Learn More Before You Invest More

What is a prototype? A prototype is a tool we use to make an idea tangible. Think of it as a prop—something you create to help tell the story of your idea.

At our design firm IDEO, we do a lot of rapid prototyping as a way to share our ideas with others. Prototypes are great because they help us get beyond words and focus on the actual experience. They allow us to make our assumptions shareable.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a prototype is worth a 1,000 pictures. My brother Dennis, also an IDEO designer, is famous around here for saying, “Never attend a meeting without a prototype.” Prototypes help us move from ideas to action.

When you hear the word prototype, what do you picture? Maybe you’re envisioning a fully-designed model of an object, or a mockup of a website or mobile app. Yes, those are prototypes . . . high-fidelity ones. But did you know that a prototype can be as simple as sketches on sticky notes, physical things made from cardboard and kid’s toys, and even an agenda for a meeting?

A prototype is anything that helps you answer a question about what people will do, say, or feel. That’s it. And that’s why it’s so easy for anyone to begin to prototype. You can learn more about a product, service, or experience before you invest, pay, or build more.

There is a whole field of study around prototyping. But to get started, consider these three principles for prototyping your own product or service:

Build in order to think
This means that you make your ideas tangible quickly, to help fuel early ideation and push your thinking further. Prototyping can help you unlock new ideas that you wouldn’t necessarily just “think of”.

Gather feedback from stakeholders and end-users
It can be scary to put ideas in front of partners and customers. But the feedback you get from people who will use or work with your prototypes will help you quickly see what’s working and what’s not.

Fail early to succeed sooner
Learning from failures early and inexpensively is the key to prototyping. You may make assumptions about how people will act, behave, or feel, only to learn the complete opposite. In this case, your prototype isn’t a failure at all. It’s successful in helping you learn, before you invest a ton of time and resources into making the real thing.

To learn more about different types of prototypes, and why they’re such powerful tools, check out our course on prototyping: From Ideas to Action.


Brendan Boyle is a Managing Director and Partner at IDEO. He founded and leads its toy-invention studio, known as the Toy Lab, which has invented and licensed over 150 consumer products, specializing in the design of kid-centric goods, services and experiences. Brendan holds an M.S. in the Joint Program for Design from Stanford University, as well as a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Michigan State University.

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