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The prototyping mindset

I was thinking about the importance of prototyping again this week:

There’s often still a hang up with the idea of prototyping as part of any kind of discovery work. Think of it more as a learning tool e.g. “how can we make something real enough to learn more about it?”.

The original Twitter thread is here.

I went on to say that: Discovery sometimes has to be about understanding user needs within the context of new concepts, scenarios or services that aren’t yet real e.g. as a response to new policies, ideas or opportunities. It comes back to understanding the difference between types of user needs. Some needs are less likely to change, while a lot of what we understand as ‘user need’ is more determined/constrained in a functional way by how things work now.

The prototyping mindset

A good way to think about this is as ‘the prototyping mindset’. This is the principle of learning by doing. It’s prototyping as a process of making things real enough to learn more about them.

There’s also this helpful Dan Hill quote that I had written down in my notebook which has shaped my thinking a bit further:

“Let the prototype do the deciding”.

I was initially talking about prototyping to learn, but the prototyping mindset is also an effective way to decide. It’s the same thing, but in this case making something real enough that it allows for interactions that make decisions clearer.

The prototyping mindset means focusing on the next most important thing.
This could be the next most important thing we need to learn about, the next most important decision that we need to make, or the riskiest assumption or hypothesis that we need to test. It’s the principle of bringing one new thing to life in our work at a time.

Prototyping doesn’t have to just be seen as a development tool. Instead, if you approach this as a way of shaping how you work, it becomes relevant to different situations and at different stages of research, design and delivery.

If you like, the prototyping mindset is another first principles approach for navigating a more complex problem space. It’s any type of simulation that relies on the simplest possible model needed to learn and/or decide. This can be about increasing the confidence we have around our knowledge and understanding of user needs, or it can be the basis for a decision we need to make about what to do next. That might mean more research, more of a design process, or be about how we’re prioritising and building solutions and using technology to solve problems.


I’ve already written about prototyping in some other posts and publications. Here are some useful links for further reading:

Ben Holliday is an experienced designer, leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.