In Raising Places, participating communities learn the ins and outs of the human-centered design process over the course of nine months. With the facilitation and coaching support of Greater Good Studio (GGS) designers, community members practice key design skills, such as prototyping.

A valuable tool for concept development and refinement, prototyping is a method used to test ideas and gather honest feedback from potential users. It’s a low-cost and low-effort way to learn which ideas might excel or bust, before moving into the piloting phase, by continually engaging users for input.

Let’s learn more about prototyping from design lead at GGS and Raising Places facilitator Kyle Newton in this interview below where he shares some keen insights.

What is prototyping?

Prototyping is a process that creates a new mentality for working to further define concepts through building iterative versions of ideas at varying levels of fidelity with feedback from potential users. A prototype is the result of prototyping – it is an early sample, model, or release of a product or service that is built to test and simulate the experience of using it.

Low-fidelity prototypes may be sketch or a storyboard, whereas high-fidelity prototypes could be an early version of a website or acting out the test-run of a program. When we are working at the low-fidelity level, we make more prototypes. For example, we could make numerous sketches of an invite for a community event. When we are working at the high-fidelity level, we make far fewer prototypes – this could be one or two mock-ups for a mobile application design.

Two low-fidelity prototypes from the North Wilkesboro design team: one is an information package to entice community-driven development (left); the other is a satellite location for the local food bank (right).

Tell me about what it is like to prototype.

In the human-centered design process, prototyping follows the concepting stage. After we have brainstormed a wide range of ideas that address user needs and systemic challenges, we often narrow by combining related ideas or pairing smaller, disparate ideas together to make more interesting and effective solutions.

In the prototyping phase:

- We start by identifying parts of those ideas to make into testable versions or models.

- Next, we create those models by using a range of supplies, including anything from readily-available office supplies and household objects to more advanced design and technical software programs.

- Then we take those models and share them with real people, often our identifiable users or potential users, to learn from their opinions and behaviors around our prototypes.

- We record and synthesize feedback from multiple users and incorporate their input into our next iterations of prototypes.

- We move forward with continual rounds of prototyping as we refine and test models until the we feel confident to move forward with a more structured pilot.

In this phase, designers should be prepared to hear all kinds of feedback, including negative feedback. If we receive only positive feedback in testing our prototypes, that validation might feel good, but then we are typically left without much learning or constructive feedback.

For example, in Valley of the Chiefs, the design team showed very early versions of their ideas to community members in the form of simple sketches with descriptions. While several of the residents were excited about certain ideas, many had concerns that there were much more pressing needs to be addressed, such as dangerous property lots and “unlivable” homes. This feedback forced the design team back to the drawing board in order to create new concepts that addressed these needs voiced by the community. The team then prototyped their concept of a yard renewal program with volunteers by designing and organizing a test run of that program. (Check out more examples of prototyping from design teams.)

Valley of the Chiefs design team members and residents working in snowy Montana to clear away dangerous materials from a yard, a prototype of the Lodge Grass Renewal Initiative.

How can different kinds of concepts be prototyped?

Physical and digital products often have a more direct prototyping path, more available resources to work with and existing precedents to use as inspiration. We can learn a lot about a product just by making an early model of it, and we learn even more when we share that with end users or community members. 

‍Visual prototypes of four different concepts from the North Minneapolis design team

Services, programs, and/or experiences are often a bit harder to prototype because they have fewer tangible artifacts to build. To build these complex prototypes we often have to create something for people to use in order to act out what that experience could look and feel like. This could include scripted roles to act out, a program agenda, or even imagined spaces created with props.

Finally, we’ve found that policy concepts are quite possibly the most difficult type of concept to prototype. When prototyping policies there is often a need to draft multiple versions of new policy language to test with users, but ideally we would also want to simulate the outcomes or circumstances that a new policy would create in the world. Policies are the hardest to prototype because they are the hardest to “undo”—once a new policy is implemented, it takes a lot of work to retract —but we have found success in prototyping new policies either at a smaller scale, such as a concept for a citywide regulation that is prototyped on just one block, or for a shorter or temporary period of time, such as a rule that takes effect for one day, week or month.

Kyle’s comments help us understand how the wordprototype” can be both a noun and a verb – referring to a physical or digital material produced as well as the process through which it was created for the purpose of testing and gathering feedback.

Prototyping is a crucial phase of the human-centered design process, where designers get their hands dirty with building testable versions of their ideas. Whether their building tools are markers and paper, tape and posters, or performance scripts and roles, this is the space where designers move from thinking to doing. The process of prototyping allowed Raising Places design teams to not only introduce their ideas to community members in a way that welcomes truth feedback, critique, and suggestions for improvement, but also to inspire a sense of shared ownership on their path of community development.