Testing to learn
Prototyping helps test a hypothesis and validate a design, saving both time and money, as Hong Kong Design Centre’s Unleash! Summer School Design Thinking 101 E-Workshop heard. Facilitator Sam Horman, Service Designer at MAKE Studios, explained that prototyping is about putting your best ideas into an object and taking it out into the world to see how people respond to it. “The more we prototype, the more we understand about our users, their environment and the context we are designing in. It is really important when we are doing prototypes that we do them with the intention to learn,” he said.
Sam explained that rapid prototyping was a particular mindset and practice that encouraged people to explore ideas, rather than judging and critiquing them. “We talk about getting the right thing before getting the thing right. It is about taking a step back and testing your ideas at earlier stages,” he said. He added that it also enabled designers to test the value and features of an idea before they had invested too much time or money in it. Other benefits include helping designers to build a case for an idea by validating it with data, and making an idea feel possible to critical stakeholders. It can also help to align teams by building, instead of talking.
Knowing where to begin
There are many different methods in prototyping and they service different purposes, so it is important to understand what you are trying to learn from the exercise. Sam shared a graph with participants which had a series of questions along the horizontal axis, such as: Does it have value? What should it do? How should it work? How will people use it? He explained that these questions went from looking at the broader picture, into the detail of how a concept would work. As designers progress along these questions, the prototyping method becomes more complicated, more time consuming and more expensive. On the vertical axis were the different types of prototype techniques, namely concept prototyping, feature-set prototyping, interactive prototyping, and working prototyping. The workshop focused on three early prototyping methods: concept sketching, storyboarding and role playing.
Workshop participants were set the challenge of putting these methods into action through prototyping an exciting, in-flight travel experience for a three-day journey from Earth to an art gallery on the moon. Before starting the prototyping process, it was important to define the learning intention. Facilitators reminded participants that if they were not clear on what they were trying to learn, their prototype would not teach them anything. To establish this intention, participants needed to make a list of assumptions as to why their idea might fail from a customer perspective, such as the chairs might not be comfortable, and then draw up a list of questions they wanted to answer through prototyping, such as would customers prefer beds? They could then use these questions to define the key thing they wanted to learn from prototyping, namely do people prefer sitting, lying or standing for long periods of time.
The first prototyping method participants tried was concept sketching. Facilitator Ada Sin, Prototyping Lead at MAKE Studios, said concept sketching was one of the quickest and most basic ways to prototype an idea. She explained it was about communicating your concept as a hypothesis for what your customer needs, enabling you to take it out to the public at a very early stage. A concept sketch should have a title, a simple drawing showing its key features and how people interact with it, and a series of bullet points describing its key features. “Having this canvas is a very useful tool to help lower the barriers of entering into the design phase,” Ada said.
The next stage in rapid prototyping is storyboarding. Ada explained that a storyboard helps designers flesh out an idea in detail, focusing on how people will experience and interact with it. “It is a very helpful tool for us to test the hypothesis across different elements of the customer journey. The purpose is to focus on a customer challenge and how our solution improves the experience,” she said. Ada added that the MAKE Studios used a five-panel storyboard in which the first panel focused on the problem, the second one on the solution and the final three on the customer experience before, during and after using the product or service. Designers could use a storyboard to take people through the experience to gain feedback.
The third prototype method the workshop covered was role playing. Facilitator Wai-Jing Man, Service Designer at MAKE Studios, explained: “Role playing is exploring a service by acting it out in an immersive way.” There were two types of role play prototyping: body storming, which was an improvisation activity where designers built up an idea by acting it out in their team, and service enactment, in which a service prototype was tested with a customer by guiding them through an immersive experience. The workshop focused on body storming, with participants acting out their storyboard. Wai-Jing said the key ingredients for body storming were having roles and characters, namely the key stakeholders, including the customer, having props, which could be anything that was within arm’s reach, having a loose purpose, with designers focusing on how they would test their learning intention, and having an improvisation or ‘yes and’ mindset, which helped teams build on each other’s ideas and innovate quickly.
Closing the workshop, Ada said there were three key takeaways for successful rapid prototyping. Firstly, participants should remember that different methods of prototyping serve different purposes and should be used at different times. Secondly, they should be clear on their learning intention. Finally, they should fail fast and fail often.
“With each failure, we learn from our mistakes and find better solutions. Even a failed prototype represents an increased chance of overall success as it helps you identify what you should focus on.”