Search YouTube for ‘Ideo shopping cart,’ and you will find a vintage 1990s ABC Nightline clip with over 1.3 million views. It doesn’t feature celebrities or world leaders, just a group of designers from the product development firm Ideo. The stars of the video are an eclectic mix of innovators, including an engineer, a linguist, a marketing expert, a psychologist, and individuals with MBA and biology degrees. They are working on a one-week assignment to imagine then prototype a next-generation shopping cart. The resulting design – complete with a scanner attached to the cart that would allow you to scan and bag your groceries while you shop – certainly looked odd in 1999. However, if you go into some grocery stores today, you are actually able to do just that, scanning your items using an app on your smartphone.
With wild ideas bursting from a multidisciplinary team, the video shows an innovation process that was quite radical in the ‘90s but has since become normal and a proven way of success adopted by some of the brightest companies in the world, including Google and Apple. These days, Ideo is still innovating, although they have moved from product design to a full platform that includes an array of services.
Shuya Gong works within the Ideo CoLab, a collaborative innovation platform focusing on human-centered design. From her experience creating prototypes for a variety of companies, she offers these professional prototyping tips and insights.
10 Professional Prototyping Tips
1. You can prototype anything.
For those who think prototyping isn’t their ‘thing,’ Shuya stresses that prototyping is important for all entrepreneurs and business owners. “A prototype is a question made tangible,” says Shuya. “You can prototype anything. This includes experiences, products, stories, business plans, and proof of concepts.”
2. Get a great team and trust the process.
As mentioned before, the best innovation happens when you gather a multidisciplinary team where everyone can tackle the project from different angles to create truly unique concepts and prototypes. Of course, Shuya cautions that working on a team is hard; expect to go through a rollercoaster of divergence and convergence of ideas. Embrace the process and know that you’re going to come through at the end.
3. Build your (and your team’s) creative confidence.
One of the top professional prototyping tips is to build creative confidence. This is the baseline to making creativity happen, and for allowing innovation to happen inside your business. To encourage more innovation, entrepreneurs and business owners should create a culture where wild ideas are embraced, and everyone is invited into the innovation process no matter their rank or background. “A designer is someone who makes stuff with the intent of usability,” remarks Shayo. Everyone within the organization can contribute to the design and prototyping process.
4. Design is a three-step process.
“Think of design as a process. It goes from inspiration to ideation to implementation,” explains Shuya.
- Inspiration: Get inspired about the problem you are trying to solve. Understand how to look at people, how to understand what they’re thinking, and how to have empathy. This part of the process involves observing as well as interviewing users.
- Ideation: “Ideation is the part that gets really messy,” says Shuya. After you have gathered information from your target market, it’s time to put everything together and try to understand it. Based on their feedback, you start generating a lot of ideas—some even wild and bizarre—in the ideation step.
- Implementation: Implementation is about taking the final ideas from the ideation step and executing them in order to create the prototype and bring your product or service to the market. For this most difficult step, Shuya recommends that you have a good COO.
5. Remember for whom you are designing.
Your client or customer is the most important part of the prototyping process because your aim is to make something desirable for them. To understand why you’re making something, gain insight into the pain points because you can’t fix something if you don’t know why or what is broken. Shuya recommends doing ‘design research’ which is different from ‘marketing research’ in that it is open-ended, exploratory, and aimed at discovering the main questions and problems (to which you will develop answers and solutions).
6. Engage in venture design.
Venture design is different from normal design because venture design is about creating the unseeable, creating something that when you put it out in the world, people look at it and say “Whoa! I need this right now! I can’t believe this doesn’t exist already!” As Shuya explains it, if you consider the world and everything that is real on one plane, the concrete plane, then everything above it is abstract. You want to be on that upper, abstract plane when you are venture designing. The goal is to find something that doesn’t exist yet but will make people’s lives much easier.
7. Gather inspiration from everywhere.
It is old school wisdom to carry a pen and paper around with you all the time to log your ideas. Shuya has a tip for the modern era—just get an Instagram account and take pictures of all the interesting things that you encounter so you can remember them. When you get stuck in a spot and don’t understand how to solve a problem, go back through your Instagram photos. “Probably you’ve taken a picture of something inspiring at some point in time that will trigger some great idea,” says Shuya.
8. Less talking, more doing.
When you get to the ideation stage, be very urgent and action-oriented about the task at hand. Don’t worry about making things perfect or thinking about what is ‘possible.’ Those details can be figured out later, but for now, it’s time to get every imperfect idea out for consideration.
9. Strong ideas, weakly held.
While it is good to be passionate about your ideas, it’s also important to be very open when you go out and get feedback on your prototype. If people don’t get it immediately, don’t try to explain it to them (as if it’s a perfect idea and they don’t get it because they’re stupid.) “That’s the complete opposite way of getting user feedback for a prototype,” says Shuya. It’s more important to know what people don’t like about your idea than what they do like about it. After all the feedback comes in, you can make sense of it by clustering groups of responses together and trying to understand themes. This will give you plenty of ideas for how you can improve the next version of your prototype.
10. Remember the art of storytelling.
When it comes time to pitch your idea and prototype, first take some time to figure out what your story is. What is the overarching narrative of your company and product/service? What is your mission? Why are you here in the world? Whose lives do you make easier? Telling a story about your venture will help people remember it better. While pitching will get you money, storytelling will make people develop a deeper emotional connection.
“You can prototype anything. This includes experiences, products, stories, business plans, and proof of concepts.”
Prototyping should be a fast-paced process that happens quickly…think of that new-age shopping cart developed by Ideo in one-week, with innovative ideas that were nearly a decade before their time. It’s action-oriented, it’s exhilarating, it’s rowdy, it’s inventive. There is no guarantee for a win either, so don’t be afraid to fail. “And when you do fail, just repeat, “It’s fine,” offers Shuya. “This is what innovative companies do all the time.”
“This is my job,” says Shuya. “I go from zero to venture concept in one week, using technology-led design.” Using her professional prototyping tips, you can take your own inspiration and bizarre ideas, and rapidly prototype them into products and services that will change people’s lives.