Prototyping and technological advancement go hand in hand. In the more than 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci experimented with flying machines and musical instruments, prototyping has become a critical tool, with C-suites across a variety of industries recognizing its key role.
At its most practical level, prototyping is innovation in action; it is the act of learning while creating. In this context, prototyping isn’t limited to the design phase – it can be applied much more broadly to the entire innovation process, such as:
- For problem solving. Whether it is used to test initial assumptions or to experiment with different hypotheses, prototyping is the embodiment of tested theories, ideas and solutions.
- For storytelling. Prototyping brings words to life through form, allowing for greater engagement between the design itself and the user’s body and mind. It allows key stakeholders to better understand, connect with and support the ideas behind the design.
- For experimentation. Prototyping should be approached with the flexibility and humility needed to challenge assumptions, test them against real-world situations and learn from failures. Quick and iterative prototyping can help organizations explore different forms and feature sets, and develop increasingly clearer pictures of market-ready solutions for the problems at hand.
Different Prototypes for Different Purposes
Some prototyping initiatives can be very quick, low-fidelity and geared toward internal educational purposes; others can be intended as broad socialization tools for mass distribution. To determine which is most appropriate, it’s essential to understand the audience that will receive or use the prototype, and the objective you are trying to achieve. Knowing this will inform you of the best medium to use, individuals to involve and effort to commit.
Though not exhaustive, the following are four scenarios in which prototyping can be an effective tool.
- Experimenting and Learning
Within the very definition of the word—proto, meaning “first,” and typos, meaning “pressing, pattern or form”—there is an acknowledgment of the naiveté and inexperience involved in the approach. As such, one of the most common objectives of prototyping is to create a tool for experimenting and learning that is focused around a design. While humans have a great capacity for speculation and simulation, there are often unforeseen elements or details beyond our grasp that do not emerge until we roll up our sleeves and begin to build.
When we prototype, we move beyond the limitations of our mind. By putting things into physical being, we are introduced to a fresh perspective on our design that allows us to learn something new about what we are trying to accomplish.
Humans are multi-sensorial creatures who learn through physical experiences. Often, simply trying to be creative with words on a page can impose barriers on our ability to think divergently and discover blind spots. Using prototyping as a form of creative exploration or ideation can be an effective way to push beyond the barriers of the mind. Playing with your hands can help to leverage different visual and haptic parts of your brain, form associations with previous interactions, and generate ideas we may not have conceived of through thought alone. This is true whether the end goal is a physical artifact or a digital experience.
- Socializing and Storytelling
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then an object in someone’s hands could be worth millions. Few things tell the story of a product or service experience like a physical representation of the components necessary for that experience. Whether the objects in question are fully formed as an intended experience, or are simple and require a narrative to be crafted around them, socialization through the use of props helps to legitimize an experience. A physical object can act as an important cue for the user’s mind to engage with in understanding the situation. Crucial to this method is acknowledging where the object’s experience ends and where the storyteller’s tale begins.
- Proving Your Concept
There is a reason the term “proof of concept” is often used interchangeably with prototype. At times, we are literally manifesting our hypotheses into tangible form only to test and prove their validity before scaling our efforts, or to identify our failures and try again. The reality of any prototype is that it will almost never be right the first time. So, while our ultimate objective is to craft a complete, functional representation of our intent, very often, the process of proving our concept is one of failure and iteration. That said, when we achieve our goal, we have a prototype that can be leveraged as a proxy for the final product or service we hope to build, which can then be used to obtain both technical and experiential feedback.
Intentionality of Prototyping
As we see from deconstructing the potential objectives of prototyping, there are two crucial variables to consider:
- Functionality, which refers to the level at which a prototype can demonstrate a feature or use case to a user with no external influence (whether or not the prototype can tell its own story or if it needs someone else to narrate).
- Fidelity, which speaks to the level of aesthetic believability of the prototype (how close the form looks to something that you could see in the market).
When we understand the objective and audience of our prototype, we can be more intentional about the effort we put into both the functionality and fidelity, without wasting undue time or resources. Low-fidelity prototypes tend to be appropriate for internal teams when the form doesn’t need to be pretty—it just needs to be done. High-fidelity prototypes are used with stakeholders who need a bit more polish to engage with the prototype without skepticism.
Low-functionality prototypes tend to be used in early stages of prototype development as a way of exploring design options. In later stages, high-functionality prototypes allow us to refine and integrate more of our design options and technologies into a cohesive, complete experience.
Prototyping: Fundamental to Innovation
Whether used for creativity, storytelling, learning or validation, prototyping should have a place in every innovation team’s processes. Every time we test something actual, real and tangible is a step toward a better understanding of the concept, the value it can create, and the investment that can be justified when ultimately developing an in-market, scalable product.
It’s critical to keep in mind, however, that core to using prototyping as a tool is an understanding of both the intended audience and the objective. This allows designers to determine the appropriate medium, functionalities and fidelity.
Regardless of the medium, functionality or fidelity targeted, design teams must be eager to take ideas out of mere discussion and words off the page to turn them into a tangible reality. Because without prototyping, technological advancement—and innovation itself—could not exist.
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