How not to fall in love with your prototype

Prototypes are disposable. Build it just good enough to learn, frame and test user behaviours, and move on. Here's what most people get wrong about prototyping, and our advice and tips on how to get it right.

When it comes to prototyping, the goal is not to become attached to it. In relationship terms, prototyping should be more of a one-night stand or fling than a steady partner you introduce to your parents. Here’s our advice for those obsessing over the perfect prototype so that you can learn to let go of them, and then get back on your feet and start again.

Build it just good enough to learn

Prototype in 3 days, not in 4 months. There is a misconception that your prototype needs to be perfect to show to customers. Perfection is the enemy of experimenters. By spending hours developing a new solution, you might be focusing on the wrong details, which takes time and effort away from the problem solution you are still getting to know. Remember, you have very limited time to validate your assumptions, and framing your research with defined measurement criteria is key. You want to be able to show something that appears real to your users. Do not count on their imagination as you’ll only get their opinions. Experimentation is not about making predictions, but exposing users to a mock-up of a real-life solution.

Prototypes are disposable

You should not be married to your prototype. You are not building the final solution, but designing pieces of your solution to test your assumptions. Often we get caught up in the design details of our solution, making beautiful interfaces, creating a visual story, shaping a brand identity. These pitfalls are very dangerous for experimentation as they indicate you are becoming too hooked on your solution. Prototypes might be thrown away, so start developing the experimenters mindset: try, try, and try again.

Prototype earlier in the process

To avoid falling hard, prototype early and fail fast. You are not only testing the final solution. With the Design Thinking methodology, we often see the prototyping exercise happening at later stages of the process. Get into the habit of prototyping and testing your idea as soon as possible, and often. It is the best way to measure the impact of your idea directly with potential users, saving you time and heartbreak in the long run.

While time is a constraint, you don’t want your crucial assumptions to be passed up. Consider running multiple experiments at the same time. Play the field. You’ll first need to make sure you allocate enough time and energy to do this, and it will require appropriate planning. Experimentation is the ideal moment to show your ideas and co-create solutions with users. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Building prototypes is one of the easiest ways to communicate your early ideas and get reactions from it so that you can go back to the drawing board. Use our experiment picker to find out the best prototyping tools and prototyping models for your solution.

Prototype testing cannot be random

Focusing on your prototype and tested assumptions is important, but so is focusing on whom you’ll be talking to and learning from. The easiest thing to do is to seek validation from your peers. But keep in mind: you are not designing for yourself or even people like you. Only real users will give you real reactions. This is why it’s important to screen profiles and identify who to run an experiment on. First, look at your target audience — where are they staying, living, working, spending time? Next, identify moments and ways to connect with them, either through your network or using professional recruitment services.

Don't forget why you are prototyping

Prototyping is the moment that you test behaviours and collect feedback. Always keep in mind why are you running an experiment, which assumptions are you testing, and how you will define the success or failure of an idea. You want to make sure you are learning as fast as possible with a prototype, not just when building it, but also when testing it. In doing so, you can exaggerate and push your users for extreme reactions, or emphasize features so you’ll really know how your users feel about it.

Just like a relationship, experimenting is a journey. You kill some ideas, co-design concepts, bring them to life, kill new features, etc. By rapid prototyping in the early stages, and adopting the habit of learning by doing, you’ll build a better final solution. The experimentation mindset is about becoming aware of the current distance between yourself and your customers, and bridging that gap. After experimenting with them, customers go from being a statistical faceless crowd, to real people with interesting stories and needs, and with whom you build a connection. You’ll know you’ve “found the one” when your users get excited about your prototype. This is the great success moment when you know you are showing them a solution to a problem that will soon be over. And they’ll live happily ever after.

Want help with prototyping?

Are you testing a product or service and need to know if you are developing the right prototypes to test customer reactions? We can help optimize that process so your go-to-market is more streamlined and successful.


I’m Alizee Chatenoud Innovation Consultant @ Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in our DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to our mission by sharing this article.

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