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Social innovation and design evolve through iterative cycles of doing and reflecting. Prototyping can help us to quickly evaluate and discard potential solutions and keep building on the ideas that work.

Types of prototypes

Prototyping helps us to communicate or test aspects of a desired experience, a service or a programme. It is important to focus our prototyping on the bits of the service that are most important to learn about. innovate change associate Penny Hagen has come up with these questions which can help us prioritize what to prototype first:

  • What do you want to learn through the prototyping process?
  • What are the questions that need to be answered?
  • What are the embedded assumptions with your idea that need to be tested?
  • What aspects need further thinking and exploration?
  • What aspects need to be communicated in order to enable feedback?

There are a lot of ways to prototype and we've included some links to a few awesome resources at the bottom of this post. Let us tell you a bit about exploratory and developmental prototyping - two of the main forms of prototyping we use.

Exploratory prototyping is helpful to try out an early idea and to test the demand for a potential new service in a quick and “lo-fi” way (think about hi-fi audio – it's the best and most refined audio; this is the opposite – simple and low tech).

You can use a range of creative techniques to do this kind of prototyping. Some ideas are in the boxes to the right. Different methods can help you explore and communicate different things. For example, visual methods can help communicate ideas, stories and outcomes, whilst tangible and role play based methods can help to convey experiences and interactions. It's better to start and then iterate your prototype than spend too much time in planning though.

We often do some exploratory prototyping following idea generation and selection (from the design and refining stages of our innovative action model ).

Festival for the Future 2014 prototyping workshop

Say we were working on a new service idea to incorporate primary care services into an Emergency Department. The group working on the idea might develop a physical model out of simple materials. The model showed how the physical service environment at the ED might work and how patients might navigate between the primary care service and the ED service. The group could then use the models (prototypes) to test and get feedback on the idea. The prototypes help people feel and see the idea.

Developmental prototyping it should still be easy and low cost to do but it allows us to test and evolve components of a service in more detail. This can be done by identifying simple ways you can try part of a service.

For example, when working with our friends at Curative on Steer Clear , we often test out a new experience, campaign product or information resource with a small group of the target audience. We make low cost versions of the products and get people in to try them and give us feedback on the experience. This helps us make changes and sort out issues that the rest of the audience may well have experienced – but we do it before that part of Steer Clear goes public.

Prototyping is different to piloting. By the time we get to piloting a service or programme, we should be pretty sure about it – and hopefully we've gone through a range of cycles of prototyping to get there.

Whatever way you're prototyping, there are some common learnings here. Prototyping should be quick and easy - try not to get bogged down in detail. It's better to try something, make it physical, visual or tangible in some way and get some feedback. You can keep making new prototypes as you get more feedback and insight, so making it quick and easy also means you don't get too attached to those LEGO models or storyboards! It's important to get clear on what you want to prototype, and Penny's questions at the top of this post should help with that. And it is super important that the sorts of people who are going to use this service or programme are involved in testing and feeding back on the prototype.

Prototyping workshop

There are heaps of awesome resources available on prototyping - like these:

  • Steps to developing your prototype (one page concise resource developed by our associate Penny Hagen)
  • IDEO Design Kit Rapid Prototyping Guide
  • NESTA and thinkpublic prototyping framework
  • Roberta Tassi's research work on service design (specific pages on prototyping)
  • Stanford D-School Prototype to Test Worksheet