The value of small prototypes

I was recently chatting with my friend Lopa about a variety of things social innovation-y, and the topic turned to prototyping.

One of the things that came up is that it can be easy to think that prototypes need to be a lot more than they actually need to be. That is, it can be just as valuable to prototype small pieces of the puzzle as you go, rather than thinking that you have to prototype an entire service, or complex parts of a web application etc.

As I was thinking about this on the train, I caught up on some episodes of Kevin Rose’s excellent Foundation series. In her interview, the founder of Smitten Ice Cream Robyn Sue Fisher talks about prototyping a number of times in the interview (especially in relation to her core product). But what interested me most was how she used a food cart to get her service up and running (at about 28 mins and 45 secs in):

I’ve benefited from this principle as I work through the Seasonal Saturday concept. It seems like quite a simple thing “a seasonal meal once a month”. While I’ve got a lot of thoughts about what we could do with the initiative, I felt it was important just to start doing it, as I knew things would pop up. So we bootstrapped a simple blog and invited a bunch of people to submit their recipes (one per month).

This prototype is a long way from what we’re aiming for, but prototyping early has already helped a lot in working out the logistics and some of the barriers and challenges participants might face. Like, what information do we need to include with a recipe? Are there specific attributes to recipes that we need to consider? What happens if I want to participate, but can’t do that recipe (i.e. I don’t have a slow cooker)? These may seem trivial, but as we are hoping to encourage/enable behaviour change, understanding (and addressing) these barriers where possible is important.

As a tutor in the Design Research Training unit at UWS I also saw the power of prototyping first hand. Students often came up with grand ideas and some couldn’t see, at first, how they could prototype it because they were jumping ahead to their bigger vision. Others were able to break their project down into smaller parts which they then prototyped. These students tended to do better overall with their projects, and all of them learnt a lot from this process.

It’s important, of course, to recognise the limitations and changed context of a smaller prototype. But following the lean/agile approach of prototyping early and often is a great way to help ensure that a project has the greatest chance of success.