On the Power of Prototyping

Written by Garth Jordan on August 6, 2018

Previous pieces of mine might have hinted at my commitment to the principles of Design Thinking (if you haven’t got that hint yet, I invite you to have a read). On top of the flexibility and open-mindedness of this methodology, there’s another reason why an empathetic, iterative process of discovery makes for an excellent problem-solving tool: not all ideas are good ones.

Design Thinking is an exploratory mode of problem solving, guided by empathy, by which to pinpoint the end user’s challenges. After discovering and defining a challenge, the next steps are to ideate (brainstorm) and to prototype possible solutions. First, the ideation process and outcomes are improved because your challenge is defined with a clear statement. Have you ever been to a brainstorming session only to end up with a long list of ideas that seemingly don’t have the common destination of solving a specific, well-described, and agreed-upon challenge/problem? Design Thinking solves that by giving you a much clearer problem definition, a.k.a. a starting line.

Moving forward from ideation, rather than engaging in expensive speculation through extensive RAD (rapid application development), the best and most effective way to test new ideas is through prototyping.

It is surprising how little the concept of prototyping tends to be used in development processes, especially given the rapid, low investment character of the practice. Instead of plunging head first into development, prototyping allows you to kick the tires so hard out of an idea that you learn, more often than not, that is was a bad one.

A prototype can be made of anything. You can build something out of duct tape and toilet paper rolls. The main rules are:

  1. To go through the prototype development process in as fast and cheap a way as possible,
  2. Get feedback on your prototype from your intended audience, then
  3. Wash, rinse and repeat both (a) and (b) until you have a minimally viable product you can take to market.

This process allows you to learn quickly and effectively, because your central focus becomes both iterating on a solution for a clearly defined challenge, and the efficacy of your idea to achieve this end - not the product itself. As they say, don’t fall in love with your product, but with what your audience needs.

Prototyping is a wonderful way to reduce risk. With the larger goal as your focal point, and without any laborious development efforts to bog you down, you can dodge the combined threat of time-wasting and overinvestment that arises when we become overly enamored with our shiny new ideas.

There’s more to this than just solving a discrete problem: there’s a cultural piece here too. If you either have, or are trying to foster, an entrepreneurial culture, prototyping as a problem-solving practice allows for people to exercise entrepreneurism with a lot less risk, and can therefore be a way to support or develop this kind of thinking.

So if you have a good idea – or perhaps just as importantly, a bad one – I’d recommend reaching for the duct tape immediately.