Unpacking Design Thinking: Prototype

Unpacking Design Thinking: Prototype

Imagine going to your next meeting with a prototype instead of a cup of coffee and notepad.

The prototype is an early model or experiment to rapidly create solutions to challenges and problems already defined and discussed by design thinkers. Many prototypes utterly fail; their results may send a team “back to the drawing board.”  But because they fail, and fail early, prototypes can be lifesavers, preventing the waste of treasure, time and money on implementing weak or inappropriate solutions.

Tom and David Kelley of IDEO note, “The reason for prototyping is experimentation—the act of creating forces you to ask questions and make choices. It also gives you something you can show to and talk about with other people. … a prototype is just an embodiment of your idea. It could be a skit in which you act out a service experience, such as visiting the emergency room at a hospital.” 

Creating a prototype is not an elaborate process.  It can be as simple as a storyboard, poster, group role-playing or a homemade “gadget.” Prototypes are quick and cheap.  They are not designed to look pretty as much as the are designed to address the needs of users elaborated in the “define” space of design thinking.

Build to think and test to learn.”  — Hasso Plattner Design School at Stanford

The most important goal of rapid prototyping is to get feedback from the ultimate users of a product, service, experience or system.  It is the feedback from these users that will generate data necessary to find the “right” solution to a question or challenge.

Experts suggest several reasons why the prototype space is so crucial to design thinking:

  • to ideate and problem-solve, the team has to do or create something;
  • to communicate ideas in a mutually-understandable manner;
  • to start a conversation with the ultimate users around a concrete idea to help elicit specific feedback;
  • to test possibilities without committing to a single solution;
  • to fail quickly and cheaply and learn from mistakes before investing too much time, reputation or money; and
  • to manage the solution-building process by breaking down complex problems into smaller elements that can be tested and evaluated.

The key to rapid prototyping is just to do something!  Just making something helps get people thinking and working together.  Prototyping materials are not elaborate or expensive.  They can be as simple as cardboard, scissors, post-it notes, or coffee cups.  Rapid prototyping means translating your ideas into things very quickly.  People who spend a long time “building” something often become emotionally attached to the product of their work.  Emotional attachment to a thing, like emotional attachment to a pet idea, often complicates the process of finding the best solution to a problem or challenge.

Make things quickly and don't become emotionally attached to one thing.

Make things quickly. Don’t become emotionally attached.

A prototype should always aim to answer the question posed. Therefore, an identification of what is being tested must be clearly connected to each artifact.  It is crucial to listen very diligently to all feedback because there may be new insights that could affect the solution or even alter the original question itself.  Always remember that the needs of the user are paramount.  Everything revolves around the ultimate user so expectations must be constantly revisited to increase understanding upon which to base the final space in design thinking: testing.


Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



  • Simon January 18, at 19:12

    Really loved reading this article. You captured the essence of prototyping.


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