What do airplanes, light bulbs, and Dyson vacuum cleaners have in common?
Although this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, these inventions share a similar history in that the designers of each utilized prototyping to build extremely successful products.
Prototypes are early models that embody potential solutions to problems. They are created rapidly, offering multiple iterations to test ideas and to increase opportunities for feedback prior to the presentation of a final deliverable.
In order to add value to the end product, each iteration must be analyzed with various stakeholders regarding which components succeed and which pieces fail. For instance, a web designer might prototype by making a mock webpage, and an engineer might build a small model car before expending resources on the actual automobile. Prototyping has served as an underlying feature to all of my experiences in International Development and Design Thinking, and I have learned several lessons regarding its importance.
Prototyping is vital because it offers opportunities to learn from failure throughout the process of designing a product or service. By building mini-defeats into the process through the creation of early models which don’t succeed, prototyping alleviates the scariness of individual missteps, allowing students and professionals alike to take risks and be innovative. For instance, while prototyping a class lesson which we were tasked to teach later in the semester, my partner and I recognized that we weren’t allocating time efficiently for each activity. This helped us to make changes before we presented our final materials, allowing the class to run much more smoothly on the day of our teaching session.
Additionally, the process of prototyping increases opportunities to receive feedback from clients. If we were pastry chefs, we wouldn’t bake a four-hundred dollar wedding cake without first asking the bride and groom their flavor preferences. So why should we design a deliverable in the field of development without any input from clients? The answer is we shouldn’t. Although this may seem obvious, it is surprising how often prototyping and reflection are left out of important decisions that we make every day.
By breaking down the design process into a series of steps through the use of prototyping, we can create more opportunities for client feedback and ultimately create a more valuable end product. We can utilize our first prototypes to ask, is the way in which we are defining the problem useful? If not, then how can we reframe our focus to fit our client’s definition of success? What if we baked an entire cake only to learn that our bride actually wanted donuts? It would be better to receive feedback early on to prevent time and resources from being wasted on an idea that is unsatisfactory.
This is especially important in the field of international development. By providing platforms for feedback through prototyping potential solutions, we can increase opportunities to involve people most affected by development challenges in the decision making process, which promotes acceptance of the final product and allows unintended consequences to be identified ahead of time.
As I reflect on my experiences in this course, I am fully aware that my future ideas might never be implemented as widely as those of Thomas Edison or the Wright brothers. However, I have also learned that prototyping is invaluable to the design of any deliverable. By prototyping fast and often, I can redefine my failures as mile markers on the highway to success, and I can learn from multiple perspectives to optimize the feasibility of solutions.