Do you know when it’s time to start rapid prototyping? I do, and it’s now.


(Read my full post on Medium)

Getting from idea to action is THE hardest step of the design thinking process (or really the hardest part of any process). But particularly in design thinking, there’s a culture that designers should have a “bias towards action”. However, this is typically the most ignored mindset of them all. (I’m being slightly hyperbolic, but radical collaboration is a close second).

Core tenets of design thinking are to fail fast, learn quickly, and iterate, iterate, iterate. The whole point is to learn by doing and to waste less time, effort, and energy in arriving at the best solution. The purpose of prototyping is to make an idea tangible. Something you can touch, erase, squeeze, and tear is more easy to understand because it moves thinking from abstract to concrete. Suddenly, you can poke holes in reality instead of someone’s fantasy.

I guarantee my idea of a purple ballgown doesn’t look like your idea of a purple ballgown, so draw a quick picture, and then let’s compare details.

Why do people get stuck talking, thinking, and debating, when they could be prototyping and learning by doing?

First of all, people are inherently lazy, and it’s easier to talk instead of do. That’s just a fact. Second, I believe that 9 times out of 10, it’s a flaw in facilitation skills during a design thinking session.

This article is actually a plea to facilitators to use your powers more astutely to get groups to move towards action faster. Here are my tips.

When is it time to start rapid prototyping?

Noted in the chart above, there are four things that tend to happen in groups that stall the momentum towards prototyping. When these things occur, facilitators must not act as bystanders. At these moments, it is the facilitator’s duty to snap the group into action and reverse the conceptual thinking death trap.

4 Traits that indicate it’s time to rapid prototype

  1. The team is lost in the land of “what if’s”, suggesting more and more possibilities, features, and nice to haves.
  2. Talking has lasted for more than 15 minutes because the team loves to talk and think and talk and share and think aloud.
  3. The team has whittled the ideas down to two or three (or a few) but now is debating which ones to choose, seemingly wisely weighing pros, cons, and potential outcomes (ahem, also known as making assumptions).
  4. The team has been sitting on their bums for 15 minutes, which is killing energy and perpetuating laziness.

Remedy: It’s time to Stop, Drop, and Roll

When you notice these four qualities in a team, it’s time to shake them up and get them moving into action. I use the Stop, Drop, and Roll technique (my own creation).

  • STOP: Politely or firmly intervene and pause the conversation. You must get their attention.
  • DROP: Suggest it’s time for rapid prototyping. Literally cut them off in mid-speech, mid-sentence, or mid-thought.
  • and ROLL: Get them to take one, two, or ten of the ideas and turn them into something tangible. This can be done in 30 second sketches or 5 minute pipe cleaner sculptures. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, but I promise working with your hands and eyes will change the dialogue and unblock questions and confusion.

Whatever comfort zone the team was in before you cut them off will shift into a space of action and energy. Making things is energizing and enlivening, and it instantaneously changes the conversation from “why don’t we…” to “well now I get what you mean.” It’s easier to examine and dissect things (tangible things) like pictures, images, sketches, diagrams, flow charts, paper mockups, cardboard box models, and anything of this variety rather than ideas. After all, words are arbitrary points of meaning, but we know what something is when we see it.

Note: This article is meant for problems in the early stages of the design process. There is absolutely a time and place for debating and pondering, but that comes once you have multiple rapid prototypes under your belt.