Prototypes don’t need to be “finished”

Catching up on some old copies of the Harvard Business Review I was struck by this quote about prototyping in an article by IDEO’s Tim Brown, Design Thinking.

“Prototypes should command only as much time, effort, and investment as are needed to generate useful feedback and evolve an idea. The more “finished” a prototype seems, the less likely its creator will be to pay attention to and profit from feedback. The goal of prototyping isn’t to finish. It is to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the idea and to identify new directions that further prototypes might take.”

I couldn’t agree with Tim more. As a user experience practitioner, prototyping is just about the most important technique I have up my sleeve. I am amazed when I hear people come up with excuses not to prototype:

  • It will take too much time
  • I need more time to finish the prototype
  • We can’t learn anything from anything that isn’t finished or more representative of the actual product.

What rubbish. All of these are excuses of people stuck in their old ways of doing things. The truth is that you can obtain valuable insights from very low-fidelity prototypes, and also that even when dealing with higher-fidelity prototypes you can get away with a lot of smoke and mirrors to minimise the amount of effort that goes into the creation of something that appears finished.

Tim’s point about “finished” prototypes being of less value is particularly insightful. The amount of time we invest in creating a prototype should be directly proportional to the amount of confidence we have in what we are designing. The less clarity we have about the direction the design will take, the less time we should invest in prototyping.

If we invest too much time in a prototype too early in the process we run the risk of investing too much in its success that we won’t be prepared to listen to, or have time to respond to, the constructive feedback we receive.

This is particularly troublesome if you are working on a project with fixed timescales. The more time invested in “finishing” each design, the less time there is to explore alternate designs, and the less time there is to respond to any insights obtained from user research.

When prototyping we should resist the temptation to cement our thinking around one particular design paradigm for as long as possible. Short prototyping sprints (to use the Agile vernacular) are far more preferable to the prototyping marathon many engage in. By remaining open to radically different concepts deep into the design activity, we remain nimble enough to realign our thinking as insights are revealed from user research.

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2 responses to “Prototypes don’t need to be “finished”

  1. This is exactly how I feel about wireframes! 🙂

  2. I’m in software…alphas and betas SHOULD be same, but too often betas are skipped because they are hard until you get good at them. When people use software betas as “does it work” tests or “will people not puke on my idea” tests, they have certainly missed the mark.

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