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Explore Key Prototyping Considerations

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Define a prototype.
  • Explain how prototyping helps with strategy design.
  • Ask the right questions as you create your prototyping strategy.

Make Ideas Tangible

If you’ve completed other badges in the Learn Strategy Design trail, you’ve learned about some key concepts and steps, from framing a challenge to the importance of research to best practices for idea generation. In this module, you gain a deeper understanding of prototyping best practices you can use to support your strategy design. 

Prototypes make ideas tangible in ways that people can interact with them. They generate low-cost answers to questions about what a team can build and how that product, service, or experience can look, feel, behave, and drive outcomes. Prototypes greatly reduce an organization’s risk when bringing innovative concepts to market. They become the first way a team can measure their ability to deliver on desired business and social outcomes with new ideas or concepts.

What’s a Prototype?

A prototype is an experiment that’s purpose-built to answer a specific question in the design and build process. Prototypes can be used to answer questions at any level. They range from high-level and strategic (“Is our brand seen as credible when talking to customers about community?”) to tactical and experiential (“Does this mobile app work the way users expect it to?”). Prototypes can be made to answer questions related to physical and digital products, services, experiences, processes, and even abstract concepts. If something is hard to explain, a prototype usually makes it easier. 

Prototypes can be used in three ways.

  • Ideation: To generate ideas and provide stimulus for others to build on.
  • Exploration: To try different ways of doing something or challenge assumptions.
  • Validation: To confirm that a design solves a problem well and is usable.

Most teams think of ideation prototypes and validation prototypes, but not exploratory prototypes. That's a huge miss. You can minimize sunk costs and time by creating quick, scrappy versions of your ideas. You can learn a lot from these multiple scrappy prototypes while avoiding premature emotional attachment to a direction that might not be quite right. 

By creating a lot of early prototypes, you can collect feedback and evidence that helps you shape your work and build confidence that the direction you recommend for an actual build is likely to drive the desired outcomes.

Prototypes start out rough at the beginning of the design process and get further refined as you move through the phases. By the time you’re creating prototypes to validate your work, the prototypes should be higher fidelity, and the strategy should be set.

When we say “fidelity,” we’re talking about how closely the prototype conveys the intended experience of the final product. The fidelity of form, aesthetics, content, and behavior can vary from low to high, and prototypes might represent mixed levels. For instance, you might have a prototype that looks like a final product but doesn’t work at all. Or you may have a prototype that works but doesn’t look anything like the final product will. We talk more about fidelity later in this module. But before we get into the details, let’s find out what prototyping has to do with strategy.

Example of a digital prototype.

How Prototyping Helps with Strategy Design

Prototyping makes it easier for people to grasp a concept by interacting with a hands-on experience over a written or verbal explanation. Every prototype should start by asking this question: What are you trying to learn?

Based on where you are in the design process, you’ll need to answer different levels of questions. Here are some examples to illustrate what we mean. 

Ideation Level Question

You’re in the early stages of crafting a strategy to increase engagement and loyalty, and your research revealed three main value drivers or three ways you provide value to existing customers. Your team may wonder, “Which of these value drivers is most likely to drive loyalty and brand affinity beyond product usage?” Your team is working to shape a point of view on what they could build. 

Exploration Level Question

You’re building a financial platform focused on social responsibility investing. You know what tools and touchpoints your customers will want as financial customers, but your team wonders, “What kind of product bundling and messaging are social responsibility investors most likely to respond to?” In this case, your team knows what it’s building and is working toward understanding your value proposition to customers. 

Both of the above are strategy design questions that lend themselves to being answered with prototypes. For contrast, below is a UX prototyping question about validation that could also benefit from prototyping.

Validation Level Question

You’re building an ecommerce website that lets customers put their own images on household products like cups and pillows, and then sell those products in your store. You’ve designed a process flow you feel good about, but your team wonders, “Will users find it intuitive to use?” In this case, your strategy is set, and your team is looking for validation and evidence that it will be useful and usable.

Prototypes can be evolved from rough to refined over time, answering the next most important question each step of the way. For the purpose of this module, we focus on ideation and exploration levels of prototyping. 

Generating the Right Questions

In prototyping, you only get a useful result out of the process if you put in the effort to find the right questions. So how do you know what questions to ask?

Ask: What are we assuming?

This could be about a need people have, a feature they would prioritize, a behavior your product or service would cater to, or a capability your current workforce could stretch into. List any assumptions you’re making that you would want to confirm with people or gather evidence to support. Then turn them from statements into questions. For example, “Social investors want to support specific issues and sectors” becomes “Do social investors want to support specific issues and sectors?” If you want to take this for a test spin, try this best practice activity: Assumptions mapping.  

Ask: What would have to be true for our strategy to work? 

Ask that question multiple times, and you should easily be able to generate multiple answers. Perhaps you need some technology to work, or the right people to partner with, or a market condition to exist. If the success of your strategy hinges on something being true, list it out. Like with your assumptions, determine which factors you’re least sure about, and turn them into questions. For example, “Social investors would have to trust our company to operate with integrity in order to use our new platform” becomes “Do social investors trust our company to operate with integrity?”

Note that these questions have a lot of context built into them. Even when you’re asking high-level strategic questions, you want to make sure you’re crafting them with your prior work in mind. This includes your understanding of your audience, the business and social outcomes you’re driving toward, any Job to Be Done (JTBD) you’re solving for, and even any technical constraints you’re designing within. 

Your prototype should focus on the biggest unanswered question or the biggest risk you perceive your project has. What’s the aspect of your strategy that you absolutely must get right in order to be successful, that you’re not entirely sure you have right? That points to your prototyping question.

Once you have your question, you’re ready to start thinking about formats. 


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