A Bias for Action: 4 ​Prototyping Tips that Inspire Stronger Innovations

One of the traits of great innovators is that they can typically get smart fast on just about anything. Great innovators are curious and immerse themselves in a new opportunity, a brand new sector, or–through human-centered design research–into the headspace of the people they’re designing for.

Yet sometimes our teams come up against challenges where we just can’t get smart fast enough. We might be chartering brand new territory, exploring the new and unknown, or facing too much uncertainty in a short window of time. Wading through all that ambiguity can feel daunting and sometimes it can be tough to see a way forward.

More often than not in those moments, we find that it pays off to have a bias for action–to lead by prototyping. Prototypes help us think more concretely about problems, better understand the challenges and opportunities at play, and more quickly generate meaningful conversations amongst a team and with users.

Building a prototyping mindset–embedding a true bias for action within your innovation projects–means building prototypes before you know all the answers. That can be scary and feel counterintuitive at first, but it’s our willingness to boldly tackle the unknown that leads to great innovation work.

To help, here are four simple tips you can use to craft prototypes that inspire stronger innovations, de-risk new concepts, and help teams move through big, hairy problems faster.

1. YOU CAN PROTOTYPE ANYTHING

When we think of the word ‘prototype,' we often think of rough physical models of products or digital interfaces. Though, at Doblin, we’ve learned that we can prototype anything; services, experiences, and even business models.

Take a look across the Ten Types of Innovation® and challenge your innovation teams to de-risk projects by prototyping more than just the Offering itself. Looking at Configurations, how might you prototype profit models? Or when it comes to Experiences, how might you prototype new channels?

On a project where we designed a toll-free voice service for working mothers in informal economies, we challenged ourselves to think of ways to prototype the phone call experience. Our prototyping method of choice? We used role-play, with team members alternating between the role of user and automated phone system. It helped us build empathy for our users and led us to redesign things like menu options, language and tone, and even the way the back-end server would respond to touch-tone inputs.

The bottom line: Look across the types of innovation to push yourself to think about what you can prototype and how you can prototype. You’ll speed up your learning curve on areas of uncertainty–beyond just the Offering itself–to build better, de-risked innovations.


Building a prototyping mindset–embedding a true bias for action within your innovation projects–means building prototypes before you know all the answers.

2. PROTOTYPE TO LEARN

While many people think of prototypes simply as a means of evaluating a concept once design decisions have been made, we think of the role of prototypes as much broader than that. Prototypes by nature generate rich discussion by forcing the people who interact with them to stand in the future and imagine the impact of a concept in their lives. This often leads to the discovery of new insights and needs that weren’t previously on our radar. As my colleague Janice would say, “prototyping is the research.”

For example, when a team at Carnegie Mellon University was developing a new concept for smart technology in the family home, they began by listing out all the uncertainties they had about the idea. A big one was how smart technology might be perceived as "creepy."

To learn more about about the boundaries of “creepiness,” they built multiple low-fidelity prototypes–each which pushed on or crossed the boundaries of what might be considered creepy. The prototypes were rapidly built and shown to users in a ‘speed dating’ fashion.

As one might expect, the CMU team received evaluative feedback on varying levels of smart tech in the home. More interesting, though, was that their prototype-to-learn approach triggered conversations that revealed larger themes–like how families thought about protecting their children and how parents felt the need to exercise control over household activities. These had serious implications for the design and helped the project team pivot the concept to better fit in their users’ lives.

The bottom line: Think of prototyping as more than just a way to evaluate concepts. Prototypes are a great way to learn at the outset by developing new knowledge and insights that can shape your overarching concept direction.

3. MATCH THE PROTOTYPE TO THE PROBLEM

A handy way of thinking about prototypes comes from a model used by the design team at Apple. Their team leads each round of prototyping with the question: “What will our prototype prototype?”

One of the biggest mistakes we see when it comes to prototyping is not having a specific idea of what it is you are trying to learn. First and foremost, prototypes are problem-solving tools, which means that the clearer you are about the problem you’re solving and the uncertainties you’re facing, the more rewarding your prototyping efforts will be.

Knowing what you are prototyping seems simple in theory, but sometimes translating the problem you’re solving into the right prototype can get complicated. What do you build first? And how? The answers to these questions depend on what you’re looking to learn and what you’re most uncertain about. The Apple team's model helps by suggesting that your prototype can be used to gain specific insights in the following areas:

  • The role of a concept: How useful is it in the life of a user?
  • The look and feel of a concept: How will it be experienced?
  • The implementation of a concept: What will be required to make the concept work?

At Doblin, we put this model to the test with a client to develop a new concept for how people manage their finances. First, we prototyped the role the new offering would play in users' lives. Our paper prototypes sketched out different ways a new concept might be useful to customers. Because we were focused on role (i.e. we knew what our prototype was prototyping!) we could completely ignore the “look & feel” and implementation parts of the concept. By focusing on what mattered at that stage of the project, we were able to walk away with a clear sense of the functionality of the new concept and to only then start prototyping other aspects.

The bottom line: By prototyping against each area throughout your project–increasing in fidelity as you overcome unknowns–you can more purposefully de-risk ideas on your way to designing and launching a new concept.

Prototypes help us think more concretely about problems, better understand the challenges and opportunities at play, and more quickly generate meaningful conversations amongst a team and with users.

4. BUILD A MINIMUM VIABLE PROTOTYPE

While we want to start our prototyping with clear intent about what we're setting out to learn, we find it pays off to invest as little effort as possible to do so. This helps us generate new insights about what works and what doesn’t sooner, rather than later.

What’s the MVP (Minimal Viable Prototype) that can be used to generate a meaningful discussion, probe for user reactions, or test against the uncertainties your team is up against? Put in the minimal amount of effort and absolutely no more.

On a recent project, we found ourselves spinning on the detailed ways in which certain features could show up in our prototype. Finally, someone in the room brought us to our senses: “Let’s make a bunch of models, put in as little effort as possible, and let the users decide which ones are most desirable.”

Duh. We lowered the bar on the level of detail in our prototypes and by doing so we were able get quick and dirty, low-fidelity prototypes into customers’ hands that very morning. In no time, we had clear direction, and, we got it without spending a ton of time or money.

Whiteboard sketch? Yep, that’s a prototype! A quick excel model to fake calculations for a banking app interface? Yep, that’s a prototype too. A hypothetical conversation to role-play a service interaction? That, too.

For the most part, we use super low-fidelity prototypes at the beginning stages of a project when we’re still “diverging” into different possible opportunities and have the greatest sense of uncertainty about a concept. As we gain confidence in the direction and detail of a concept, we’ll invest a little bit more into our prototypes, making models that are closer and closer to what an actual finished product might look like. This isn’t always the case, though. Sometimes we learn something new in the later stages of a project that we hadn’t yet thought of and go back to the whiteboards, made-up excel models, and role-play interactions.

The bottom line: Get scrappy and resourceful to pull together the lowest-effort way of representing your idea. Sketches, cardboard, and ‘faking it’ are all in play!

GET PROTOTYPING!

So the next time you’re facing a big challenge on an innovation project, remember to have a bias for action and keep asking yourself and your team: “How might we prototype this?” Over time, you’ll see the power of prototypes to inspire meaningful conversations; get smart fast to help de-risk new concepts; and bring participants into the design process with you to solve problems that really matter for users.



This post is an independent publication by Doblin and has not been authorized, spon-sored, or otherwise approved by Apple Inc.