Prototypes are a way of bringing ideas and concepts into reality.
As Ben wrote, there are many different types of prototypes. They can be used in many different contexts to help visualise ideas early, getting people around a “thing” rather than round a table to talk about it.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a piece of paper, something built with cardboard or a mockup of a website. What we want to do is test an assumption or hypothesis that we have. This is so that we can learn more about user behaviour, needs and most importantly how things work.
Spoiler alert: a prototype is not a finished solution.
When I say prototype, I don’t mean a finished solution. Far from it. When we prototype, what we’re really doing is testing a visualisation and physical form of our ideas.
Prototypes exist before we know what we need. During the prototyping stage of a project, we might have an idea of what’s technologically feasible but our focus is on testing the ideas and the assumptions that we have.
So, what is a prototype?
Above all else, a prototype is an opportunity to test an idea, an assumption, or a hypothesis, so that you can learn something more about the problem that you’re trying to solve. Through prototyping, you’re making sure that what you build is much more likely to be successful and used by the people who need it.
Prototypes are also a great way to understand how existing work and solutions in an organisation can be embraced, replicated and scaled across different service areas. They present a unique opportunity to take learnings from one service to understand what needs to be changed and iterated for another service — focussing on what’s strong in an organisation, not what’s wrong.
Ultimately, a prototype is a way to be proven wrong.
When we prototype, we want to understand where we might be wrong. That’s where things get exciting and we know that we’re learning something that we didn’t know before. Using clear hypotheses or assumptions that are measurable and observable, helps to make sure that we understand the things we want to learn about.
The value of prototyping
1. Creative problem solving
Prototypes are a valuable, creative way to begin solving problems. They can be a tool to encourage creativity in teams and for engaging with every level of an organisation.
When we are prepared to be bold and creative with ideas, we can start to see how we might change and challenge the status quo — in ways we never thought were possible. Being creative encourages everyone to suspend their disbelief and to think about the future differently.
2. Testing ideas fast and cheaply
Prototypes can reduce the time and cost it takes to test new and creative ideas.
Because we’re using tools that are easy for everyone to access, and that can be rough and ready and cheap to produce, no one should feel too precious about throwing out early prototypes and starting again.
The greatest value of prototyping is often testing early. If we go out and test an early paper prototype, people are much more likely to get a pen out and write down their thoughts, tell us what they really think and show us something can be improved, rather than asking them for feedback on more ‘finished’ or costly designs.
Prototypes make it so much easier to make decisions on what to do next. When we know what’s going to work, what’s not going to work and what’s technically feasible, we can start making the decisions on what needs to happen next.
4. Empowering change
One of the biggest values that prototyping brings is empowering frontline staff in organisations to embrace change.
Prototypes can act as a tool to get buy-in from stakeholders and users on changes that might be coming their way. They’re a great method of exploring how new ideas, processes and capabilities will work in reality, embedding buy-in from the beginning of projects, rather than trying to sell something to front staff later on at the point of delivery.
More than meets the eye
Don’t underestimate the power of prototypes. They can be the difference between service failure and unlocking future services models, savings, efficiencies as well as untapped creative potential in teams.
This is part of a series on how we use prototyping at FutureGov. This blog post is based on what we’ve most recently learned working with Stockport Council.