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Field note—

Great design prototypes are lo-fi and life size

Emma Saunders

16 June 2017

Developing and testing prototypes is a fundamental aspect of a design process. It seems easy at first glance – make a low-fi version of your concept, and test whether it works. But it can be surprisingly hard.

To me, proper prototyping means isolating a variable in your concept that you want to test, and creating something to bring that variable to life. And testing means letting people experience the thing you’ve made, by using it or going through it, while you observe and then ask them about their experience.

It doesn’t mean making a scale model of a scene or product and explaining it to people before asking their opinion. Who can really experience something by walking their fingers through it like Barbie legs? And it doesn’t mean piloting a finished idea.

Good prototyping takes a bit of lateral thinking, some knowledge of running scientific experiments, and the child-like ability to quickly build something out of cheap stuff and let your imagination fill in the gaps. For me, it also takes practice. Imagination isn’t my strong suit.

Stanford’s d.school provides a good prototyping tip-sheet. And a couple of simple rules help me along:

  • No scale models, it has to be life-sized
  • Take the time you think you need and cut it in half.

Yesterday I spent a day with a team who built fantastic life-sized prototypes within 20 minutes. None of them were officially designers, but their imagination and enthusiasm were cranking. At the end of the day, the CEO said, “I’m blown away by how much we learned in an hour by prototyping in that way. When I think of the mistakes we could avoid by doing that within our business … wow.” As my colleague replied, “That’s the power of prototyping well.”