If you build it…Prototyping & Minimally Viable Products – Chapter 1

September 15, 2020

For more than 55 years, Michael Graves Architecture & Design has innovated at all scales, across incredibly diverse circumstances. We specialize in tackling tricky problems no matter what the constraints may be. We concentrate on identifying opportunities and making design solutions into reality. Part of creating great user experiences is prototyping, which allows us to learn and improve our solutions before they become final.

As such, we believe prototyping is a critical activity in the design process. While others may see prototyping as a development phase that happens later in a project, we argue that prototyping can and should be used early and often, even during the research phase. By putting our ideas and concepts into practice, we learn what is working as planned and what is not. By creating a prototype, we must make decisions about details which will further our own understanding. By putting tangible forms of our ideas in front of others, we test our critical assumptions and the overall user experience. Prototypes form the pathway between our idea and our vision. Prototypes allow us to test critical assumptions, fast and inexpensively, providing a vehicle to get feedback from potential users, as early as possible.

The assumptions you need to be testing revolve around 3 key areas. First is functionality. Will it work? Is there some technology, mechanism, or other novel aspect to your idea that needs to be mocked up and vetted? Next is feasibility. Can it be made? For physical and digital products this is fairly tangible. For services or processes, how can you test this to see if it feasible to implement? Last, and possibly most important, is desirability. It doesn’t matter how smart your idea is, how much better it is, if people don’t want it, it will not succeed. If it is hard to understand because it is so novel, test ways to teach people about it, whether that is marketing tactics or other methods.

Prototyping Process

Let us take a quick look at the prototyping process. When you think about prototyping, you think about making something. While that is at the heart of it, there is a process to prototyping that you should follow to get the most value out of it, and to move your idea forward.

  1. It starts with your idea.
  2. Decide what to test. A prototype isn’t going to be the full embodiment of your idea, so you need to create a short list of those critical assumptions we talked about a minute ago. This requires some work in and of itself. Don’t stress about it though. What you think they are may be wrong after you make your first prototype. That is why you are doing this. You are looking to gain understanding of how, and whether, your idea fits into the world of your users.
  3. Identify Constraints. A good way to figure out what to make and how to make it is to understand your constraints. These typically fall into 3 categories; how much time do you have, how much money can you spend, and what resources do you have at your disposal? These resources are both materials and skills. Counteractively, these constraints increase your creativity and can make prototyping easier.
  4. Construct The Prototype. Now comes the building part. It is always better when you can be part of the building process because so many things reveal themselves just through the act of making. You see what is hard to do. You realize you haven’t thought about many details that you will have to make a decision on for this prototype. The act of making is one of the most valuable parts of the design and design thinking process for this reason. You aren’t always building as a means to an end, you are looking to test something. Sometimes you are building to learn. Some of the greatest designers I have worked with favored building over drawing because they get so much more intimate with the problem in ways that a seductive drawing can gloss over.
  5. Conduct Testing. Test your prototypes. You will learn from the act of building and using it yourself, but the perception of your users will be different. Put it in the hands of someone who is unfamiliar with it, and who stands to really benefit from it if it were made. Whenever you can test it in the environment where it would be used that is ideal. Unfortunately, that is difficult during a pandemic. Record the session with video so you can go back and watch what they did. One thing I have learned very well at this point is that what people say is often different from what they do.
  6. Capture Highlights. When you complete the test, make notes about what you learned from the user. We find that empathy maps are great frameworks for noting not only what the user said, but working to capture what they saw, what they heard, what they felt, and what they did.
  7. Organize & Prioritize. As you collect info from multiple users, take the individual feedback and merge the information. We find affinity mapping is a simple and effective way to organize this information into themes that allow us to understand how different aspects of the prototype were received, and what that means to our big idea.
  8. HMW & WIW Opportunity Statement’s. Last, you turn that information into opportunity statements. The “How might we’s” and the “What if we’s.”(We know our brainstorming sessions are getting into high gear when people start excitedly saying “Wumsifwe,” a word me made up.) Fold that info back into your idea, quickly iterate to advance it and improve it based on the feedback. Then repeat!

Prototyping Categories

You can think about prototyping in three big categories: physical means physical products, artifacts, and even spaces; digital is traditionally 2D, but as digital evolves it is so much more than the UI of screens, it includes voice, gestures, and passive technology; last is services and processes. These are complex and are often experiences that happen over a period of time.

Prototyping Goals

Regardless of the prototype category, you want to maintain the same three goals: make it visual, make it tangible, make it interactive.

With this foundation of prototyping background and process, stay tuned for the next blog post when we’ll go through key prototyping methods, and cite examples for many of them.


About Michael Graves Architecture & Design

MGA&D is recognized as one of the leading design practices in the world. We provide product design, graphic design & branding services, design research and design strategy consulting, as well as architecture, master planning, feasibility studies and interior design.