The notion of prototyping—mocking up ideas to learn and to adjust for what actually works—has gained credence as an indispensable approach to strategy creation. But I worry that all the buzz around prototyping can lead to a false promise: that using a prescribed set of prototyping techniques will guarantee social innovation as an outcome.
The first step toward mastering prototyping is to embrace it as a creative mindset, not a deep dive into techniques. In fact, no manual prescribes when to use which techniques, as prototyping does not involve a clear-cut set of rules.
At inCompass, a human-centered innovation lab based in Cambodia, we set our minds on designing products and services that serve the poor and can flourish in a market-based system. The starting point and final check for every project is the user. If users do not find a solution to be desirable, affordable, accessible, and usable, it will fail in the market.
Prototyping is a creative exercise in finding the best way to manifest an idea in order to support our learning. It's a tool for us to get closer to our users, to more deeply understand what they desire, and to test and adjust our ideas with their input. This involves turning ideas into something tangible—like an object, a visualization, a role play, or a script—out of whatever materials or approaches best fit the circumstances.
As we design, we move through three phases of user understanding and commensurate shifts in our prototyping mindset: initially we explore user needs, then we generate ideas to address those needs, and finally we validate the ideas.
Exploring user needs: As we explore user needs, we build prototypes to facilitate deeper engagement with those needs. For example, to stimulate conversations with Vietnamese families about water purification, our team used parts from plastic bottles, mesh strainers, showerheads, and deconstructed correction fluid containers. Similarly, we added wheels and a storage cabinet to an existing water filter product to stimulate discussions at Cambodian schools about transport and storage of water filters. (Click images to view full size.)
Generating ideas: As we generate ideas, we build prototypes to communicate them and to advance them as a team. Expressing ideas as prototypes forces the design team to work through misinterpretations and to uncover details that can be fleshed out or iterated. Our team used simple materials—plastic tubs, tubes, and spigots of various shapes—to prototype three ideas for hand-washing stations. We experienced these objects first-hand during a week-long trial, while analyzing and iterating on ideas for improvement. We recognized that refilling the station reservoirs required a lot of physical effort, and that the volume of the container and the flow rate of water significantly impacted this pain-point. The next prototypes incorporated these findings into the revised design.
Validating ideas: To validate our ideas, we build prototypes that we can test with users, focusing on aspects most critical to their needs. Then we observe whether the prototypes truly meet user needs, or did we fall off the path somewhere along the way?
During a project to design a sustainable drinking water solution for rural Cambodian schools, we observed that schools have snack-vendor entrepreneurs onsite. We saw an opportunity to entice them to include drinking water as part of their offering. Our hypothesis: If we offer the vendors a means to increase sales of complementary products, they would offer clean drinking water in return. Our prototypes focused on a beverage-station attached to a water filter that could be rented or purchased with financing by the vendor. The beverage-station would be central to the business-owner's sales, while the water filter would provide students with clean drinking water. We prototyped the idea and we learned that the vendors liked the concept of a beverage-station, but that the station itself was too heavy and difficult to refill, store, and keep clean. Armed with this feedback, we could begin adjusting our idea to better align with vendor needs.
No two projects will ever follow exactly the same prototyping process. We adjust our prototyping mindset to assess our users' needs at every stage of the design process and to translate ideas into a tangible form.
Today, Human-Centered Design is being embraced by people in many sectors and industries, a welcome movement that testifies to the growing interest in sustainable social innovation. Yet, I fear that looking for cookie-cutter approaches to prototyping without first mastering the prototyping mindset will deliver mediocre ideas. That's because the prototyping mindset is of paramount importance to delivering sustainable social innovations. In effect, the technique is the mindset, a mindset of continuing improvement and iteration by getting closer to user needs.
Mariko Takeuchi is the founding director of inCompass Human-Centered Innovation Lab at iDE and based in Cambodia. The lab is a non-profit consultancy that pioneers and advocates to bring the best practices in innovation to serve the poor in developing nations.
This blog post is part of a November-December 2014 series on innovation labs, a joint project between Bridgespan and The Rockefeller Foundation. Please join us during the coming four weeks as we publish a broad range of insights from innovation lab practitioners, funders, and participants.