potential speculative futures in order to articulate tangible future forecasts. The workshop’s objective was for us to learn about speculative prototyping as a method to explore future commercial spaces. The workshop was constructed around 4 phases:

1. Define_

Hey, what’s going on in retail?

Within the first stage I wanted the team to map the current landscape within retail. Their work as experience consultants means they constantly get exposed to micro and macro consumer trends. When exploring where we’re going, we initially need to define where we are; an understanding of the current landscape is enabled by three key parameters:

I then encouraged the team to interpret what these trends combined with the behavioural drivers could potentially mean for the future of retail; what are the weak signals for the retail environment?

2. Disrupt_

Welcome to the year 2045!

The second phase of the workshop aimed to disrupt in order to explore; we were going to take the identified weak signals and turn them into future scenarios.

First, each team member got a 2045 identity card to enable creative and future thinking. We weren’t just Spotless Service Design Agency anymore; we were Spotless Future Labs representing stakeholders within retail in the year 2045

Next, I asked the team to transform their weak signals into actual future ideas: They were prompted to transform their weak signals into ‘what if’-questions:

— What if adverts disappeared? — What if we didn’t have to make any conscious purchase decisions? — What if legislation prevented data collection?

These were just some of the future scenarios created during the workshop. Next, the team ideated how this future retail environment would actually work. They got 6 minutes to individually ideate 6 ideas on how a service would cater or deal to the future world:

3. Develop_

Build the future!

The team took their service ideas into the third phase of the workshop: the develop phase. The aim was to prototype their ideas; building the ideas allowed us to transform the future ideas into tangible touchpoints for interaction.

4. Reflect_

Learning through enactment

Finally the team was asked to interact with their prototypes; this enactment allowed for conversation with the artefacts and the service system, and revealed tacit user reactions and expectations to these future scenarios.

The picture above show how one team prototyped how a future world without physical shops would potentially look. Here they are midway through building a prototyping of a autonomous, driverless store allowing consumers to test products. This team explored consumer expectations to the physical retail space, and the need for a full sensory experience.

Director, Ben Logan, and Senior Service Designer, Caroline Butler, embraced the workshop to the fullest. Here they’re acting out their future scenario including their speculative prototypes to the team. The workshop showed to be more than a professional skill-exchange; it was also an informal and fun collaboration exercise and allowed the team to get to know each other even more.


Working with speculative prototyping in order to talk about possible futures can often seem intangible and utopian to clients. But Future Workshops is way more than utopia and dystopia; it’s identifying expectations to the future, users’ mental models and realising opportunities for brands, products and services. The Future Workshop is the road to getting there; it helps us by challenging our assumptions and gain insight on our expectations to future environments. To reiterate my previous statement:

We don’t design for where we are, we design for where we want to be.

Here’s a few learning from our workshop, and why you should conduct a Speculative Workshop with your internal or external team:

  • It provides a hands-on approach to challenge your assumptions about the future.
  • It’s a method to gain access to your team’s knowledge and conduct strategic future foresight.
  • It’s offers you access users’ mental models and expectations for the future.
  • It helps you to identify your client’s potential and help them respond to change.

👏 if you enjoyed the post!

I’d love to hear from you if you have experiences or tips you’d like to share!

Want more? The team at Spotless shares their insights on the blog Spotless Says.

Spotless Says

Insights and opinions from the design team at Spotless

Signe Bek

Written by

Signe Bek

Service Designer & Researcher @ Spotless | London

Spotless Says

Insights and opinions from the design team at Spotless

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade