News & Views

Make Me a Prototype

by Contagious Contributor


Prototyping has become a goto technique for agencies looking to move to the making-based iterative design needed to create complex consumer digital products. But there are risks for agencies unused to prototyping approaches. Stuart Eccles of Made by Many shares their process and best practices.

Don’t make a prototype. Instead do prototyping

One of the first mistakes is to go in with a mindset of 'we make one prototype and then make the "real-thing"'. In the process of product design, prototyping is an on-going exercise that can be used to evaluate ideas with users, hone user experience, test technical feasibility, narrow down a cost estimate and determine a viable business model. You can never cram all of these into a single prototype.

In the course of designing a product we will often produce dozens of prototypes of different forms, each one with a “learning goal”. Sometimes the prototypes are discarded, sometimes they are iterated and refined. Sometimes we even change a prototype between each user testing interview in response to feedback. 

The primary goal of prototyping is to *learn* but only if we learn fast

It’s important to understand what you want to learn from your prototype before deciding the form it takes. This is where we set a learning goal for the prototype. This should be the most important thing we need to discover at this stage in the project.

These learning goals can be broad in scope so as to handle a high-level idea, right down to more specific interactions, such as navigation structures and button placement and everything inbetween. Sometimes our learning goals are to try out the technical feasibility or assist in costing exercises. The question we are generally asking with prototypes is: should this be made? Not how should this be made.

The biggest mistake people make in prototyping is to cram too many learning goals into a prototype. This prevents you from selecting the best “form” for that learning at the least cost. You learn when to make two prototypes instead.

How we test


Our primary goal is learn and the people we want to learn from are our potential end customers. After we have established our end goal, we decide how are we going to test our prototype with those end customers. This can range from customer interviews and A/B tested landing pages to metrics analysis from an ongoing prototype. We can test with as little as one person to as many as several hundred at once. 

The key in deciding how to test is maximizing the return while minimizing the time taken to get results. In early stages our ideas are big but vague and we are looking for initial signals about whether we should pursue them, in these cases we may only need to put a sketch of idea in front of four people to have them tell us they would never use our stupid product. In later project stages when refining the user experience we will want to look at the actual behaviour of people using the product or a close facsimile of it.

Form is the intersection of maximum learning at minimum cost


Deciding the form of the prototype comes last. We ask:

* What can we create to make a facsimile of the experience that will allow us to hit our learning goal? 

* What is then the lightest version of this that will cost the least to make in time and money? 

This usually means the prototype requires no coding whatsoever, it can be achieved by sketches on paper and testing in interviews. It can sometimes be created with a “concierge service” where a team member takes the place of a complex software service yet to be created. Eventually we will code a lightweight version to test on multiple people at once, often part of a dual-sided market product.

TLDR 

Prototyping is a process and prototypes are not products. The prototyping process is a six stage process with three stages of thinking and three stages of doing. We prepare for prototyping by thinking through the stages of Learn, Test, Make and then execute the prototyping as Make, Test, Learn. The goal is maximum learning (of the most important thing) with the minimum effort.

If you want to learn more about how to do prototyping, Made by Many and Neo will be doing a day of speakers and a day of workshops on this and other subjects in Product Design at Lean Day London March 25-26th

Stuart Eccles is CTO  and co-founder of Made By Many