Why Prototyping Is Your Next Biggest Asset

“Always bring a prototype.”

It’s a bold declaration by Sean Corcorran, General Manager of Education for Steelcase furniture (an early partner of the design consulting firm IDEO), directed at a group of senior higher education and workforce leaders at the Michigan Colleges Alliance Employer Roundtable. 

His challenge, shared to describe the tools and methodologies that Steelcase uses in their product design and development process, was meant to compel leaders to consider how they continue to test, learn, and continue to improve their programs and practices.

Alongside our shared work using design thinking and our connection to higher education, this shared value immediately became obvious:

In every new initiative that we develop, in every program that we create, in every event that we plan, there are core assumptions about the world that inform the decisions that we make — and at every step of the planning, preparation, and execution of those events are opportunities to prototype and test those assumptions to inform and shape our work.

From the seemingly most impactful like the content or talent we book for an event, to the otherwise innocuous like what food is being served and where the event is located, there are assumptions — hypotheses — about who your attendees are and what they’re looking for from your events.

Once the event is taking place, all of those little assumptions are being tested all at once and establish the unified experience for an attendee that forms their overall reaction.

The same often happens in planning meetings for new initiatives — the focus on “building to execute” means that conversations focus on developing something to implement all at once, rather than considering the assumptions that might be driving what a team expects to happen relative to the initiative, testing those theories over time while building towards the desired end state.

What if we stopped thinking about an event or initiative as our “one shot” or the “big show?”

What if we used the weeks and months leading up to (and during) events to inform how we might test and learn about what might be incorporated into an initiative that validates assumptions about what we believe to be true in the world as you progress towards “full launch?”

Chart via SciencesBuddies.org

If prototyping is unfamiliar, this might feel a little unnerving, even scary at first. There’s a vulnerability in exposing your uncertainty about how something might work in advance of having a polished version. But what’s worse: having a fully developed product that people don’t see as valuable, or finding out before it’s fully developed that you misjudged how your audience might interact with it? With that new knowledge, you can make essential changes to drastically increase your product’s value.

That’s the underlying philosophy of prototyping: test often, and fail while it’s cheap.

A prototype is the embodiment of a possible solution’s essential elements, intentionally built to learn about its content and the problem it attempts to understand and resolve.

There are two keys in the prototyping process: design with enough fidelity to quickly and inexpensively represent what you’re hoping to test, and try to isolate the number of variables you test at once. And when I say low fidelity, I mean it!

In the early discovery and testing phases of a medical device prototype, designers brought doctors the prototype on the left side of the image below. They wanted to know if the grip and feel of the device would meet their needs.

Prototype everywhere — brian leduc


Yep, you’re seeing that right — a clothespin, film case, and marker covered in tape. On the other hand, imagine taking the version on the right to a doctor and hearing that it didn’t fit in their hands in the way required by the procedure…after spending millions of dollars to produce it! I’d rather share the “clothespin-filmcase-expomarker-ometer” to any day.

In a prototype for decorations for an event, you might show representatives of your audience pictures of the kinds of colors or décor you’re considering. You might prototype a new artist or act by playing them for students around campus as a quick test for campus fit.

To tease out the best plan for prototyping on your campus:

1. Consider the assumptions embedded in your event that you need to test.

From the most general assumptions like “people like events on Tuesday afternoons” to the most specific “swipe students in as they leave: speed of students checking in is more important than delayed departure at the end of an event.”

2. Build a plan that prioritizes those assumptions and establishes a timeline to intentionally test.

Make sure that you’re isolating your tests to a limited number of assumptions at once to focus feedback and guidance from your audience in ways that will best inform that particular set of assumptions in your testing process.

3. Test, observe, learn, and adjust.

Once you’ve begun to isolate and test the assumptions embedded in your work, continue to reshape your original conception of the idea in response to the feedback that you get as your audience reacts.

As you test and learn more, you become more comfortable and familiar with the learning that shapes the assumptions driving your design, which continues to shape what higher fidelity versions of your work should look like (at least until your continued testing and learning process inspires more change).  

Breaking down the thousands of assumptions into mini-tests about what you believe to be true about an event or an initiative, testing those assumptions, paying close attention to how your audience responds, learning, and making adjustments places you on a larger “learning journey” to continue to improve your work.

Everywhere is a laboratory, every move is an experiment, and every choice brings a lesson! And like Sean says — “Always bring a prototype.”


Brian LeDuc

About the author: Brian helps design education for the future of work with Education Design Lab. Follow him on Twitter @BrianFLeDuc! Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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