If you build it…Prototyping & Minimally Viable Products – Chapter 2

September 23, 2020

In the last blog post, we talked about the importance of prototyping and the process we follow for all prototyping projects. If you haven’t read that post, you might find this post more valuable if you go back and read that one first.

This post, chapter 2 about prototyping, will focus on some key prototyping methods and it will cite examples for many of them, some from our firm and some from other companies.

Prototyping Methods

Here is a short list of go-to methods of prototyping. You will find there are endless methods and variations. Some methods have many names, but they are essentially the same thing. Some methods are universal and can work for any category. There are all sorts of mapping techniques and frameworks out there to help you organize and visualize information. Prototypes always run the gamut from low fidelity, meaning rough and loose, to high fidelity, meaning it is polished, refined and mimics the final product.

Now let’s go through some prototyping examples.

Last year we were approached by Polder, a longtime client, to help them enter a new market. They had an initial insight that cosmetics storage was mostly the same and pretty boring. Most products on the market are clear acrylic trays that prescribe and dictate its use. Polder wanted something that would be smarter, more flexible, and more attractive, which is where we came in to help.

Here are two prototyping methods at work on the same project, both put into use after we completed our research phase: sketching and rough models. Sketching is great for quickly visualizing ideas. Here you see us doing drawings in orthographic views, meaning drawing it from the front, top and side, as well as perspective views. This helps us understand the geometric relationships and allows us to capture a lot of the idea. On the right you see our very first low fidelity prototypes. This was just paper and foam core. We had the idea of a modular system of storage items that all utilized the same metal grid. As a modular system, people would be able to piece together items that work for their space and routine. These rough prototypes enabled us to learn some crucial lessons that directed the rest of the project.

From the rough models, we progressed the designs using 3D CAD (we use Solidworks), photorealistic renderings (we use Keyshot) and 3D printed models, enabling us to test the products with real makeup and put it in the real environment.

With more fidelity, we learned many more lessons. We were able to identify some missing solutions for certain types of makeup and accessories. We got to really explore the subtleties of the materials, especially the effect of lighting on translucent materials. We were able to get into the nuance of details for how these would be manufactured as well.

Finally, Polder had final prototypes made. These are incredibly beautiful! They are basically the real thing, only MUCH more expensive! We are able to see the final material details which will aid in the design-for-manufacturing process. Polder can also show them to retailers for buy-in before production begins. They are also using them for product photography which is very common for physical products. You typically need product photography for packaging long before you have finished goods coming off an assembly line.

Now, let’s briefly explore an example that is not our work, but a great example for digital prototyping. In 2018 the NY times set about redesigning their homepage. The deeper story can be read here and is worth checking out. This was a huge deal, as the look of their homepage had not changed in over a decade. As you’ll see if you click the link, from 2008 to 2018, the branding didn’t change, but when you take in the layouts of the page, you notice it is tighter and cleaner. So how did they make such an impactful change? Prototyping. Tons of it!

This story really highlights the front-end methods for prototyping digital products. A wireframe is a great tool for early prototyping digital products. Its name comes from the early days of 3D CAD in architecture and product design. Early on, computers didn’t have enough processing power to shade or render the 3D geometry. You just had 3D forms constructed of lines, and these visuals were called wire frames. They would often get printed, and then a hand rendering would be done over it! A wireframe is about looking at the layout and understanding where things will be. It is purposely devoid of content and imagery. In the NY Times example, they used color blocking to help call attention to the hierarchy of the different sections. But wireframing only gets you so far. The other method popular in digital is, well, analog! Paper interfaces are great for visualizing all the content, or what is called “below the fold.”

Another prototyping example is called Logic Flow Charts. Sometimes there are digital or electronic aspects to a physical product. This is where logic flowcharts are a great prototyping tool. Here you see the flow chart for a toaster we designed. From plugging it in to getting your toast out, we indicate the actions the user takes in grey, and the digital or physical responses generated in orange. This becomes a great tool for the person or people programming the item to follow as well. Often times roleplaying is of great use in conjunction with this exercise so you can really work through the experience.

If you are working on a service or a process, nothing is more important to your prototype (or your business for that matter) than storytelling. Storytelling narrative is important to show how, when and where a solution is intended to be used, for a digital and a physical product.

Before you tell the story though, you have to capture it. No matter how rough or refined your idea is, you can always make it better, and learn new things, through roleplaying, essentially playing make believe. That is what roleplaying is.

Here you see two designers roleplaying ideas around a line of concept bags we were developing. We did it throughout our office, even though we were simulating different places a consumer would be going throughout her day. Through roleplaying, what started as an idea for a new bag developed into a line of bags plus new pieces of furniture that they could interact with. And why did we think of furniture?

Because this was concept work for Herman Miller, a furniture manufacturer that makes some of the most iconic furniture that surrounds us at work and at home, who is framing its future through the lens of “lifestyle.” We have a lot of experience with products in the home. We also have a lot of experience working with companies on workplace transformation, making us familiar with the evolving way companies are setting up their offices, and the expectations they are placing on their employees. Technology gets smaller, communication faster, and demands higher. Work doesn’t just come home with us, we take it EVERYWHERE. This means more stuff, and the need for an intelligent way to carry and manage it that fits a busy lifestyle.

Our general experience and roleplaying activities led to the idea of a Herman Miller line of bags. Something to help you manage all your stuff. We also saw an opportunity for this to lead to new furniture archetypes and accessories that complement the way people move through their day, while also addressing all the stuff they need to get through it. Leveraging Michael Graves’ and Herman Miller’s heritage of exceptional design and reputation for human-focused solutions, we explored new opportunities that address people’s lifestyle needs as they strive for a better work, home, life balance.

Another prototyping method we use is called Day-In-The-Life (or DITL) which is a method we use with physical products, as well as experiences, as an opportunity to share the vision of how these items fit into one’s life. Often, as we did in this case, we develop the DITL before we truly design the items. The bags and furniture shown here are loose sketches to give a sense of typology, size, and functionality. They do not represent what the actual design would look like. Before we spend time designing what something looks like, and how it can be made, we first need to design WHY it should exist. It is our opportunity to communicate the user experience as a narrative that shares a vision.  Here is the full narrative followed by closeups on each section.

For most projects, a professional illustrator is not needed to communicate an idea. Storyboards can be simple too. Here is an example of a simple storyboard that shows how an idea like Uber can be communicated in just 4 quick doodles.

With 4 doodles using stick figures, one can tell the use case of Uber. 4 doodles tell a story that makes someone say “wow, that is amazing, and I want it.” And with that response, things like attracting and hiring drivers, downloading and setting up the app, entering credit card info, and determining rideshare policy and regulations is now worth the entrepreneurs time, effort and capital. Now you can start thinking about how the business can operate.

Adding operational dimensionality to a storyboard or journey map can be accomplished with a Service Blueprint, an easy prototype framework. We create ours in Mural, a visual collaboration tool that we love, especially during these days of physical distancing. For a service blueprint, you start with the Customer Journey, from which everything builds outward. To simplify the process, you identify the customer problem, the solution you have created, and the resolution of the experience. The evidence is the artifacts that the customer comes in contact with. For the Herman Miller example above, the bags and the furniture are the artifacts. For the resolution, it can be some sort of follow-up communication or continuing contact. All of this happens above the line of interaction. Below that is where you work out the operations you will need to build to make this journey a reality. The frontstage actions are the things the customer sees. Employees, products or applications they interact with directly. The technology captures the supporting tech they are interacting with. Below that you have the backstage. What happens that people don’t see – think back to Uber attracting and hiring drivers. You can work that out here along with any other support processes you will need to use or develop, all in support of creating that amazing user experience.

With this foundation of prototyping background and process, as well as key prototyping methods and examples, on our next blog will delve into the notion of the Minimally Viable Product or MVP.


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.