Prototype Typologies

The art of making our ideas tangible building prototypes

Prototypes are an important part of the process of design in almost all Innovation disciplines. Industrial designers, architects, engineers or service designers, they all build prototypes in order to get feedback from users about their designs and solutions before getting into a greater investment of the project or further development of the solution.

The aim of building those prototypes in the design process is to transform our idea or early concept into a tangible artefact to get that feedback from our users, instead of going through the entire design process based on a presumed solution and an untested hypothesis.

On many occasions, when we are facing the process of building a prototype of our solution, we do not know what we can build or what shape we can give it. We can even have too many hypotheses that we want to discover in the testing process with this prototype. That is why it is crucial to do a reflection before the construction to make a good decision about what to build. But how can we start?

What is a prototype?

A prototype is an artefact, an entity that we build to transform an idea into something tangible and that allows us to interact with our user and thus learn from them. Users are not good at projecting ideas or concepts. This is why if we share just our ideas with our users, without showing something tangible, each user will conceptualize what we have told them in a different way and it will be difficult to obtain valuable feedback.

An idea without execution is worth nothing.

A prototype is itself an experiment. We have a belief about a possible solution, service or product, which we want to test with the user through an experiment. We want to measure whether we are on the right path and for this, this device allows us to generate a dialogue and a common vision between creator and user. And thus test if our beliefs or hypotheses were correct.

The biggest problem we face when prototyping is that we can fall into building the crappy version of our solution. ERROR! Making a shabby version of our product will make sense neither for us nor for our user when it comes to generating a valuable dialogue. It is about building something that allows me to learn from the user and from the market, and this is not making a shabby or low-cost version of our solution.

Why prototype?

Prototyping and testing is not something we do just once in the design process, it is usual to build several prototypes depending on the moment of the project in which we are, to generate those dialogues with our users. Throughout the process of designing and developing a solution we are going to have different hypotheses and before putting all our efforts into building something that finally nobody wants, we must prove just that, that we were going on the right path. Avoiding waste of energy, time or money, on implementing a weak or inappropriate solution.

The biggest waste we can have is creating products that nobody wants. – Ash Maurya

When we face the process of building a prototype, the first questions we must ask ourselves will be these two:

  • What is my hypothesis?
  • What do I want to learn in this experiment?

Once we have an answer to these two questions, we must think about what type of prototype we should build to achieve our learning objectives.

There are different types of prototypes lean on the objective. Because depending on what we want to test and what dialogue we want to have with our user, we will have to build one type or another of artefact or prototype.

Tipologies of prototypes

    • Prototype to think:
      This type of prototype helps us when our solution idea is very abstract. By building something more tangible it helps us think further about our solution. And in this way, it becomes one of the best ways to reason about the solution and continue to define our idea. This prototype is a first approximation to what our final product will be. We must try to get as close as possible to our idea, to understand its morphology and what its development implies. In this case, we can use different prototyping tools, such as a cardboard model or 3D printing.

Example of a cardboard mockup from a project at Thinkers Co.

  • Prototype to empathize:
    This prototypes aim is to understand our users or customers, without testing a specific solution. To use this prototype we need to be physically together with users, with whom we want to deal with relevant issues for the solution we are trying to develop and know how they perceive them. To build this type of prototype different techniques can be used, such as a Customer Journey Map or a Service Blueprint to test the user experience.

    Example of a patient story map from a project at Thinkers Co.

  • Prototypes to show:
    Prototypes to show help us to visualize the idea clearly and directly, in a way that does not leave place for questions and that it is self-explanatory. It is important to develop it as concisely as possible so that our user fully understands what we have in mind. There is no single way to build this type of prototype, but we must think about the best method to do it, either through a role play, with a storyboard through drawings or with a set of wireframes.

    Example of a web mockup from the project Bydsea at Thinkers Co.


Once we are clear about what type of prototype we are going to build and what we want to test with our experiment, we will have to choose the technique that best suits our learning objectives. For this, we have more than 10 different tools in the Building phase.

At Thinkers Co. one of our maxims is not to stay just in a post-it idea, but to build further. Build to learn and put our user as an active participant in the incubation of any solution. Remember: he cheapest way to learn is to build your idea so you can talk to your users about what you have in mind; the more tangible and “touchable”, the better feedback you will have from the user in front of you.

Published at 29/12/2020

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