Everything is a Prototype

Designers spend their entire day prototyping, they just don’t know it. The things designers create are more than a deliverable or an artifact, they are a learning opportunity to make the work better.

Interaction design is quickly changing. Code is becoming a design medium which has made prototyping a more common design process. This is a step in the right direction, but is missing the point. Prototyping is not a step that designers check off the list. It’s *what designers do*. Everything designed is a prototype.

By everything, I mean *everything*. Sketches, wireframes, visual comps, clickable demos, beta releases, version 1.0 and version 2.0. They’re all a prototype for *what comes next*. This could be seen as arguing over semantics, so let me explain why this distinction is important.

Prototypes are built with the explicit purpose of learning. Good prototypes don’t get bogged down in the details until necessary. Thus, they’re streamlined and fast. There’s a clear acknowledgement of “I don’t know”. Changed is assumed and failure, to varying degrees, is an expectation. Understanding is the product of a prototype.

When working to make something exactly right, the blinders go on. A disproportionate amount of time is spent fussing instead of learning. More than often you find a fundamental flaw in your thinking; all your time fussing was for not. This process is inefficient and hit-or-miss.

Today’s digital products have short lives. Technologies change, expectations change. The things designers obsess over today will be forgotten tomorrow. What persists is the knowledge uncovered through the process of creation. It’s those learnings that will make the next manifestation better. That’s why viewing design as a constant state of prototyping is important. It puts us in a state of fluidity, a openness to learn and respond. The focus is on what needs to be learned.

The dirty little secret about design is that no one *absolutely* knows if something will to work until it’s tried. Even time-tested approaches can fall flat given the right (or perhaps wrong) circumstances. I like to say that the first try isn’t what’s important – it’s the *second* try. How a designer responds and adapts to what was learned in between those two steps is what matters.

Now, you’re obviously going to apply this principle differently in a sketch than a version 1.0. The experiments and risks taken with a mature product will be more subtle, the learning opportunities more focused. There isn’t the same leeway with mature, public products, but there still is space for controlled experimentation. This approach can be applied to any of the traditional steps in the design process. It’s more a way of designing than a particular kind of output.

Human beings are not perfect. As such, the things we make are imperfect as well. However, we have an amazing capacity to learn and adapt from our mistakes. It only makes sense then to focus less on perfect on more on slowly, constantly better. The process of design should improve *yourself* as much as what you’re designing.

2 thoughts on “Everything is a Prototype”

  1. It’s pretty important to be in a position to throw away your prototypes and to assume everything is subject to change. In The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks talks about how we should always “plan to throw the first one away.” He later revised this sentiment to “plan to build something as quickly as possible and modify it as needed in the future.” There are interesting phases to the prototyping process as well. There’s the Second System Effect and YAGNI. I’m sure there are about a zillion others. I’m guilty of all of these 🙂

    I heard once that people tend to think that Steve Jobs executed all of his products with incredibly clarity of vision. But in reality, those who worked with him say that he changed his mind constantly. They would go in a direction, stop to reflect, and he would rip everything out and tell them to start over. It’s not that all the work is lost, it’s just that you had to prove out some design thinking the long way. Sometimes that can’t be avoided.

    I think it’s best to approach any project with everyone (stakeholders, teammates) on board with the idea that radical change is a constant possibility if design work proves it to be beneficial to the product.

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