What is Prototyping Really?

Did you see my tagline? Yes, the one that says “prototyping dreams!” What do I mean by that? Yeah. I thought the same. I’m sitting in the forest now chewing this same question, trying to understand what I mean by prototyping. Understanding what I know is important because I love sharing knowledge with people.

For example, when I work with people new to prototyping, like communities, nonprofits, and sensitive solopreneurs, I feel it’s essential to pass the knowledge and not just to facilitate the creation process. Because knowledge empowers! Know-how is repeatable.

This post is my attempt to dig inside my head, explore what frameworks I use for creating, and come back with a piece that could be useful for others.

So, what do I mean by “prototyping”?

Prototyping is a valuable mindset and a process for people who want to create something out of nothing. While in this post, I use some jargon (with links!) from the design and marketing world, prototyping is not just for the business. More people are becoming interested in self-actualisation and community co-creation, so prototyping can be helpful as a soft skill! Even the famous Inner Development Goals framework has co-creation and action as core skills. But how do people really learn to co-create and act to make any change in society? Well, prototyping might have some cues!

Prototyping as a mindset

First of all, prototyping, to me, is about cultivating an active approach to life. Rather than staying stuck in the head, it’s about moving from thinking mode into action mode and taking that baby step, making that first attempt towards the destination, no matter how small that first step is.

The mindset part is essential. You won’t believe how many years I have spent in the past journaling about ideas, dreams, and “strategies”. I still have a giant bag full of A4 sheets of paper. I’m so happy I got involved in technology and design, where I learned valuable tools for moving from thinking to action. “Getting outside the building” or “getting things done” became my second nature. Now, it’s common for me to follow my curiosity and start with a creative action rather than a definitive decision of where this action will lead. As I reflect on my past and remember the bag full of papers, I smile away, and whenever I have a “hmm” moment, I nudge myself to go and try it out.

I invite you to do the same and cultivate such an active approach to life. This is prototyping as a mindset! At the essence of it sits a rational mind that captures the curiosity moment and nudges the creative mind to take the lead.

As a side note, I like seeing how prototyping as a habit is ecological. I mean, creative action fuels a feedback loop from the environment, and feedback is the main feature of living systems. Okay, this post is not about systems thinking but rather about action, so let’s get back to the second definition of prototyping: a process.

Prototyping as a process

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, prototyping is not just the mindset but a framework. Use it often and wait for a change in your brain!

So, in a creative rollercoaster, prototyping means a process that helps get audience feedback and improve the solution. Think about prototyping as a recipe of “doing”, plus “feedback”, plus “doing”.

As you know, it’s common for projects to have meetings. Thinking and discussing are essential, but prototyping encourages a flow of action where we acknowledge that we don’t know everything (that’s okay!). Through interaction with our audience, we get closer to knowns. So this way, prototyping is about getting unstuck and moving from an idea stage to a real thing.

As a process, prototyping has steps or phases. I have to admit that my process is an adapted version of Design Thinking and Google Design Sprint, which I used to facilitate for communities and social enterprises in Ireland with the Ladder nonprofit.

While the process might be slightly different for every project depending on the situation, for this article, I explain the process as if prototyping is used for a new project with little to no research done beforehand or within an organisation that didn’t have time to reflect as a team much. So, for this reason, you’ll see more sub-steps added in the process rather than a typical design sprint.

Prototyping Steps

Step 1: Purpose

Let’s start with the foundations. Yes, let’s prepare the soil! The prototyping journey indeed begins with uncovering our resources of where we are now and acknowledging the priorities. Before creating or asking for feedback, we prepare the foundations that help us narrow down our focus and use creativity with intention.

If this facilitated session happens online over a video call, Miro visual thinking tool helps to see the big picture together.

To sum up, in this step, we inquire about the project’s vision, goals and challenges.

Step 2: Audience

The second step is about moving from the project toward the people. This is a facilitated session where we understand the characteristics of people that the project could serve and empathise with their needs.

Starting with the big picture is helpful if a project is new, with no research beforehand. We can do this by mapping all potential Audiences (on Miro or on the floor). Then, we can pick our priorities and zoom into specific 1-3 target groups.

Now, let’s empathise with the needs of the people! In marketing and design, we call this step – creating a Target Persona as a fictional character who represents the demographics and other criteria about the target group. We employ imagination and web research to paint the picture of real people. While we get into stereotypes in the process, it’s common for this step to be an eye-opener! You’d be surprised how many projects have never thought about this question of “them”. It’s helpful to have at least a basic version of a persona to make it easier to empathise with the needs of the people.

Note: If a project is new and no one from the team has spoken with potential customers yet, it’s helpful to include Customer Discovery interviews that help to justify if these people fit the solution we want to build.

Lastly, because we’re inquiring about the audiences to create a product or service for them, making a (Customer) User Journey map is common. With this step, we’re moving away from seeing static customer profiles before us and into an imaginary experience of how real people would interact with whatever solution we’re trying to build. Also, this step helps to narrow down our focus once again and pick a vital aspect of a prototype that needs feedback from the audience.

To sum up, in this step, we inquire about the project’s target audiences and create an imaginary map of how the audience would interact with our solution.

Step 3: Prototype

As you see, only after some prep work we’re getting into a real thing! Into doing, into building, making, creating.

If you have yet to decide what you want to build, at least by this point, you know what challenges the people you want to serve face and their needs. The easy option here is to reconnect with your audience and co-create ideas. The alternative is to look at competitors for inspiration and to get creative juices flowing by unpacking your Value Proposition.

Prototyping websites. In digital projects, a prototype can be a sketch, powerpoint slides giving a sense of your solution, a website plan on Miro, or the first version of the website. It depends on how well you know the audience and how deep your unknowns are.

Prototyping experiences. Yes, it’s possible to prototype in-person experiences, not just digital services! For example, we have created a prototype for a face-to-face experience in the project of Community Dialogues that I facilitated in 2023 spring. You can ask me about that journey over virtual coffee!

Step 4: Feedback

The feedback phase is often called a dip in the rollercoaster journey. Yes, it’s shaky, but that’s where the learnings, the insights sprout from!

The main point of this step is to validate our assumptions, check if we’re on the right track, and learn practical new things that can improve our solution. But the preparation for the session is as essential as the feedback itself.

Setting the space for meeting the real people who will provide the feedback is essential. Even small things like tea and cookies help during the in-person session. And if the session happens online over a video call, it’s nice to start with small talk and ask the person if a call can be recorded for learning purposes while keeping the atmosphere relaxed!

Whatever questions we ask or whatever instructions are given, they influence the feedback we get. So for facilitators, it’s important to prepare questions beforehand and potentially have a co-facilitator who would make notes during the session. Also, the importance of the soft skill of asking questions matters so much.

To sum up, in this step, we are asking questions and showing our prototype to real people. We are learning from the audience and collecting insights.

Step 5: Plan

The final phase is also called a reflection, the road-mapping, the closing of the circle. This phase aims to create a feeling of being grounded and have the insights and next steps prioritised for bringing the solution to life. It’s easy to miss out on this step. But it’s crucial to pause here, to digest what happened and what we learned. How did our idea for a solution change since we started this process? How exactly will we include the learnings from the audience in our solution?

Similar to the whole prototyping process, this step is about zooming out and zooming in.

To sum up, in this step, we digest our emotional experiences throughout the process and prioritise the key learnings, that become concrete next steps for the project.

Important to mention is that the process of creating doesn’t end here, but typically prototyping process unblocks the challenges and brings the insights that help to adjust the project so that it’s more straightforward and clear on what to do next while moving towards the north star.

So, how does it all sound to you? Tell me. I’m always curious to make business and design frameworks more comprehensive for all sorts of people who start with creativity!

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