Why Everyone Should Prototype (Not Just Designers)

“You use prototyping to process the ideas themselves and to help you think through the idea better.”
—Chris Nyffeler, IDEO Executive Design Director

Man using a mobile phone


In this episode of our Creative Confidence Series, IDEO Executive Design Director Chris Nyffeler chats with IDEO U Managing Director Coe Leta Stafford about the value of prototyping, how to create low-fidelity prototypes for digital products and services, and the role of technology in design. Chris is also the instructor in our online class, Prototyping for Digital Experiences. 

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As an interaction designer and Executive Design Director at IDEO, Chris Nyffeler knows his way around high-tech digital tools. He’s worked with major tech corporations and government agencies and has helped to launch successful, design-centric tech startups in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

So you might be surprised to hear him say that he doesn’t think technology is always the answer when building something new. But it makes sense when you take a step back to understand the role of interaction design.

“At its core, interaction design as a discipline is about understanding people and their behavior and being able to effectively communicate within that space,” Chris says.

Tech is a means to that end, but not the only way to get there. So how does he find the answer?

By prototyping.

What is a prototype?

A common misconception is that a prototype has to be something high-tech, complex, or expensive. Chris offers a broader definition: “When we say prototype, that's anything that gets the idea in your head into an artifact people can experience and offer feedback on.”

That could be a digital rendering or a test website, but it could also be a sketch on a piece of paper, a PowerPoint presentation, or even a conversation to role-play what it might feel like to use a product or service. In fact, Chris recommends starting with easy, accessible tools.

“It's not about high tech tools,” he says “It's a way of communicating your ideas by making them tangible and experiential as much as possible.”

Why everyone should prototype their ideas

The same qualities that make an interaction designer great at their job—the instinct to prototype, empathy for users, and the ability to tell stories about their work—are highly valuable to anyone pursuing a new idea, whether that’s a marketing campaign, an HR program, or an app.

Prototyping isn’t just something designers do. While it’s a critical piece of the design thinking toolkit, there’s a universal benefit to testing your ideas in a way that gets others involved.

“When you can come into the room, whether you're a designer or not, and put something on the table or put something on a screen or whatever tangible form it needs to take, then everyone can orient their conversation toward that thing and not towards one another,” Chris says. “And it becomes something that we can actually talk about.”

A prototype makes it easier to have a conversation about your idea and get feedback on it so you’re not going into launch day blind. While it might feel like it slows down the process to add in time for testing prototypes, in the long run, you’ll save time and money by getting to the right idea faster.

The benefits of prototyping

Chris says to shift the way you think about prototyping from a single action to more of a mindset. “I don't see prototyping as a step in the process,” he says. “It's not that you research and you come up with insights and then design something and prototype it. That is a part of it, but it's much more of a mindset that you should carry throughout every step of the design process.”

And don’t hesitate to bring others into the process too. It gives you a broader set of feedback to work with and helps them see the value in prototyping. If more people in your organization can start to think a little bit more like a designer, advocating for your end users and thinking strategically about how to meet their needs, everyone will benefit.

Getting started with prototyping

There are many ways to prototype an idea for a digital product or service, from sketching on pen and paper to role-playing and giving personality and character to your prototype by anthropomorphizing it. Chris recommends keeping early prototypes quick and scrappy. By starting with tools that are familiar to you and easy to use, you can quickly create something tangible that will allow you to gather feedback and learn what’s working and what’s not.

App prototype with post-its on a mobile phone

Whether you’re designing a website or a physical product, prototypes can help you figure out which direction to go in before you start refining the details of your idea.

Take a project IDEO worked on with the Holocaust Memorial Museum to design their visitor experience. An early hypothesis was that an app would encourage visitors to engage more deeply with stories of survivors. The team prototyped the app and found that visitors enjoyed it, but it also led to less conversation between visitors. So they explored a second hypothesis—that physical artifacts would encourage engagement—with a separate prototype and found that it led to much higher engagement and discussion.

This project surfaces another misconception: that prototyping is a final step before you launch a new product or a way to validate your ideas.

“It's not that you process your idea and then communicate it through a prototype,” Chris says. “You actually use prototyping to process the ideas themselves and to help you think through the idea better.”

Chris shares more ideas for how to prototype a digital experience, ranging from low-fidelity tools to higher-tech options, in our Prototyping for Digital Experiences online class.

Looking to the future of interaction design

As Chris looks ahead, he’s excited to see what comes of the overlapping disciplines in the world of interaction design. The practice isn’t that old, so many people in the field come from different backgrounds.

“Whether they were an architect that saw the value in working on user experience and interaction design or a graphic designer like myself or an industrial designer or even filmmakers—we're all providing inputs and perspective and lenses on how to think about interaction design in new and different ways,” he says.

By embracing the prototyping mindset, we can benefit from the input and ideas of this varied cast of characters and bring the next wild, new ideas to the world.

To learn how to use low-fidelity prototypes to explore and iterate your idea for a digital product or service, try our on-demand online class, Prototyping for Digital Experiences.

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