Beware of the Perfect Prototype Problem

Beware of the Perfect Prototype Problem

Last week I participated in a workshop in Boulder led by George Kembel of the Stanford d.school, a pioneer in “design thinking”. During the session, we had four minutes (!) to create a hands-on prototype to illustrate a product/solution to a problem posed to the group.

there was a shift from design to design thinking, from products to experience. The idea is that any problem can be approached from an experiential, observational, hands-on manner. Watch and listen, figure out the problem, then solve it.

He made a great point I hadn’t really thought of, which is that you don’t want your prototype to be “too good”. In this case we wanted it to illustrate key elements of the solution, but also create a significant opportunity for our partner in the exercise (“the customer”) to provide feedback. His point was that if the people we seek feedback from see that we are too invested in our potential solution, they will hold back and not give good, honest feedback. Consciously or not, we mostly don’t want to hurt feelings or bruise egos even if the other person appears to give us permission to be honest and direct. He also suggested giving feedback of the type “I like” and “I wish” – for example “I like that it has red lights and I wish it had more of them” etc.

At some point, overinvesting energy in building a prototype does also make the builder less likely to take in subsequent feedback. In this June 2008 HBR article about Design Thinking, Ideo CEO and President Tim Brown (another pioneer in this field) says it well:

Prototypes should command only as much time, effort, and investment as is necessary to generate useful feedback and drive an idea forward. The greater the complexity and expense, the more “finished” it is likely to seem and the less likely its creators will be to profit from constructive feedback–or even to listen to it.

It is an iterative process that builds upon the feedback gathered. Brown continues:

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.

We are all creative innovators and have the ability to come up with new ideas to improve our world, and share those ideas with others online faster than ever before. It’s an exciting time! More information about the Stanford d.school.

Image source: qmed.com