Why prototype?

Sir James Dyson famously made 5,127 prototypes in his journey to creating the DC01, his first vacuum cleaner. Prototyping is an essential part of any design process. I trained as a product and furniture designer, back when a product was an object and not a piece of software. Now the work that we do stretches from material things to experiences; I wanted to draw some parallels between the prototyping of objects and experiences.

What is a prototype in design?

Prototyping is a process of testing, refinement, and risk mitigation, and a prototype is a vehicle to do this. It is the representation of an idea that can be used to test hypotheses and iterated toward production, release, or delivery, dependent on its final form. You may create a prototype when you are thinking about the future, or it may be something that evolves from customer insight.

A considerable investment is often made in the manufacture of objects. Whether the batch production of furniture or mass production of a plastic product, continually iterating and refining a design enables you to bring the best version to market. This train-of-thought also applies to designed experiences.

Prototyping is also a process of increasing fidelity. Initially, when prototyping, it's advisable to use the cheapest and lowest-fidelity materials available. As a prototype evolves, the amount of change and breadth of exploration decreases, while the level of quality, finesse, and refinement increase as we diverge on the final product. (In reality, services and experiences could be considered as being in permanent beta, continuously adjusted through multiple feedback loops).

Prototypes, mock-ups and maquettes

When creating physical objects, early, exploratory models are known as maquettes and frequently made from paper and card. When designing experiences and services, similar prototypes may take the form of a paper-prototype (digital) or be represented through a service scenario or storyboard. Through a customer journey or service experience map we can also start to visualise and interrogate the nature of an experience in relatively low-fidelity.

A Dyson vacuum in an evolution of prototypes in different materials and fidelity

A Dyson vacuum in an evolution of prototypes in different materials and fidelity

The next phase of prototyping is exploring form and construction in a more meaningful way. If we were designing a hand-held object, such as a mobile phone or electronic device, this might mean moving to foam models. Here we start to explore form in a more nuanced way than paper or card, creating subtle radii and organic curves. We can also explore how things feel in-hand and test the model across different ergonomic percentiles (sizes of people).

Role-play makes a good parallel here. We can start to make a physical space from cheap materials, identify the key actors, and act out how a service may work. Through this process, questions and anomalies begin to appear, like: How would that person find the service kiosk? How would they know that piece of information and what is the system required to deliver that information? Where would that interaction take place in the flow of the service?

A looks-like model communicates the look and feel of a product. Although often constructed from a single, solid block of material - for all intents and purposes it looks and feels like the final product. To communicate the nuances and detail of the product, these models are often supported by engineering drawings, computer visualisations and animations.

I personally consider a Service Blueprint as the engineering drawing equivalent for a service. A blueprint communicates the pathways, connections, touchpoints, actors, and platforms that are required to deliver a service and how it all fits together. If we were to convey nuance and look and feel, we could also use video. Doing this would enable a viewer to witness people engaging with the proposed service alongside mock-ups of crucial touchpoints, which would serve a similar purpose to a looks-like model and supporting collateral.

In a pre-production prototype, we may invest in 3D-printing to produce plastic parts without committing to a moulding tool. We may also include electronics and software, and start to explore the intersection of physical and digital interaction design, getting feedback from users along the way. This approach also enables the testing of junctions, connections, and tolerances in production, before we finally commit to hundreds of thousands of dollars in tooling investment.

In a service or experience, a pilot would do a similar job and would be the highest fidelity prototype we can create before investing in service-delivery. A pilot may run for many months and is an opportunity to test and refine the moving parts of the service with people. With the best-laid-plans, there is no substitute for real people interacting with something you have designed to throw-up questions and insights you have never considered.

Why prototype?

Rather than failing fast, prototyping should be regarded as a controlled, considered, and strategic approach to learning as much as possible about an idea before substantial amounts of time, money, and effort are committed.

Essential factors to understand include:

  • How it looks (Aesthetics)

  • How it works (Functionality)

  • How it's made, produced or delivered (Manufacture/Production/Delivery)

  • How people perform tasks and interact with the design (Interaction)

  • How people use it and the ease of use (Usability)

This is not the only approach to prototyping, there are many different ways to go about it. Some of these analogies maybe crude, and boundaries may blur between different artifacts when creating services and experiences, but hopefully this article provides another window through which to understand the purpose of the process.

By knowing what questions you are trying to answer when prototyping, you can mitigate risk, save money, and increase the chances of creating useful, usable, and successful products and experiences.

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