Prototypes & Pancakes

Swedish Pancakes, by Yvonne Larsson
“The ability to fail creates the confidence to innovate” — Johanna Marsal, Moment Factory

I was recently introduced to Swedish Pancakes by Marcus Stenbeck during a company potluck at JUXT. Marcus was cooking Swedish Pancakes to-order, while I was quickly transitioning from “I’m kind of full” to “I’m sooooo fullll…ugh.” All I needed was one Swedish Pancake to push me over the edge. So, instead of waiting for a fresh one like a civilized person, I asked Marcus if I could grab the pancake which had been sitting on the serving plate since he started.

There is a custom in Sweden that the first pancake cooked, the “första laggen,” is never eaten — rather, it is used as a tester to see what adjustments must be made such as less butter, more heat, or a change in cooking time. When it comes to cooking Swedish Pancakes, making adjustments is simply part of the process. It’s accepted and expected that the first one you make is an experiment, unfit for human consumption — unless you’re a confused and hungry American, as I was.

Throughout my career, I’ve consistently been met with resistance to prototyping. The mindset of “we can’t waste time on something we’re not going to use” generally leads us down one of two roads: not prototyping at all; or (possibly worse) using a throw-away prototype as the foundation for the final product.

This problem stems from a fundamental misunderstanding that research and experimentation are not part of the design process. We convince ourselves that we already know everything we need to know in order to get the job done. Prototyping, however, forces us to check our assumptions and test our design choices.

We prototype to explore interactions, guide aesthetics, and determine technical feasibility, amongst other things. By incrementally building and testing, we can expose design flaws and false assumptions before its too late to afford to make changes.

Having an “incrementality” is key. Prototypes should not take much time or effort to create. They are bite-sized experiments which can literally and conceptually be built upon. The best prototypes require the least amount of construction while revealing the highest quality information.

Prototypes are meant to teach us things quickly, not to last forever. We should not be afraid to throw away a prototype and start over if we find that we need to reorient ourselves. Prototyping naturally provides the ability to fail frequently, and learn from those mistakes with very little risk. This ability to fail is critical in creating a process and environment which fosters creativity and innovation. It begets a willingness to try something new or different and ignites the process of developing memorable projects and products.

So long as a project continues, the prototype will remain an investment which accrues interest over time. The things learned while prototyping prevent wrong turns and enable quicker turnarounds while building the final product. Investing a few days up front to check ourselves can save exponentially more time down the road as teams grow and projects become more complex.

Why take precious time out of a project to create something that will likely be thrown away? Remember the första laggen. We must accept that we’ll almost never get it right the first time — but with the right mentality, we can quickly learn how to adjust.