8th January 2013

Prototyping for innovative services


Those of you who’ve attended one of our GeoVation weekend camps will know that we spend time developing the shortlisted ideas into prototypes. This helps to test out the ideas and see if they fit the problem they are trying to solve. It also helps when trying to explain it to a judging panel!   In this guest post, Sean Miller of Nonon who facilitate at our GeoVation Camps, explains the value of prototyping for innovative services.

For decades, prototyping has been synonymous with product innovation. And it makes sense to people. You wouldn’t draw a picture of a car, go straight to production and then start shipping it to your customers. You would complete numerous drawings. You would build lots of models (sometimes of the whole car, sometimes of key parts of it). You would design several simulations. All these elements would be tested hundreds, possibly thousands, of times.

Take James Dyson, for example. It took him five years and 5,126 prototypes to come up with his revolutionary cyclonic vacuum cleaner.photo of prototyping slide at GeoVation Camp

Speaking to most people in the street, they get the concept of prototyping in the context of a product. But talk about prototyping a service and there is often a look of confusion, apprehension and a sense of cynicism that a service can actually be prototyped. However, organisations around the world seem to be quite comfortable piloting a new service without prototyping. Madness!

So let’s tackle the word “prototyping” first.  I describe it in different ways depending on my client but I’ve got it down to three:

To be honest, the definition doesn’t really matter, it’s all about your attitude. How can you test out an idea quickly to give you confidence to invest more time and resource in developing it further (or not)?  Better for your idea to fail early rather than later when you’ve invested a lot of time and money in it and you’ve worked your organisation into a frenzy.

The stakes for failure are much higher the closer to a pilot you get, so why wouldn’t you want to flush out problems you can fix?  If your idea is radical enough, there is a good chance it will not be right first time but unfortunately, that doesn’t sit comfortably with organisations.  Prototyping takes the risk out of piloting.

Is prototyping different to piloting? Yes! When you’re at piloting stage the idea is pretty much fully formed. The elements that make up the service look real and you’re testing with a significant amount of people. There are also a wider number of organisational stakeholders who will be affected. A pilot would have taken weeks or months to set up too. Prototyping is all about speed so we’re talking hours or days.

Now let’s look at services. A service is made up of people (customers/citizens/users – you decide) interacting with broadly three different things generically called ‘touch-points’:

All of these interactions can be prototyped.

All these interactions can be planned for using service blueprinting: mapping and detailing a person’s journey and experience over time, through different ‘touch-points’. Service blueprinting is a great way of breaking down your existing or proposed service into its components parts to allow you to figure out and prioritise the parts you’d like to test out. When you’ve done this, then it’s time to start prototyping.

I liken learning to prototype to that of learning to ski as an adult. I remember my first lesson at ski school where I stood on my skis, wobbling like a baby deer as I listened to the ski instructor explain how to ski. The theory lasted five minutes and then it was time to put his words into practice. The thing that most people worried about was falling over but, once we had, it wasn’t so bad and over time our technique improved. Prototyping is very similar. When you’re trying something new, it’s likely you won’t get it right first time. Get over it! The essence of prototyping is failing early, often and cheaply (and quietly) when the stakes are not high so when you actually come to kick off your pilot you have more confidence that it will be successful. Prototyping enables to have really quick learning cycles as you test an idea.

Prototyping should also be cheap and quick. A website can be prototyped just using paper. An interaction with a customer can be prototyped through role-play. A physical space can be prototyped using Lego® bricks. A good test to get you prototyping is to ask yourself:

And then go and prototype.

This is just a taster of how to prototype so I’ve put some useful links below so you can see some prototyping in action. Go and try it for yourselves!

  1. Ideo article   
  2. MakeTools 
  3. TED talk on creativity
  4. Prototyping blog
  5. Design Council design methods