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the power of prototypes

A presentation slide with a profile picture of Mike Tyson from the NES game. The text states "Everyone has good product ideas until they see how humans interact with their prototype."

i gave a talk with Jeff Stonebrook yesterday entitled Early prototypes to validate the value of a design to the current cohort of CMU MHCI students. my main point was that prototypes are a powerful tool that make a significant impact on a project. they are all the more effective in processes that lack natural avenues to user feedback, like the agile-transformation-has-warn-off-waterfall habitat i live in.

our product org is large and almost necessitates hand-offs. teams get requirements from product management, designers start designing, researchers scramble to talk to people, developers estimate and start getting infrastructure in place. there are power points, JIRA tickets, documents, meetings, and recordings of meetings. everyone is in thoughtland. even worse, each person is on their own private thought-island.

the whole conversation changes when you build something tangible that others can interact with. once you have something you can experience, now everyone involved can form an opinion and perspective that is grounded in reality.

everyone’s personal thought-islands get blown up—you can’t live there anymore.

every time i’ve put a prototype in front of a human being, i learn something that impacts the project. most of the time, it is fresh and not something i anticipated. we have talented designers, but we never get it “right” the first time out. and that's not the point. the prototypes are a research tool that help us understand and help us close doors and open others.

the prototype power move

Damien Newman's design squiggle with pow and fist emojis at various points

i was reminded of this design squiggle that ostensibly describes the design process. we start off on the left in chaos. thought land. we start to do research and design and iterate. and the path forward becomes clearer. now, prototypes to me feel like power moves that provide a little extra boost in this process. you’re going one way, you think you’re on to something, you put it in front of users, and 💥pow. nope, that didn’t work, no one saw the button, even though it was red. then you go back, make some changes, build another prototype and test. 💥boom, this one raised some really interesting questions, we should go explore that area more.

it’s an iterative, exciting process because you are always going to learn something new. humans are infinitely complex and nuanced, and putting that together with an experience, product, service, i find that so fascinating and rewarding.

my charge to the students

what’s the takeaway? make something tangible that your clients can experience. what are the big questions you currently have, and how might you answer them with a prototype? a prototype doesn’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, resemble the final product.

and as you leave this place a find a job, whether you’re at a loosey-goosey startup or a “traditional” megacorp, have a posture of always learning and experimenting. people listen and engage when they can experience something tangible because now it involves them in a personal, visceral way.

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