Journal

A guide to experimenting and prototyping

sticky notes on wall

So far in this series, we’ve discussed how organizations can adopt empathy, collaboration, and creativity to drive innovation. Designit’s clients are often willing to embrace these principles. Understanding your customers better to get your product or service right? Seems reasonable. Bringing together diverse perspectives to arrive at stronger, more inclusive solutions? Proven by countless studies. Looking beyond the status quo to reveal new opportunities? Makes sense. Experimenting, however, often makes people apprehensive.

Experimentation can sound scary — it triggers our aversion to ambiguity, risk, and failure. An experiment’s results either prove or disprove our assumptions, and an organization’s desire to not fail (or be wrong) can blind it to the benefits of experimentation. A well-designed experiment helps us think differently, test our biases, and gain new insights. Essentially, it’s a small-scale way to test and learn with relatively low risk. When organizations experiment, they are prioritizing long-term gain over avoiding short-term losses. An experiment with clear learning objectives, success factors, and key measures can provide certainty and evidence-based answers, helping us make better decisions and ultimately create new value.

A well-designed experiment helps us think differently, test our biases, and gain new insights.

Building a safe environment for experimentation, which introduces ambiguity and risk, might seem contrary to business objectives. Organizations want guaranteed returns, high ROIs, and predictable profits. It might seem impossible to gather the internal support and resources required for experimentation. That’s why Cooper Professional Education courses not only teach prototyping techniques for iteration and evaluation but also the skills to help build an organizational culture that will embrace experimentation.

Experiment early and often

Our designers use the experimentation mindset whenever they can. Experimentation doesn’t only occur during the prototype phase; Designit experiments throughout a project. We’ve worked with many organizations that have embraced experimentation, engaging stakeholders, customers, and employees with an attitude of “what can we learn?” and “how can we learn it fast?”

Our prototype was so successful that other departments within the organization started using it as a design tool.

Designit Australia worked alongside a client’s operations and technology, business, and experience teams to reimagine its future core administration system. After gathering user insights from co-creation sessions, our design team created sacrificial future concepts as an experiment for the decision-makers to consider. They were sacrificial in the sense that neither of the concepts were intended to be the solution; rather, they were meant to represent two extreme positions regarding the company’s future vision. The two polarizing concepts allowed us to extract as much feedback in as little time as possible from the client. With this feedback, we could refine and iterate the future vision before designing the experience blueprints and Target Operating Model required for the client to bring its future vision to life. Conducting that one, small-scale experiment saved us effort, time, and money.

animated lightbulbs for experimentation article

On another project, we worked with the assisted channels team at a multinational bank to help create a self-service banking future. Key to this future vision was understanding how customers interact with ATMs and how those interactions could be moved to a touch interface. In addition to conducting rigorous and in-depth customer research to inform our designs, we also ran numerous experiments to better inform our design decisions. We rapidly prototyped a low-fidelity ATM model using cardboard boxes, an iPad, and a person inside pretending to use the ATM. This allowed us to test potential concepts with real users at a much lower cost than building and testing a fully realized solution. The feedback and learnings we gathered from experimentation shaped the final design and build of the ATM interactions. What’s more, our prototype was so successful that other departments within the organization started using it as a design tool. Through experimentation, we saved our client team money, increased the team’s influence within the bank, and created a better experience for the end user.

The business case for experimentation

Individuals make decisions and implement new ideas in organizations every day, some of which can have an outsized impact on the bottom line. Imagine if your company built and launched a product without getting any customer feedback. It’s only after launch that you find out your customers don’t actually care about the challenge you’re trying to address. Or, you realize your business model isn’t scalable, or it doesn’t give you the profit margin needed to be sustainable. When we’re unwilling to invest the time and money early (and often) in the design process to gather feedback, we often end up wasting both.

A prototype is anything that allows you to quickly and cheaply test your assumptions and get feedback from your users to enhance the final product or service.

Whether you’re creating a product, service, process, or experience, experimenting and prototyping can help your team avoid costly mistakes. Often, you’ll end up with invaluable insights on your customers and the product-market fit of your idea — and maybe even brand awareness for your new offering!

Things to consider when experimenting

In order to experiment, you need a prototype. But before you design your prototypes and run your experiments, you’ll also need to identify learning objectives, success factors, and key measures. Here is a handy checklist of questions to ask before you get started:

  • What is the purpose of my experiment?
  • What is the idea or hypothesis I want to test?
  • What assumptions do I have about my idea?
  • What are the things I’m trying to learn?
  • What behaviors or outcomes indicate success or failure?
  • What are my measures of success?

Once you’ve determined the above, you’ll have a better understanding of what your prototype needs. A prototype is anything that allows you to quickly and cheaply test your assumptions and get feedback from your users to enhance the final product or service. This can be created via sketches, storyboards, body-storming, wireframes, and yes, even roleplaying with cardboard boxes!

Typically, as our team moves deeper into the design process, our prototype moves from low fidelity to higher fidelity as we iterate. For example, what we learn from testing a paper prototype might help us create digital wireframes. Roleplaying can turn into building a pop-up concept in a physical location. With each experiment, we want to collect relevant feedback and information to generate insights that will guide our decision-making for the next steps.

Three paths for experimenting and prototyping
When you’re creating a digital product…

…there are many aspects that would benefit from prototyping, from the user flow (how someone navigates your product), to the type of interaction (varying sizes of screens, touch, and voice), to accessibility. Your experimentation journey might look a little something like this:

  1. You might first write or draw out the user flows on Post-it notes to test if the navigation you are building is actually how a user might interact with your digital product.
  2. From that lowest fidelity of prototype, you might then move onto paper prototypes to test your assumptions around your designs (like navigation). With paper prototypes, you can progressively increase the fidelity by playing with the amount of content presented, call-to-action phrasing, button details, illustration styles, layout types, etc.
  3. Next, you might take your static paper prototype and create something dynamic. Creating clickable prototypes using tools like Axure, InVision, Adobe XD, or Sketch can help test interaction patterns by more realistically mimicking the functionality of the digital product.
  4. Finally, after multiple rounds of experimenting, testing assumptions with users, and fixing problems through iteration — you’ll be able to create a high-fidelity prototype! Coded prototypes with real data, content, copy, visuals, and interactions should look and feel like the final product. This allows you to test (in a high degree of detail) the little, exacting things that will contribute to the overall user experience.
When you’re creating a non-digital product…

…experimenting and prototyping can take many forms, depending on the final product and how you intend it to solve your user’s problem. Similarly to digital products, you’ll use different fidelity levels to test first the concept and product-market fit, and then the nitty gritty of materials, tactility, and functionality.

  1. For non-digital products, you might start on paper to visualize and test your core concepts and basic or big assumptions. Tools like sketches, storyboards, and mood boards help catch potential problems early, before they snowball into something too daunting to fix.
  2. Your mid-fidelity prototype should start to resemble your final product and help you test specific assumptions. This might mean using 3D visualization software, 3D printers, or AR/VR to further explore how your product might fit into a specific environment, or how your users might interact with different designs. For more tactile products, you might want to test the size, weight, material, and haptics in a mock-up to ensure that the final product elicits the type of behavior you want from your user.
  3. High-fidelity prototyping for non-digital products can be expensive, but the idea is be to create a comprehensive, fully functioning product. At this stage you might be building a proof of concept and take it through iterations to fine-tune the details until your product is ready for pre-production.
When you’re creating a service…

…every aspect can be prototyped. However, there are challenges to designing experiments around a service, as it’s intangible and often exists as a moment of human-to-human interaction. And although service experiments are most useful when conducted live, there are steps we can take to test our concepts and value proposition before spending the big bucks testing in real life.

  1. At the most basic, you can use tools like body-storming, desktop walkthrough, and experience maps to quickly reveal assumptions and problems that exist within your service concept. These tools are also helpful in identifying the “moments that matter” — allowing us to focus and prioritize subsequent experiments.
  2. After initial iteration on the concept and value proposition, you might then move on to creating physical objects and environments using props like cardboard and Play-Doh. You can progressively increase fidelity by using detailed mock-ups, real environments, and trained staff to more realistically test the service aspects.
  3. Once you’re ready, you can move on to testing within a real business environment. This might mean changing certain practices and processes within existing locations, introducing a pilot, or launching a pop-up concept.

No matter where you are on your innovation journey, embracing experimentation can help you think creatively and build something beyond what you initially imagined. Testing boundaries, posing new hypotheses for validation, and gathering feedback will strengthen your ability to explore and identify new opportunities. Making decisions based on evidence gathered through rigorous test-and-learn cycles will ultimately help de-risk your ideas and maximize the likelihood of success.

Learning the tools for experimentation

For your organization to embrace experimentation, you need to do more than just prototype; you need to foster a culture of learning, encourage asking questions, and normalize calculated failures. Want to learn more about prototyping techniques and building a such a culture?

  • Two Cooper Professional Education courses, Design Thinking Immersive and Service Design Immersive, offer practice creating different prototypes to help evolve, evaluate, and refine a concept.
  • Our Design Leadership course teaches how to create a resilient culture and increase psychological safety within your organization to encourage smart risk-taking.

This article is part of Cooper Professional Education’s “Five Essential Principles of Design-Driven Organizations” series. Read the previous pieces in the series, on collaborationempathy, and creativity.

Kelly Lai
Kelly Lai

Kelly Lai is a Lead Experience Designer at Designit Sydney.

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