Ready, set, prototype: a beginner's guide to using prototyping to innovate
Runa Sabroe from the Danish Design Centre and Stine Schulze from MindLab are your guide to world of prototyping, a vital element of the innovation process. What exactly is prototyping? How do you do it? and what can it teach you?
What is a prototype?
A prototype is a quick, preliminary version of an idea. It can be draft version that you can throw together in a flash, or a more finished and detailed version of a proposed solution. Prototypes are common in a wide range of design disciplines, including product design and service design. The idea is that you can use the prototype to imagine possible futures.
This lets you acquire new learning quickly and develop your solution in real-life situations – without needing to invest costly resources into the idea. And without having to wait until everything has been perfected. Because you cannot afford delays if you are operating in a fast-moving market or developing new solutions for use in complex systems.
Let’s take a closer look at where and how you can use prototypes in the innovation process.
Before you begin: Have you asked the right questions?
A prototype is an efficient tool if you want to explore your design challenge or learn more about the potential forms a solution may take. When you work with prototypes, it is essential to ask the right questions. What do you want to learn about? Is it the role of your product or service in the users’ life? Is it the emotional experience that your solution should facilitate for the users? Or is your focus on the techniques and functionality that is required for your solution to work in practice?
1. Build, observe and learn quickly
Sometimes an important part of the innovation process involves changing the physical form of a product. In this case, a redesign can often be hampered by the need to sort out ideas, thoughts and materials before the innovation process can begin. Prototyping introduces an alternative approach.
Based on the service experience you want for to achieve for your users, you can use rough mock-ups as a quick way of testing new forms before implementing the changes in real life. The point is to draft and shape your idea in easily accessible low-cost materials in order to test its viability.
Often, there is an added benefit in carrying out the changes in other materials than the ones intended for the finished version: it makes it obvious that the prototype is a preliminary solution and can help focus the feedback on the concept and the service content rather than the material and the finish. This use of rough prototyping is ideal in the early stages of a development process. Turning back to Houde and Hill’s ideas, what you are exploring here is the role of the prototype in relation to your user’s context.
Example: Rough prototyping in an day hospital service for elderly patients with dementia
The French service design firm Care & Co specialises in the hospital sector. One of their projects involved rethinking a day hospital for elderly patients, many of whom have dementia. Research and observation studies showed that people with dementia find waiting rooms very difficult to deal with. They have trouble navigating in time and space and therefore often get lost or are confused about when their appointment begins.
With the use of rough prototyping, the service designers altered the waiting room to make it easier for the patients to navigate. Using mock-ups, they tested whether the use of colour-coded door frames might help the patients find the right door when it was time for them to see a doctor or a nurse.
They also changed the visual design of the clocks on the wall by colour-coding the various parts of the day – something that people with dementia generally have trouble sorting out. Before the project team went on to implement an extensive and costly redesign of the waiting room, they tested a range of different design options with the users. This helped them determine what had the biggest impact on the target group, and thus which elements to address.
Learning: Use preliminary solutions that encourage dialogue about improvements
During the early stages of a development project, it may be helpful to work in different materials than the ones you intend to use for the actual solution. You should also give your prototype an unfinished appearance, without necessarily getting all the details right. Otherwise, you risk having your users provide feedback on the wrong aspects of the solution.
A cardboard mock-up can be an excellent means of testing a complicated IT solution. If you create a technical prototype that is too similar in appearance to your eventual proposal, that may cause the focus to shift from the role and function of the solution to technical details that are not finalised until a later stage.
2. Provotypes – when you want to know where to draw the line
While the purpose of a prototype is to present a real but unfinished version of a new solution, the purpose of a provotype is different. Provotypes are draft versions of solutions that are deliberately unrealistic. The purpose is to provoke a discussion with users, decision-makers and other actors about the most essential concerns in the development of new initiatives before the actual development process begins.
This method can help you guide an innovation process where the focus has not yet been determined, because it can help your key decision-makers define the space of possibilities. What is fixed, and what is open to modification? Many new solutions come to nothing, because decision-makers or users feel that the changes are happening at a bad time or are difficult to reconcile with their other routines and behaviours. Involving the key actors at an early stage can help you make sure that the new solution is defined by the people who are going to use it and, ultimately, make it real.
Example: new service approach for the long-term unemployed
In a joint project with MindLab, Employment and Social Services in the Municipality of Odense (Denmark) wanted to find new ways for the service’s long-term unemployed clients to utilise each other’s resources in finding permanent employment. The social workers in the municipal service had lots of ideas for the clients to help each other through networking, but they needed specific examples to determine what a good initiative might look like in practice.
In this process, provotypes helped create a shared understanding of what the management team considered good or bad initiatives, which provided the staff with a good framework for developing local initiatives. The provotypes were introduced in a management team, where they helped the managers identify the right criteria for a good idea.
One provotype, for example, was ‘first pick’. In this provotype, the clients were given profiles of all the social workers and asked to pick the social worker they would prefer to be assigned to. None of the managers saw the approach as viable per se, but the provotype kicked off an important discussion about the current scope of the clients’ own choices and decisions.
Example: mobile phone use, shush!
Loud and intrusive phone conversations have become an invasive element throughout the public space, now that virtually everyone has a mobile device. When the innovation firm IDEO set out to explore how mobile phone use can become less of a nuisance, they turned to provotypes. The intention of their provotypes was to spark debate about the social impact of mobile phones.
In this case, they developed devices that did not look particularly like mobile phones, each representing extreme versions of tough and very physical responses to annoying mobile phone use. One example is the ‘electric shock mobile’, which gives the user an electric shock, depending on volume of his or her phone conversation.
Or how about a ‘knocking mobile’? Here, the user knocks on the phone to contact someone else. Now, the two can communicate, Morse-style, without speaking. The examples are extreme variants that are not viable, and which have no intention of being viable. Instead, the purpose is to spark provocation and initiate debate about mobile phone usage.
Learning: using everyday situations to test unrealistic provotypes
Think about who you would like to learn from, such as your end-users, your project team or a frontline employee. The provotype should enable the person to imagine an everyday situation where the provotype might be put to use. Then you can ask the person to tell you what specific impact the provotype would have for him or her. Would it alter the way they act, think or feel? In closing, you and the informant(s) can summarise what aspects of the provotype point to interesting possibilities as well as any negative consequences.
3. Modifying factors in a complex system
Prototypes can also be an effective tool if you are rethinking or creating new, complex solutions. For example, extensive changes where you need to develop new work procedures or set up new teams.
Here, prototypes offer a quick way to test various scenarios and solutions before you begin to modify complex systems and practices for real. Prototyping your idea at an early stage gives you an idea of the consequences and shortcomings of your initiative, thus allowing you to adjust and fine-tune your ideas before you begin to make far-reaching changes in the ‘control room’ and introducing costly systemic changes.
A storyboard or a pre-visualisation in the form of simple visual representations of a future scenario can often help you convey the basic aspects of more complex proposals without having to sort out all the details yet. The storyboard concept originated in the film world, where it is used to get the flow of the film right before the much more costly phase where the actual filming begins.
This type of prototyping is really a visualisation exercise and often involves the use of drawings. Either as quick drafts or as more finished storyboards. You can use the storyboards as the basis for a dialogue with your users, inviting them to comment on their perception of the scenario. This often allows you spot opportunities and problem areas that you may have otherwise overlooked.
Example: Developing a new cross-sector medical service for patients in Northern Zealand
Together with the surrounding municipalities, the Nordsjællands Hospital in Denmark has launched an initiative to develop a new service for the citizens in the region to prevent unnecessary hospitalisations, which are costly and may be an unpleasant experience for the patients. The idea was to have parts of the treatment take place in the patient’s own home under supervision from visiting nurses and others. The new service involves new procedures for the healthcare professionals and changes the distribution of responsibility between the hospital and the municipality.
Testing the service in practice involved developing the skills of the visiting nurses and designing a reception room for patients at the hospital. But prior to this phase, the concept was tested in the form of simple prototypes, where a local focus group was introduced to a storyboard illustrating the new procedures. Among other issues, the focus group participants’ feedback on the new treatment approach clarified the need to sort out the procedures concerning transport to and from hospital – who was going to arrange the transport, who was going to pay for it, and would the actual transport be provided by patient transport service or taxi? Similarly, healthcare professionals were also introduced to a visual flow diagram representing the new procedures that were to be put in place at the hospital and in the municipalities. The service was adjusted and optimised in light of the input and questions that the prototype brought out.
Learning: Be clear about which aspects of the change you want to explore
A storyboard is an efficient device for visualising the new procedures and services that are going to be in place once the change has been implemented. It can be used as a mental exercise, helping the users of the new service or the staff imagine the future in practice. Before you create the storyboard, it is crucial that you specify exactly what it is you want to learn about. Use that as the basis for obtaining detailed feedback on aspects of your solution that you have already determined are critical to successful implementation.
4. When you want to be sure that the people who are going to make changes are able and willing
For new solutions to be successful, it is critical that the people who are ultimately going to realise them can see the point. Here, the prototype can serve as an important platform for creating a shared image of the possible futures that the participants are going to be involved in co-creating. The prototype can facilitate the decisive step where change is not just individual ideas or notions but a shared reference point that the actors can imagine in real life.
You can use the prototype to engage the most important actors in co-creating a new solution, developing, modifying and refining it in close cooperation. In other words, prototyping is crucial if you want to develop a shared awareness and a shared language for the implementation of the idea across an organisation. In this process, you have to be prepared to modify the expression of the prototype throughout. And the changes have to come from the people who are going to use the solution. It may be important to point out explicitly that the only thing that does not change is the issue that the shared effort is aimed at addressing. The essence of the prototype. The specific solution can and should be modified as the process moves forward.
Example: Odense Municipality: from pre-packaged dinner kits to a new concept for meetings
One of the ambitions in Denmark’s recent national reform of primary and lower secondary schools is to integrate play, learning and educational goals in new ways as part of longer and more varied school days. That requires increased cooperation among the teachers. Far too often, successful learning materials are not shared across classes and groups. The Odense Municipality wanted to improve this situation, so in cooperation with the innovation unit MindLab, the municipal administration launched a project to facilitate knowledge sharing among teachers and across local schools.
The focus of the cooperation between teachers and the municipal administration remained the same throughout: finding ways to facilitate knowledge sharing among colleagues and across schools. The prototype, however, was adjusted, reshaped and rethought throughout the process.
The initial inspiration came from a subscription service where the private company Aarstiderne delivers ‘dinner kits’ in the form of recipes and quality ingredients to people’s home as a way of making everyday life a little easier for busy families. Perhaps the teachers could structure the sharing of teaching modules and successful materials and instruction methods by putting together a ‘kit’ that other teachers could use?
When the teachers and municipal administration began the process, it became clear that even though the kit concept met a need, it would be difficult for the teachers to apply pre-packaged teaching kits in their classes. Typically, the teachers would take parts of the material and modify it to fit their own context. The critical point proved to be to come up with an inspiring and efficient means for the teachers to share knowledge about materials and teaching concepts.
One of the most successful initiatives that came out of the process was ‘speed sharing’: a meeting format where teachers can share experiences. That method is now part of the service that the municipal Child and Youth Service offers to local schools – in addition, many teachers are also organising speed sharing sessions themselves. The teachers who were involved in developing the concept contribute actively in spreading it to schools throughout the region.
Learning: Draw inspiration from other industries, and make sure to document your learning throughout the process
When you release your prototypes into the hands of your target group, it’s important to think about how you are going to document the many insights that occur during the trials. Perhaps you are personally present, able to take photos and notes. Sometimes, the development process is entirely in the hands of the target group. When that is the case, it may be helpful to develop templates to give the participants to help them summarise their thoughts and reflections during the process. You should also consider how you might use the prototype as a basis for engaging your target group. It may be helpful to seek inspiration from other industries and to find formats that are easy to recognise and likely to spark new inspiration when they are applied to the target group’s own field.
5. When you have the basic outline of an idea but need to sort out the details
Perhaps you find yourself in a situation where you have confirmation that your idea has a significant potential, and that your concept is sound, but need to sort out the details. In this scenario, prototypes can be an excellent medium for exploring what it will take to achieve the intended user experience when someone interacts with your product or your service.
If, for example, you are developing a new system for household waste sorting, prototypes can help you get a sense of which design features most effectively ensure that people sort their household waste as intended. Should you be focusing on colour-coding, graphic icons or the materials used to make the bins? By testing variants of the same concept you can explore what details you should implement in order to support the optimal practical use of your solution.
Example: Redesigning Falck’s first aid kit
When Falck, working with the design agency Designit, set out to redesign their first aid kit, prototypes were used to explore ways to improve the user experience of the kit. Falck wanted to address the unfortunate scenario where the first aid kit is always hard to find when you need it, and when you finally locate it, the content seems confusing, and it is hard to identify exactly the compression bandage or the plaster that you need.
The new first aid kit should make it easy to take quick and effective action in an emergency situation. Therefore, the visual expression of the kit was refined to make it suitable for a more visible placement in the home. The case itself was divided into easily accessible spaces dedicated to the most common injuries such as cuts and burns, to make it easy and quick for the user to find what they need.
Potential users of the first aid kit were presented with prototypes representing different versions of the new kit. The prototypes had the character of mock-ups in the form of simple foam board models that were not fully functioning but had sufficient functionality to give an impression of the end-product. On this basis, Falck was able to modify details in the design and visual expression of the case before the final decision was made about materials.
Only use prototypes if you are ready to make changes
You should only use prototypes if you are prepared to modify and adapt your idea or solution. If you have already ordered the materials for a new product, or if you have already paid for the development of a new interface for your digital service, you are less likely to be open to the insights that prototyping can generate. You should not be blindly guided by the feedback that your prototype generates but use it to spot flaws and shortcomings that it would be helpful to adjust before your end-product is ready to go into production.
Further reading about prototyping
Buchenau, Marion; Suri, Jane Fulton (2000): Experience Prototyping, IDEO, 2000.
Coughlan, Peter; Suri, Jane Fulton; Canales, Katherine (2007), Prototypes as (Design) Tools for Behavioral and Organizational Change, The Journal of Applied Behavioral Service, Vol. 43 No. 1, March 2007.
Halse, Joachim; Brandt, Eva; Clark, Brendon; Binder, Thomas (2010): Rehearsing the future. The Danish Design School Press, 2010.
Halse, Joachim (2014), Tools of Ideation: Evocative Visualization and Playful Modelling as Drivers of the Policy Process. In: Bason, Christian (2014), Design for Policy, Gower Publishing Limited, 2014.
Houde, Stephanie; Hill, Charles: What do Prototypes Prototype?
Mazé, Ramia: “Forms and Politics of Design Futures”, paper for the seminar “Ethnographies of the Possible”, 10 April 2014, Aarhus, DK. The Research Network for Design Anthropology.