It’s a phrase that can mean one thing to one person, another thing to another person.

“The prototype.”

The prototype. A singular thing. Strange that, to me, given “prototype” can mean so many things to so many people.

In a session last week the DWP Digital user research and design community identified 43 different types of “prototype” they had made and used.

With the varying levels of richness, breadth of approach and detail that different types of prototyping bring singling out the prototype seems unfair, limiting, and confusing.

If you went to a restaurant and saw a menu that said just “the food” would you be satisfied with just a vague description?

The problem with prototypes is they always need context. The good thing about prototypes is they always need context.

The other problem with prototypes is it too easy to mistake them as the finished thing. Prototypes should be quick to make, cheap to make. That means they can be one of many things.

My solution:

Ban “the prototype”.

Be clear what is the problem you want to solve.

Be clear how you are going to look into this.

Be clear why you are going to look into the problem that way.

Then write down on a stickie what you are doing and how you are doing it.

“Some paper and pen sketches of screens for our website to explore what we think so far.”

“A storyboard of a hypothetical user journey showing someone using their mobile phone to access information about a rash.”

“A service map based on the detailed 12 weeks of research we have conducted, to show how a user would navigate the existing system, highlighting pain points. Oh, and we’ve done it with stickies on brown parcel paper.”

Then on another stickie write down why you are doing it this way, as a reminder of the conditions.

All quick, all cheap, and altogether better to gather round to discuss.

You will never need to use “the prototype” again. And you can just refer back to the first stickie to describe what you have done.

Down with “the prototype”. Up with prototypes!

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