Getting to Better

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Getting started with prototyping

Posted by Marilyn Cameron

What is prototyping?  

A prototype is the next step of an idea. It’s not enough to describe your idea. You need to build it because you will learn more about your idea when the people that will be affected by it can interact with it. Prototypes are tools for learning about and sharing ideas—ways to test assumptions and start new conversations to see if you are on the right track. You are building a model of an idea that people can interact with. 

A prototype of an alarm clock.

Caption & image description: A prototype of an alarm clock. 

Why do we prototype? 

It’s hard to test a concept. We can’t tell if your description of something “big and blue” is the same as someone else’s until you put that something in front of them. When you build a prototype of your idea, you make your decisions and design features visible. This visibility helps people engage with them in an authentic way. This authentic behaviour is good learning (feedback) to continue improving your idea. 

What does a prototype look like?

When we think of prototyping, we often think of building models of a physical product, or maybe a digital interface. But the same principles can be used to prototype an experience, a space, a service, or a combination of integrated solutions.

These are just a handful of the many ways you can build a tangible representation of an idea:

  • Paper prototypes
  • Storyboard
  • Roleplay or skit
  • Puppet show
  • Digital prototypes
  • Floor plan
  • Service Blueprint
  • Agenda or event plan
  • Fake tweet or social post
  • Advertisements, posters or news coverage
  • Sketches, drawings and concept maps
  • Job description
  • Org chart

Multiple drawings in pen and highlighter ink on the page of an open notebook.

Caption: Notebook sketches and doodles are prototypes too!

Stocking a prototyping toolkit 

It’s handy to have a kit of materials around when thinking about turning an idea into a prototype. A good prototyping kit has a variety of options to build with and encourages people to forget their inhibitions. We like to stock ours with easy to find craft and decorating materials, templates and materials to draw with, and nostalgic toys that remind us of our childhood creativity. 

Here are some examples: 

  • Cardboard
  • Construction paper
  • Pipe-cleaners
  • straws
  • Tape
  • Glue sticks
  • Ribbon or thread
  • Scissors
  • Stickers
  • Markers
  • Crayons
  • Mesh
  • Felt
  • Blocks of wood
  • Blank paper
  • Storyboard templates
  • Wireframe templates
  • Journey maps
  • Geographical maps or blueprints
  • Lego
  • Play-doh
  • And so on!

A man wearing scrubs sits at a table and joins multiple pipe cleaners together.

Caption: Pipe cleaners make great prototype tools. 

Most importantly, just try! It's not a regular part of many workplaces, but finding small ways to build your ideas and sharing them will get you better results, invite more ideas and help you refine your ideas.

Tags: Innovation, Design, Human-centred Design, Design Thinking, Prototyping, Making