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!

Connectivity to solve poverty: How would you connect?

As I sit at home, exhausted after a huge last week and begin (finally) preparing my post for Blog Action Day, I have been contemplating a comment sent to me by my dear friend, Melina Chan recently. Melina is current located in Cambodia, working on an AYAD program around micro-finance lending and community development to alleviate poverty. She is an amazing person, and a true ‘squiggly thinker’ – she’s absolutely amazing at creating organic, win-win, high value relationships with good people to solve complex problems, and someone I have learned a lot from in the time I have known her.

She commented on one of my posts late last week asking for advice on how the many different AYAD participants, who are spread geographically around the Asia-Pacific region, could better communicate and share learning’s across timezones, locations and dodgy-internet. Specifically, she says:

“We are often isolated geographically, with limited internet access (ie. dial up speeds, unreliable connections, downtime in power shortages and thunderstorms), and are often the only native English speakers in our organisations.”

So, on Blog Action Day, I thought what better way to act than post about the problems Mel is having in Cambodia and hopefully, with your comments, provide her with information and possible solutions she can use in the fight against poverty. Please comment with any suggestions, technologies or any other ideas you may have. This is for her! Some of my suggestions are below, which I’ve tried to create based on three key issues Mel will be facing in the field:

1) Limited/sensitive connectivity means the internet can drop out or be unavailable at anytime. Thus, any service used must either be a) mobile web enabled or b) remain intact and accessible even if some people with the AYAD network can’t access it for a time.

2) Remain time-independent. The AYADs often travel in-country, and would often be away from a computer for days/weeks/months on end. Thus, organising time for the whole network to meet will almost certainly be impossible.

3) Whilst it will be tough for the whole network to group together at once, it should be easier to form small groups of conversations/sharing. Even just 2 person conversations are hugely valuable.  

Dealing with limited internet access

Obviously, this will be the toughest problem to solve. Tim Costello, in one of our interviews with him for the Learn About Poverty blog, commented that a reportedly better solution to poverty was to buy mobile phones for everyone in need due to the devices ability to connect people for trade, business and political opportunities.

So in this case, I would suggest giving some mobile connectivity devices such as twitter a go. World Vision International were using twitter for a time to communicate to a small internal audience with status reports from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was an experiment, which was curtailed afterwards because of it’s inability to scale but the technology still worked. Perhaps, you could create a small twitter account which AYADs could update to with links or asks for help. ie: “Does anyone have a strategic planning framework to use when facilitating?”

Creating tacit knowledge ‘sinks’ 

The other option, if it eventuates that twitter doesn’t work, is actually a tool I posted about on the digital-flexi-tools post, Campfire. Campfire is a relatively low bandwidth program, which opens up a chat and allows you to swap files (hard under the conditions you’re in) and chat with people live. The real beauty of campfire, is that those conversations are recorded, so the history of your conversation remains there for other AYADs to view, creating instant, global access to tacit knowledge. I subject I know you (Mel) are very keen on!  You can create a sink of knowledge, but constantly having conversations on your campfire site, and encouraging other AYADs to do the same.


Unlike normal IM programs, Campfire can be organised by emailing a link to people and perhaps organising a time to meet there. Just like a true campfire, it tends to be used as a destination to meet. Once around the campfire, you can chat and discuss issues you need to, and share links etc etc on a low-bandwidth connection. If you had internet connection, I’m certain this would work (let us know how you go).

Utilise Google Docs to create copy-paste content

This is a tougher one. Google docs is a pretty awesome place to share documents without needing to send huge files over email etc. I would suggest that you move any documents you have, which may be valuable to other AYADs, to a google docs account. This way, you can include AYADs on any edits that take place, as well as allow people to copy-paste format independent content into whatever business/program/proposal template they may happen to be writing.

They can then add their own content back, and share it with you when you are ready. This is a key feature. Just like campfire, the content you put into the google docs account stays there, so it doesn’t require large active members, online live, to become a useful service. All you would need is the internet to be working (granted, not a guarantee) and you can access templates and content anytime, without needing to connect with others then. Again, this doesn’t need a huge number of people active within the community to be immensely valuable, and once you have two or three people adding content, the resource suddenly becomes much more powerful and more useful for others to see and add to.

Start small. Don’t expect to get to home base on the first date

Getting every member of the local AYAD network on board at the conception stage of these tools will be really tough. You’ll be better off Mel taking some advice from Ross Hill and just start small, with a simple idea of what you want to achieve. 

You might: Get up a campfire, and invite one other person in your time zone to join in. Discuss something of value to both of you, and then once you have that conversation ‘in the sink’ forward another invite and repeat it with someone else, building on the first conversation. Soon, you’ll have a comprehensive, recorded text discussion of how people would approach your topic. People will then flock to the campfire to remember what they discussed, copy-paste any useful content and generally use the service to improve their work. Once you have this in place, you can grow to including full business proposals on Google Docs etc etc, but start simple. You don’t expect to get to home base on the first date, so don’t expect it here 🙂

That’s some of my thoughts. Please, I’m want to hear your thoughts out there about how Melina could keep communication up between AYADs to improve their knowledge and sharing abilities. Hopefully, we can create a great ‘knowledge sink’ ourselves which Melina can use to make things happen and better deal with poverty.

5 key steps to good innovation – lessons from Start Up Camp Melbourne

I write this from a laundromat in St Kilda, extremely fatigued and keen to hit the hay after the enormous weekend that was #SUCM (or, Start Up Camp Melbourne). The event was based around a simple idea I love – get together with a great group of people, many of whom were strangers or simply twitter associates, and start up a company in a weekend.

So, what we’re my big take aways from the day? What have I learned about innovation and making it happen? Here’s my top 5:

1) Innovation happens best with limited time:

Innovation is something that everyone has. It’s not a special function, and it’s not a gift. The act of creating something new, that provides a new and better solution for an old problem is one that is entirely dependant on the cool people around you to help ideate and the amount of time you have to spend on it.

Ideation doesn’t have to be long. We can get caught up with slick processes and drawn out market research, but in the end there is nothing like a time limit to provoke new creations and group cohesion around a product. At SUCM, we had about 3 hours to form a new company, find a venture idea we liked, register the domain (etc) and then begin planning our attack. If you are stuck with a problem or in an ‘opportunity drought’ try creating a spare half hour, move off for a brainstorm and force yourself to come up with something in the alloted time. You’ll be surprised by the results.

2) Can you exit after 2 days?

This one is a bee in my bonnet. Can you ideate a new venture, do the market research and lay the strategy down, write the business plan, build a working (!) prototype and then…down tools and sell your work to a strategic buyer in the industry you’re new creation was set to play in?

We created the new web-app-service, The amazing guys working on the prototype (such as Michael Specht, ‘George’ Provoost, Jason Brownlee, Pieter and John Sherwood) whipped up a working service app that would have (I think) some interest to Twitter. Yes, the business has no traffic, and no brand – but the very fact they experimented with the technology, created a phase 1 working prototype and had about 20 first time users within the first few hours proves the concept may have legs. Would it be possible to sell our progress so far to Twitter for 10k+?

I think it’s a key area for corporate innovation units to focus on in the coming years – both how to find and buy cool immature prototypes from gun innovators OR sell their own internal innovations to existing suitors within the corporate world to leverage new revenue streams and business relationships. Why not?

3) Evaluate opportunities based on revenue streams…not passion

We selected based largely on the fact that we wanted the challenge of building the business case and prototype for it over the next 48-60 hours. SUCM is largely an experience best used for learning as opposed to revenue creation, so the idea of working on a dull idea which may generate cash wasn’t too appealing to the group. 

We would have created a much more valuable (potentially trad-able value…see point 2) business had we started by picking the idea we could generate the most number of revenue streams from. Not most revenue…but the most streams. In the end, we struggled to find more than 3 real revenue streams for – in hindsight, we should have brainstormed the maximum number of ways we could generate cash (fast) from our ideas at stage one, and picked the business which had the highest number of associated ways to create revenue.

4) Reduce the risk, increase the comfort

When pitching to the angel investor, Jordan Green, I realised that many of us hadn’t prepared to reduce the risk to the investor, whilst raising their comfort. Whilst this one is pretty ‘pitch’ focused, internal innovation still speaks to the need to be transparent with weaknesses and market threats that may upset the apple cart when your new venture launches.

Especially, I found:

– Highlight your Weaknesses and Threats in your SWOT more than your Strengths and Opportunities. Once your weak points are highlighted, link how you will mitigate them with the inherent strengths and industry opportunities of your venture.

– Openly discuss your Critical Success Factors, and then continue to explain how you will ensure that your venture achieves each one. Ask ‘what would kill our new venture?’ and then find strengths and strategies to meet these success factors.

5) Be agile and tell a story

This is a shout to the talented programers named above who I worked with on These guys were able to create what they did (from my perspective) because they had a clear idea of the story needed to be told to the user. By breaking down the venture into a clear story, the guys we’re able to split up the tasks required for the user, and then develop the parts in conjunction. As such, we we’re the only group to present a working prototype at events end, because we only created parts of the business required to get us to the simplest form of opperation. This is an existing methodology, and not particularly new in the tech world.

But, where innovation is concerned, try creating each revenue stream as an addition to the whole user story and then split the business planning process up to ensure that each revenue stream is scoped and contributing towards the creation of a sustainable competitive advantage. Try it out and see. Myself and Duncan Riley found this approach worked well during the event.

So that’s it. All up, the event was pretty amazing and the group of people assembled was top notch. A huge shout out to Bart Jellema for seeding the idea for the group (from Sydney) and leading the charge and to Maxim Shklyar for being the ideal host for the opportunity hungry mob that descended on his studio for the weekend. Top marks also to the aforementioned Michael Specht for playing a large hand in organising the event, and making sure the right people knew of it’s existence. Here’s to the next one!!!

Mindfullness in Opportunity Evaluation

I was given this fantastic article by dad today – It’s a Harvard Business Review piece written by Paul Saffo about how to make effective forecasts. The article reads fantastically well (you know how much I appreciate good writing) and is easy to remember and learn from due to the nature of Saffo’s explanations. Very made to stick.

The article is broken down into 6 very relevant ‘Rules’ for effective forecasting. It’s golden stuff for anyone dealing in the opportunity evaluation space and is a great tool for any innovator. But, the point I’d like to highlight here is his first rule – Define a Cone of Uncertainty.

Cone of Uncertainty?

Saffo talks about how defining his ‘Cone of Uncertainty’ prior to forecasting something is the most crucial of all tools he uses. The reason being, that by defining what factors are most at play in a given situation he can better judge the outcome of events yet to take place. It’s very similar to a PEST analysis, but much more rooted in historic indicators backing up those factors highlighted as important currently.

 “The art of defining the cone’s edge lies in carefully distinguishing between the highly improbable and the wildly impossible. Outliers – variously, wild cards or surprises, are what defines this edge”

This has a lot of similarities to the mindfulness techniques that I am studying now. Whilst I’m not Buddhist, the idea of being much more ‘in the moment’ is becoming a very valuable tool for me in remaining sane in this fast paced world. It helps focus on what is important at any one time, rather than let the internal commentary of my mind (and often others!) get in the way.

The idea of the cone of silence is similar, in that it focuses the forecasters (or entrepreneurs!) thinking on the parameters of what is possible, rather than what is improbable. It takes these events into account, measures them, and then either places them within the cone or at its edge, allowing the forecaster freedom to focus their thinking. Those events firmly within the cone, or towards its centre, are much more likely to occur and thus much more likely to impact any resulting strategy.

There are also many synergies between this method, and the De Bono Lateral Thinking methods, mainly to do with the use of a Thinking Purpose to lead the mind purposefully in its action. It’s an interesting topic of discussion, and one I think only helps improve our thinking abilities. The ability to remain creative in problem solving and yet critical in idea evaluation is a key ingredient to good innovation. At least I think so 🙂  

Pixar – 20 years of animation

Today, I finally got the chance to visit the Guggenhiem and Pixar, 20 Years of Animation, exhibits at NGV and Fed Square. The Guggenhiem was fantastic, and well worth a visit if you get the chance before it ships of-shore again on the 7th of October…but the real gold was to be found at the Pixar show.


pixar-front.jpg guggenhiem.jpg

Upon entering, you are confronted with the following quote from John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Pixar…


Seeing that, I knew I was in for a good one. The exhibit is rigged to showcase the process Pixar goes through to create a film, and what they focus on to build such powerful stories. It was great, and is well worth the (measly) $15 to get in if you, like me, jive off anything relating to innovation and creativity. The exhibit takes down the curtain around Pixar in a wizard-of-oz kinda way! Some highlights of the exhibit are below…

1) Special document here! I kept the map of the exhibit they give you when you walk in…check it out here

2) Definately spend time (lots) on the Interactive Kiosks. Listen to how they create the story, through their rigorous creative process around storyboards. This is great, and after listening I can see why each scene in each film works out so great. They map ,improvise, create, act each scene out in a pitch to a grou pof Pixar employees. Then, John Lasseter (seems, the heart and soul of the company, given he exhibit) adds his bit, sending the ‘Storyboard Editor’ back to his drawing board before the final flow of the scene is nutted out. Why don’t every company have a ‘Story Board Editor?’ Everyone is selling an experience now, so why not map it out as the pro’s do??? Must re-read The Experience Economy…

3) It was evident from the numerous quotes and storys told within the exhibit that the focus within Pixar is very much on creating emotionally powerful stories. The fact that they create these with high-tech computer graphics is neither here nor there…as is quickly evident from the freehand artwork on display.

4) There we’re, thankfully, many film clips and and film extracts (as you would expect going to a FILM exhibit). There was a show on how Pixar create their worlds (The Artscape), as well as a large collection of award winning Lasseter short films on display when you first enter (including the famous table light clip that inspired the Pixar logo). Obviously, make sure you see all of these things. (Although, the Zoetrope was a bit trippy…)

Overall, I loved the Storyboard process most, and am going to try this out in more of a business application way very soon…listening to the Pixar guys pitch each scene so passionatley inspired me!!!

Well worth it!!! *****