Prototyping isn’t about good looks. It’s about creating and iterating quickly, sacrificing polish but gaining a strategic understanding of a product or situation. Odopod Design Director Chelsea Davidson and Chief Creative Officer Albert Poon, recently sat down to discuss prototyping — everything from what it is to why it’s challenging to how it makes us smarter. Read on.
How does Odopod use Prototyping? What forms does it take?
Chelsea Davidson: We practice digital and physical prototyping at Odopod. With digital, we use tools to create the feeling of a digital experience (tapping buttons, transitioning between pages) without actually connecting the pieces that will produce the full result. It creates an illusion of a website or an app without the time and cost of building it.
Prototyping also extends to physical products and places. It’s a useful tool for improving everyday situations like buying a car or visiting a doctor’s office. How people approach a space, what their goals are, and their ability to successfully complete a process are all compromised or enhanced by the environment we create. We can’t understand these scenarios until we go through the motions ourselves. The idea is to make it as real as possible quickly, so we can test the effectiveness of the design.
Albert Poon: We generally use prototyping for two purposes. The first is early prototyping — an iterative process in which we quickly develop prototypes to illustrate and test different experience concepts for our design team, our clients or end-users. The second is to better detail and specify experiences for software developers in ways that static documentation cannot.
What does the process of rapid prototyping (or early prototyping) entail?
CD: We use broad strokes to identify a few big design questions that either have the most impact or are the least clear to us. Like scientists, we generate hypotheses or informed guesses, then we isolate the variables so the data isn’t compromised.
Next, we make test materials. These are low-fidelity, just enough to create an illusion of reality to get the reactions we need. We evaluate and refine them, adjusting or starting over with another set of questions. Some things will never be fully solved until they’re real and in the world, but our hope is that we understand the big issues. The rest can be adjusted as we go.
What kinds of projects are ideal for rapid prototyping?
AP: When crafting a fundamentally dynamic situation, rapid prototyping is a great way to quickly develop and test a strategic design experience. Some content is sequenced first, some is presented based on specific user interaction, and different content and interfaces may surface at different times depending on a set of user choices or situations. These kinds of multifaceted problems are suited for rapid prototyping.
What are the end goals?
CD: To answer the highest impact questions. To give the design a solid structural foundation. To find our footing in a confident, data driven way. We make the most important things real enough to get a human read on, which often reveals the next most important things to focus on.
How do you help a client decide if prototyping is effective?
CD: If you have big design questions, ones that affect the architecture of an experience, could make or break your product, or if there are very few analogs for the experience you are attempting to make, rapid prototyping is a great tool.
AP: Prototypes are a format. Whether this format is the best way to develop a design depends on the project and the critical design problems that need to be solved. Design-only prototypes with no functionality are relatively easy to create. Functional prototypes with real connections to data and content require design and software development.
What is the strategic advantage of prototyping? What about time and cost?
CD: If a client spends tons of money and time refining a product that has missed something at its core, prototyping is a bargain. Early and rapid prototyping is usually very targeted and serves to answer a few big questions in order to narrow solutions quickly, in an informed way. The design is almost never reflective of the final product, but that’s not the point. Embrace the ugly rather than dwelling on the unfinished nature of the prototype.
How does prototyping affect creative concepting?
AP: Iterative prototyping enables teams to quickly develop and test dynamic experience designs. The process is optimized if the team chooses the right questions to ask and if the time needed to develop the prototype is thoughtfully focused on addressing the critical design problem. If the problem being addressed isn’t critical for that stage of the project, or if it can be addressed with a faster method, prototyping can be wasteful.
How might early prototyping inhibit a team’s creativity?
CD: It’s all about embracing vulnerability. Traditionally, designers start with their own expertise and creative ideas, broadly establishing a direction then applying it to sections of the work, refining as they go. Rapid prototyping is altogether different and can shake a designer’s confidence. They must create “tests” that are then destroyed and lead to completely new tests. They need to learn to value speed and imperfection.
There is a lot of freedom in being wrong — in not having to make all the right guesses the first time. The interpretation of the data is the real opportunity for creativity.
What technical challenges have you faced with early prototyping?
CD: Early prototyping can be sloppy. That’s the result of limited time and resources, but also because we won’t know a lot early on. When I accept that, I’m more comfortable making decisions moving forward. When we prototype, we expect for things to break or disconnect and often have backups (duct tape, paper mockups, batteries, etc.). Most of the time, test groups aren’t affected by how unpolished things are. They tend to be very forgiving.
How do you set a team up for success?
CD: Give team members time to get immersed and have a plan with clearly assigned tasks, so that everyone is confident in their role and in their choices. If this process is new for everyone, have a northstar reference to help them stay focused.
Put people to work — prepare them adequately for the expectation of making things quickly and getting messy. Involve the team in testing. Observing, hearing and asking users questions all reveal nuances that get lost in documents and debriefs, allowing team members to have their own unique interpretation.
Thanks Chelsea and Albert! Do you have a regular prototyping practice or method you find works particularly well? We’d love to hear about it. Write us: firstname.lastname@example.org.