Prototyping as a mindset: The key to embrace creative solutions
An inspiring story to boost teams’ potential everyday in any industry.
When I was studying architecture, we often tackled big challenges to solve, such as the new business center of a city, a museum to transform public space, or a new housing system that allowed for interaction among neighbors.
These were complex problems that were intimidating to tackle. However, through models, sketches, and plans, we managed to begin thinking of a solution, made it tangible to obtain feedback, and evolved the solution from there.
Working on innovation projects as a service designer, I learned that these initial sketches or models were called “prototypes,” and any idea could be prototyped: a new customer service for an energy distributor, a new beverage dispenser, or even a new business model for an insurance company.
In business, prototyping is often overlooked. A prototype is not usually the first thing put on the table when discussing an innovative solution, and prototyping is often seen as expensive, a step before production, something reserved for designers and engineers.
We know that failure is part of innovation, but perhaps we don’t need to reach failure to learn what works. Instead, we can prototype before and do so constantly until we arrive at a good enough solution.
What is a prototype?
A prototype is any artifact that helps us to concretize our ideas. It can be a sketch, a model, a commercial presentation of a new service, a fake website, a video, or even a
“role-play” with actors following a script that illustrates what a new service or experience would be like. A prototype can be something very quick that we can assemble in a matter of minutes or take weeks.
Why is prototyping important?
Our ideas always work in our heads, and we fall in love with them. When we prototype, those ideas become tangible, forcing us to view them from a different perspective and understand how others, such as future users, clients, or colleagues, perceive them.
Le Corbusier once said, “I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.” Let’s say that prototyping leaves less room for deception because it brings us closer to reality, ultimately helping us see things as they are, not as we believe them to be.
Of course, prototyping also helps to validate or refute concepts with future users or stakeholders. It allows us to identify if the idea is interesting, observe if users behave as we expected, and obtain feedback on how to improve or evolve it.
A few years ago, I participated in a project within propelland where we prototyped a new alarm service. We rented two houses on AirBnB and prototyped the experience inside them. The prototypes were nothing more than wooden models of what the future device would be with iPods that simulated the system interfaces.
One person controlled what appeared remotely, and we invited potential users to test the new alarm service. The amount of decisions that were made thanks to that test in which building the prototype took us a couple of weeks was revealing. When we want to observe user behavior, prototypes don’t always have to work, sometimes they just have to appear to.
Prototyping can also be a valuable tool for communication and collaboration within a team. Having a tangible artifact makes it easier to share and discuss ideas with colleagues, clients, or investors. This can help to obtain greater buy-in and support along the path to the final implementation.
When we worked with BBVA on the design of its innovation space, we began the project by prototyping as a team. In a workshop with the client, we brought a model of the space and all kinds of materials, such as Legos, cardboard, printed photos, etc.
We asked the entire team to “prototype” what they thought should happen, what things should be and what things shouldn’t. At the end of the session, we had a clear idea of what should happen there, what the requirements were, and the entire team was aligned with the project’s expectations.
How can we start prototyping in our daily lives?
Recognizing that prototyping is not just a stage in the design process but a way of thinking, we must incorporate this mindset into our daily lives and create prototypes from the conception of ideas to their launch. We must bear in mind that we can prototype any concept, business, service, product, or experience and seek the most effective way to do so for each case and moment.
Prototypes are useful tools, but they are also replaceable, so we should be prepared to discard them if necessary.
Prototype only what is necessary. The goal is to answer questions, explore solutions, and present them to others. Always prototype what is necessary based on your objectives.
And above all, test it, show it, discover new ways to make your ideas tangible, and discover new points of view.
Paula Vega, Client Success Director at propelland and teacher of the Master’s in Product and Service Design at SHIFTA