Prototyping: a guide to the 4th stage of design thinking
July 12, 2023
Learn everything you need to know in the prototyping stage of the design thinking process. Get tips, templates, and more to help your teams succeed.
Companies using design thinking methodology can build prototypes quickly and affordably because they can create more thoughtful iterations with input from many different stakeholders — all without ignoring how the end user will engage with the final product.
However, those new to prototyping may have questions about how teams can be more collaborative, efficient, and responsive to feedback. One way is to get a better understanding of the different methods of prototyping and what tools exist to make it a more enjoyable and productive process.
What is the prototyping phase of design thinking?
Prototyping is the stage of design thinking where teams create a tangible representation of an idea or solution that they can test.
At this stage, you’ve gone through three other stages of the design thinking process:
Empathize: where you understand your users and their needs
Define: where you agree on the core problem you need to solve
Ideate: where you come up with lots of different ideas on how to solve the problem
Now, you want to explore those ideas in more detail before testing them with potential customers or end users. You want to get a feel for how viable they are without investing a lot of time or resources into doing so. Prototypes are how you start bringing your ideas to life, ready for testing.
A new prototype is created with each iteration of an idea until the final prototype closely resembles what the final product will become. Prototypes can be physical or virtual.
Why teams should use prototypes
Teams use prototypes to mockup solutions, validate their ideas, gather feedback from stakeholders and users on a solution’s usability, and make informed design decisions based on real-world interactions.
Prototypes reduce risk by allowing big ideas to be tested and evaluated by users well before they are ready for development or production. Working out the kinks before a physical product exists can save time and reduce development costs.
Deliberate testing, feedback, and iteration
Prototypes don’t often consider other business decisions that may affect the design, such as the location of a factory or time to market. Instead, prototypes are mainly focused on solving the problem statement defined earlier in the design thinking process, and getting feedback on potential solutions.
The user-focused nature of this stage plays an important role in an end product’s overall adoption and success.
Improved buy-in and engagement with stakeholders
By presenting a physical or digital representation of your solution, you can communicate your vision more effectively and involve stakeholders in the decision-making process. This active engagement fosters a sense of ownership and increases the likelihood of successful implementation.
The common forms of prototypes
Different types of prototyping serve different purposes, enabling teams to explore and iterate on their ideas. Here are three common types of prototypes:
These prototypes are quick and easy to create, often using simple materials like paper, cardboard, digital platforms, or even Lego blocks. Low-fidelity prototypes focus on capturing the basic functionalities and interactions of a design concept without much detail. They're used for early-stage exploration, testing ideas, and gathering feedback.
High-fidelity prototypes are more detailed and closely resemble the final product in terms of appearance and functionality. They can be created using advanced prototyping tools, digital software, or even physical materials. High-fidelity prototypes are used to simulate the user experience more accurately, test specific features, and validate design decisions before moving into the development phase.
Digital prototypes are interactive prototypes created using specialized software or prototyping tools. These prototypes can simulate complex interactions, animations, and transitions. Digital prototypes allow for a more realistic user experience and are particularly useful when designing digital products, websites, or mobile applications. They can be tested on various devices and screen sizes to ensure a seamless user experience across platforms.
Protoyping methods and templates
Prototyping looks different for different products and teams, but it often follows one of the accepted methods below.
This type of prototyping involves drawing an outline or diagram to show each step in a process or a part of a product. Schematic diagrams can be as simple as a few lines, text, and arrows that act as a blueprint for how the design will work.
An example would be a schematic diagram of how an innovative new water delivery system may push water through a building. You could mock this up by showing the beginning and end of the system, and then using shapes along the way for each step, decision, or feature.
The schematic diagramming template works well when minimal color is used. Focus on the infrastructure at this point in prototyping and avoid distracting details. You can add these in for a high-fidelity version of the prototype.
In appearance modeling, you’ll brainstorm and plan out the emotional and visual traits of your final design. You'll want it to look as much like the real thing as possible, with details on the emotional connection you want end users to have with the design. Because this prototyping practice focuses on aesthetics and feeling, it's a good fit for human-centric design thinking principles.
An example of this would be the prototype of a relaxation retreat website. By establishing visual details through an appearance model, you can test font, color, and other design elements just as they would appear to the visitor on an actual website. The appearance modeling template takes away the guesswork on how to track and test the various factors of each iteration of your prototype.
Rough and ready prototyping
Rough prototyping is a low-fidelity prototype sketch where you can create a number of quick, cheap visual representations for discussion, testing, and feedback. Its main purpose is to get ideas vetted right away before moving on to a more refined and realistic-looking prototype.
An example of this might be a rudimentary sketch of a new board game, drawn quickly to show how it will look, what pieces it'll include, and how to play the game.
While the concept is simple enough, it can be difficult to get started, especially with larger teams. The rough and ready prototyping template gives you the framework to start drawing your ideas and collecting feedback faster.
Storyboarding is a technique used to demonstrate an idea with a series of new or transitional elements. Storyboarding in design thinking works much like it does in TV and movies — one page or sketch for every scene, feature, or lesson.
This prototyping technique is a perfect fit for any design that involves a story or sequence, like an idea for a new commercial. It's also ideal for demonstrating how a user may interact with your design: Creating a sketch for each moment in a user’s product experience can help designers anticipate problems or even create opportunities for more thoughtful moments with your finished work.
Storyboarding works with the understanding that user experience isn't a single moment in time. Getting started may be easier with the storyboarding template, so you can focus on the story you have to tell.
How to get started with prototyping in design thinking
Prototyping isn't the first thing you’ll focus on when creating a new design, but it is an essential part of the process. Which strategy you settle on depends on your goals, team needs, and time to market.
Consider these words from our experts on the LUMA System™:
“Imagine a world in which hundreds of millions of people have mastered basic design skills so they can frame problems, deeply understand people and situations, pull insights from a complex sea of data, generate unconventional ideas, sketch, build prototypes, test assumptions, and iterate quickly — the hallmarks of good designers.”
Design thinking is centered on the human experience, and the best strategies are those that put people front and center. Fortunately, the prototyping stage is really about testing what we think people will want against what they truly think and feel.
Put your new prototyping knowledge into practice with Mural and the LUMA System™. Your teams will be equipped to tackle complex problems, imagine new possibilities, and design solutions that keep people at the center.