How to Prototype: The Awesome Guide

This is a guest post from Lindsay Gordon, prototyping genious from South East Water. Lindsay attended Olin College in Massachusetts, got a degree in engineering and most importantly, got taught by IDEO. She now works here at South East Water’s Recycled Water program and helps me be inspired through her ideas about how to Prototype. If you want to get in touch with Lindsay, she will be answering comments on this post or email:

At its simplest, a prototype is a representative model used to test a design concept. Prototypes can be built out of paper and tape or machined using advanced materials and techniques. Regardless of the level of detail, prototyping is a very valuable exercise during the design phase of any project. This quick overview provides an explanation of why prototyping is important, how to do it and why engaging users is vital.

Why is prototyping useful?

1. ‘Proof of Principle’/Exploration
o Making a physical model can be a source of creativity to get the juices flowing before you have all the answers
o Gives you an opportunity to test the ‘proof of principle’ of your most basic idea and find unexpected problems
o Allows you to explore design alternatives, improve the design and allow your team to appreciate the experience of the end user

2. Communication of your idea
o Internal: Words leave room for misinterpretation, simple 3-D models can communicate ideas to team members and convince them of your design concepts
o External: A slightly more sophisticated model can be very useful in pitching/selling your idea to stakeholders. Shows a good understanding of the product/service and facilitates visualisation of your idea

3. User Involvement
o Giving your user something tactile requires user involvement in the design process (easier to understand users and their experiences, behaviours, perceptions and needs with a physical object)
o User feedback is delivered in real time while they’re experimenting with the prototype


Quick-and-Dirty Prototyping

Rough prototyping involves using any materials available to make a quick, simple and cheap 3-D model of your product or service.

The scale will depend on what product/service you’re modelling: actual size may make sense for some items (telephone) but others may require larger (medical devices) or smaller (buildings) scale. Use any materials you can find: straws, cardboard, fabric, wood, foam core, hot glue, rubber bands, post it notes, polystyrene, toothpicks etc. It also may be useful to take apart existing products to find materials.

1. When involving users don’t worry about creating a professional looking model but make it refined enough that it won’t distract them. You want them to take you seriously but if the prototype has too much detail users may focus on the wrong things (e.g. a button is too big)
2. Early models should invite improvement! Inspire your audience to assess the service through the eyes of a customer and imagine the concept evolving into something they would enjoy using

How to model a service

Vending Machine opperators and service patterns

Modelling a service is a bit trickier than modelling a product. A service model needs to focus on the interaction between the user and the service and highlight all the key players involved in the duration of the service.

o Visual: Storyboards, vignettes, cartoons and amateur videos are all good tools to model your service. Focus on service scenarios: physical elements, interactions and action sequences with various key players
o Where applicable, create 3-D models of any interfaces between customers and service components
o Find an initial group of a few key customers that are willing to help with the prototyping, will brainstorm possible service scenarios, look over storyboards, interfaces, etc.
Above info taken from this interesting article about service prototypes

Why human focused design?

Designing WITH the user and not FOR the user takes the guesswork out of whether your final product will be useful. Products and services should be designed to fit in with a user’s current behaviours and values rather than force them to change to accommodate your new design.

“User Oriented Design = Subway (now I’m doing the cheese, which kind would you like) instead of “I made you a sandwich, hope you like what I put in it”

Working closely with users provides opportunities for feedback at each step of the design process. Spend time with people in your intended user group and try to witness them in their natural habitat; you can learn a lot from observing specific activities and putting yourself in your user’s shoes.

Another way to test your model is to engage individuals who are completely unfamiliar with the product or service and ask them to evaluate their experience with your prototype. This can provide valuable feedback about whether your design is intuitive and easy to use. Jan Chipchase runs an amazing blog where he researches people’s habits with mobile phones accross cutlures for this purpose.

Next Steps

If you’ve had success with rough prototyping and are looking for a more sophisticated prototyping method you may want to check out 3-D modelling software (such as Google’s SketchUp which is free, has great video tutorials and is quite intuitive). There may also be opportunities to create a working prototype or more advanced models using rapid prototyping companies.

Leave me a comment or flick me an email if you have any other questions about prototyping!

12 thoughts on “How to Prototype: The Awesome Guide

  1. Great post – I particularly like the Subway analogy!

    We use prototyping extensively when dealing with clients, focusing on User Centered Design. In our case, being able to quickly and cheaply show them what their site design looks like is invaluable. Often when we try and explain why something is or isn’t a good idea, it’s hard to visualize.

    It’s also good to get into the habit of (when dealing with larger projects) prototyping sections of your design or idea as a sanity check! (as suggested in #1 above).

    Excellent reading – thanks for posting!

  2. I agree it is good to test ideas on people who will be the user and I have found sometimes the more unfamiliar the better as it helps get the questions flowing and can add to enhancements and directions you have not thought of. Good post!

  3. I heartily agree with Ross and James – the subway line is genius. I believe protoyping is undervalued and definitely under utilised.

    One thing to emphasise is that iteration is really important. One prototype is never enough – you need the revisions too especially to take your users along on the journey.

    Great post.

  4. Hi all,

    Thanks for your comments, it’s great to hear about people that use and appreciate prototyping and user oriented design. Even though the Subway line makes it sound overly simple, it really does make perfect sense to involve the user in the design process rather than after the product has been finished.

    Keith, that’s an excellent point that should definitely be included, thanks. With each iteration you can gain valuable information as your idea progresses and becomes more detailed. It can also be useful to make iterations that cover the whole spectrum from an incredibly rough prototype to a full working model.

    Plus protoyping is just so fun for us engineering folk that enjoy hands-on projects!

  5. I agree, feasibility studies with prototyping help us a lot in the manufacturing world. We present process improvement ideas to management with 3D models, quick and dirty proof of concepts to get approvals on projects. The key here is to discover weaknesses in design in the early stages of the project. Another key element is to keep the early prototypes functional to display the key element in the process improvement. Sometimes vendors will also help out with free loaner units which we can strap on an existing production line to prove feasibility.

  6. I work for a small company and we’re busy with developing concepts and ideas while exploring new ones. Product development outsourcing has been one of our solutions as we grow and expand.

    We’ve contracted a prototype outsourcing which is known to give the best results and workmanship. That way, we’re assured that our concepts are implemented the right way while also being economical.

    This is a well-written, concise article about prototyping, Lindsay.

  7. I can complete relate to your artidcle, Lindsay. We work for a manufacturing firm that makes assembly parts for prototyping. To ensure continuous development of the materials we make, we expedite 3D laser scanning services. We believe that constantly developing our production means better realization of the final output.

    Thanks to numerous equipment like the Faro Arm (for sale here in Canada), we are also able to explore bigger-scale projects in prototype-building.

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