When we think about prototyping, we may imagine Tesla’s first autonomous vehicle out on the roads or a robot that you want to teach to walk. But these are just the versions of prototyping that make the news. Everyday prototypes are being carried out in small ways.
What is Prototyping?
Dictionaries rely heavily on a mechanical definition of prototyping. Meaning that they mostly define prototyping of the things mentioned above. But prototyping has grown to encompass many different types of products and services. Not everyone is ignoring its expansion. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary expands on the word by adding this context:
The prefix prot-, or proto-, comes from Greek and has the basic meaning ”first in time” or ”first formed.”
A prototype is someone or something that serves as a model or inspiration for those that come later. A successful fund-raising campaign can serve as a prototype for future campaigns.
When you prototype something in your business, you are testing something’s viability. You are asking yourself:
- Does this make sense for my customers?
- Does this make sense for me and my company’s ability?
- Does this make sense financially?
- Is this option sustainable?
When you are prototyping something in your business, you are answering questions for yourself, your customers and your business. The answers to your questions will allow you to move forward more quickly and more confidently that whatever it is you are trying to do will work. The most important reason to make a prototype is to find all your inconsistencies and fix them. Because you will not succeed if your customers do not think your solution is sustainable, usable, or desirable.
Unlike finished products ready for purchase, prototypes are imperfect and impermanent by design (Willhoft, 2022)
It is also very important to note that creating a prototype is not just about the thing itself. It is about how your product or service serves the customer and your business. When launching a new product, service or even whole business, there should be a balance between company health and customer usefulness. Additionally, it should also be done in the most sustainable way possible in economical, social and ecological perspectives. This will also serve your business and your customers.
There are many ways to prototype. Each of these will give you insights to help you move onto the next iteration of your offering. You do not need to do all of these; you just need to do those that make sense for what you are creating. The most usual are:
- Cardboard recreation/staging
- Stuff/Proximity prototyping
- Paper ‘digital’ mockups
- Digital mockups (Marvel app, etc)
- 3D printing
This means acting out your service or product. It could be acting out how a person will buy or use your product.
You may need quite a bit of cardboard or any kind of larger objects (tables, etc) to design the space you need. This allows you to move around your space to see if it works.
Lego is a great way to represent many different kinds of interactions through building them in miniature form and walking through it. Or maybe you are using Lego as a way to represent an actual product.
This just means that you are using found objects (whatever if around you) to create prototypes of what you are talking about. You can tape paper and bits of anything together to represent a size proximation, etc.
It is not becoming a very real option that you can 3D print a version of a product before you commission anything real.
Paper ‘digital’ mockups
These are representations of digital experiences without ever needing to code anything. There are services available online that allow you to draw on paper a wireframe of an app or computer interface and then photograph it, upload it to their service and then add on “hot spots” or places that you can tap to move to the next screen. It is really amazing how low-fidelity you can make something to see how it looks and feels.
One step further on from paper digital mockups are digital mockups. These are able to look much sleeker than the first-round paper ones and can start to begin to really feel like a real product (all while not at all needing the intense amount of time and skill to create a real version).
Prototyping a Business Model
There are many things with a business that can be prototyped. One very important one is your business model. This means how your business will make money. You need to see what customers want in terms of how and when they pay you and what they are willing to pay for. This really depends on so many variables that doing your customer research before you launch is really important.
Once you have some insights from your potential or actual customers (this can depend on if you have already started your business or not), you can begin to ‘try on’ different business models. BMI Lab has a great tool for this called Business Model Navigator where you can check out the 55 business model patterns that they have identified to see which might work best for the product/service you have and the customers you will be serving. These pattern cards explain the business model, how it works, and which companies you may know that are currently using it. With this detail, you can begin to imagine how your customers would interact with your company depending on the business model.
Prototyping a Service
Very similar to any other kind of prototyping, you need to figure out what it is that you are testing. Are you testing how someone accesses the service, how they interact online with the service, how they interact in person with the service, how they pay for the service, etc.? This need will determine the best way to prototype it.
Services can be either physical or digital, or they can even be either or both. For example, going to your local health service can be prototyped by doing a walk through –
- How easy is it to get to by public transport?
- Is there enough parking for personal vehicles?
- What is it like to access the place to register?
- Is it obvious where the customer needs to go and what they can do there?
- When they get there, the customer may be able to register in person or digitally.
- Are these obvious?
- Are they easy to understand?
- Where does the person need to wait?
- How will you tell them where to wait or how they will be called into the medical office – is it a number on a screen or will someone call by name?
Each of these is part of the service that the health service is offering. Within this example, you can see that there is also an opportunity to prototype the digital screens that are used. These can first be done with paper prototyping and then with more sophisticated digital mockups. These can be tested with potential or current customers.
The most important thing you can do with your prototype is to show it to people.
The Value in Prototyping
The value in prototyping comes only when you show them to others. As the designer of the service or product, you and your team will always have an inherent advantage in knowing what you were trying to achieve. This can blind you to what you to the reality if what was created. Show it to those who will most benefit from it. Not your friends or your team members.
By doing quick and easy prototypes, you are giving yourself permission to not get everything right the first time. It shouldn’t be right the first time. Prototyping is about quickly putting something together and then seeing what needs to be fixed. Then fixing it and testing again. There can be a few rounds and the time that you spent on getting it incrementally better will save you money, time, and effort. You will be making cheap and easy fixes on a prototype rather than expensive and lengthy changes to a finalised product or service.
Pamela Spokes works as a Service Designer in Metropolia’s RDI team. Originally from Canada, Pamela has years of experience in university admin focusing on international recruitment, marketing, and the international student/staff experience. With a Bachelor’s from Canada, a Master’s degree from Sweden, an MBA in Service Innovation & Design from Laurea, and her AmO from Haaga-Helia, she is interested in purposefully designed experiences that are centred around the user. Don’t be surprised if she knocks on your door to talk about learning co-creation methods through intensive learning experiences.
Willhoft, Scott. (2022). This Is a Prototype: The Curious Craft of Exploring New Ideas, Ten Speed Press.