Lectures and workshops at the 3rd annual Maine Startup & Create Week demonstrated how design thinking drives business innovation. CO.IQ was invited to run a workshop on prototyping to teach participants how design and innovation fuel high-impact entrepreneurship.

In the design development process a prototype is often the most fruitful step you can take. Why? Because, a prototype is a question, it’s a way to gain confidence in your idea. At its core, a prototype is a way of trying something out with your design’s audience before investing in its full development.

To start the prototyping process, you must ask a question. What am I trying to learn? Prototypes are learning tools in which you can understand qualities in your product, service or software’s ease of use, ergonomics, enjoyment, functionality, material use, and so forth. Consider framing your questions about your design around 3 key characteristics of interaction, function, and character.

After framing your first question or questions, it’s time to start making & creating. As you build each prototype think iteratively, shifting the ratio of elements that are “simulated” to “real” over time with each new version.

Different methods have been developed for prototyping software, products or services. Software, for instance, can start with sketching out your interface, no lists, just drawings with notes. Then you will want to move into paper prototypes and wireframing to layout all the screens, buttons etc you may have, these are all very low-fi and you don’t need an art degree to wireframe. Then you can move into using software to simulate functionality like Proto.IO or Invision, or the new Adobe XD, you may want to look for collaborative help to refine the visuals and functionality.

For product development, sketching and found materials are a great place to start then consider modeling your product with foam and finally transfer what you’ve learned into a CAD drawing to make 3D printed versions. Noticed I said versions and not just one version. Check out this video from Smart Design, and notice how many prototypes they made of their famous OXO peeler handle.

I’ve noticed in the workshops I’ve ran participants have the most difficulty with prototyping their ideas for a service. I would begin by breaking down all the interactions you may have with your customers. Then use Legos or storyboards to visualize how those interactions will take place. Once you have that solidified on paper or in 3D form then move into body storming, which simulates the interaction and experience by play acting or pretending. What needs to be prototyped within a service are all the moments of interaction or touch-points with your potential customers.

low fi to high fi prototyping

The finally step in the process is to test your prototype, testing keeps the development process moving as you learn from your audience to improve the next iteration. Start with enlisting 3 - 5 testers who are part of the audience toward which the design is focused. Set up the context in which the design will exist. For example, if it’s an digital screen for a car, simulate a windshield, driver’s seat and dashboard using paper and cardboard. Then you will need to reenact scenarios of use with these testers that helps them to understand how the design will perform in real-world situations. Observe a user interacting with the prototype, remember not to sell your idea, you’re there to listen and ask “why” and what “would you like to see” as they walk through the product. It’s a great idea to have someone take notes or if you can record the test this will be helpful to review and consider as you construct the next iteration of your design.

The purposes of prototyping and testing is first for validation, proof that your ideas, choices, technology or hypothesis are right. Next is exploration or making decisions on how to move forward. Which material works best, or what button design is clear and so forth. And finally definition, how much material will I need to build this product or how long does this process take, what hinges might I need? It is often said, everything is a prototype, you can always improve on anything that’s been designed. So if you don’t get it right the first time, or the second or the tenth, keep iterating and learning.

If you are unfamiliar and daunted by the software and or the process consider hiring a designer as a collaborator in your innovation process.