Design Thinking Prototype Stage: Fail Fast, Fail Often

Learn how to explore ideas during the design thinking prototype stage.

Zight | September 01, 2019 | 9 min read time

Article Last Updated: July 02, 2023

Design Thinking Prototype Stage: Fail Fast, Fail Often

If you’ve been following our design thinking series starting with, Design Thinking: How to Execute Exceptional Designs & Think Outside the Box, it’s probably safe to say you have a good understanding of design thinking and the first three core phases.

If you haven’t been following along, here are the cliff notes before we dive into design thinking prototype, stage 4 of the 5 step process.

The 411 on Design Thinking

Get feedback on your prototype from real users.

Design thinking is an iterative process that aims to understand the user’s challenges by identifying alternative strategies and creative solutions that are not apparent at our initial level of understanding. It is intended to be a solution-based approach that focuses on the human that you’re designing for, by asking, “Who is the human behind it and what’s the human need?”.

Design thinking is a proven problem-solving method that employs successful results because it focuses on solutions, not the problem. A primary element of the design thinking process is thinking and ideating on meeting a customer’s needs. With it, you are pulling together the most desirable solution from a human point of view within the confines of what is technologically feasible and economically viable. By combining creative and critical thinking, information and ideas are organized in a way that ensures decisions are made, situations are improved, and problems are solved.

Design thinking is being taught at leading universities across the globe, and has been implemented in leading brands design strategy methods, such as Apple and Google. How many times have you gotten together with a team to solve a problem, but left feeling nothing productive was accomplished? This is where the importance of design thinking can truly be appreciated.

Considering how difficult it is for companies, products or services to stand out from the rest of the competitors, implementing design thinking will give you an upper hand. Not only does it provide real and measurable results, but it also gives you a competitive edge.

Through the 5 step process, we embrace simple mindset shifts and tackle problems from a new direction. It involves a collection of hands-on methods informed by a particular way of thinking that can be broken down into 5 phases:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test
Create effective solutions with the design thinking prototype process.

It’s important to note that the 5 phases may not be sequential, and thus, are not required to follow a specific order. It’s common for the phases to occur alongside one another, and to be repeated iteratively. Think of the stages as different modes that contribute to a project in whatever order best achieves the desired outcome.

Leading up to the Design Thinking Prototype Stage

Typically speaking, before we can get to the design thinking prototype stage, we need to gather information

Design thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing and understanding the end-user. Design thinking empathy begins with a series of questions that get to the heart of the problem, the assumptions, and the implications, so that you can understand their needs, thoughts, emotions, and motivations. One of the best ways to develop empathy and an understanding of your user is to observe them without imposing our assumptions or knowledge onto them. Simply take a step back to measure the success or pain points real users experience from their perspective.

Design thinking empathy helps determine what users think and feel.

This is where the design thinking define stage comes into the picture. Here, we begin piecing the information we’ve gathered during the empathize stage by analyzing the observations, and synthesizing them.

The define phase is all about implementing methods of synthesizing raw data and creating a meaningful and usable body of knowledge. From here, we create an actionable design problem statement. The purpose of the problem statement is to establish the core problems and generate tangible and actionable ideas to solve the problems you and your team have identified up to this point. As with every stage of the design thinking process, the aim is to define the problem in a human-centered manner.

In the following step of the design thinking process, the ideate stage, we start to ask driving questions to form human-centric solutions. We begin by generating tons of new ideas with the hope that will spark lots of amazing ideas. The key is to increase the potential, uniqueness, and effectiveness of your solution. The best way to do this is to be open to any and every suggestion. There are tons of ideation methods that can help you achieve your desired outcome; mind maps, bodystorming, sketches, prototypes, brainstorming, braindumps, storyboards, etc, which we outline in the post,

Each stage of the design thinking process is all about re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, thinking outside of the box, and adopting a hands-on approach. This is essential as we move into the design thinking prototype stage.

Generate new and innovative solutions during the design thinking ideate stage.

Design Thinking Prototype Process: Fail Fast, Fail Often

After you’ve investigated several problems and created some solutions from the end-users point of view, it’s time to select a solution that appears to have the greatest potential. It’s important to note that the design thinking prototype stage is not about designing a finished, high-resolution product. Rather, it’s about designing a prototype that can be manipulated and adjusted throughout the testing process.

Prototypes are typically used in the final stage of the design thinking process. However, since it is the first time designers experience how users behave with the prototype, and learn whether or not the implemented solutions have been successful, it doesn’t make sense to produce a finished product for the users.

The goal is to quickly convey the look, feel, and functionality of your design. Typically it’s recommended to create low-fidelity prototypes. So just start building, don’t spend too much time on the prototype as they will undergo a lot of changes during and after the testing stage. And above all, remember what you’re testing for and who you’re designing for to avoid becoming too emotionally attached or bias.

Quickly convey the look, feel, and functionality of your design with a prototype.

Prototype to Empathize, Define, Ideate, and Test

As we mentioned, prototypes are intended to quickly test design solutions. Keep the following in mind when you begin prototyping:

Build it

Until you build it, you’re likely going to have uncertainties about it. The best way to overcome that is to just build it. Don’t hum and haw about it or get hung up on aspects that you haven’t fully worked out yet. Your prototype will help solve those problems as it gives your idea and solution in a concrete structure to work with. With this, you can gain insights into improvements and solutions.

Speed and Simplicity

Prototyping is meant to be done quickly. If you spend too much time building your prototype, you increase the risk of becoming emotionally attached and hindering your ability to objectively judge it.‍

Focus on the End-User

The crux of design thinking revolves around understanding the end-user. Testing the prototype against your expected user behaviors and user needs will help you identify gaps between the expected results and the reality. From there, you can learn from the gaps to improve your end product or design.

Focus on the Solution

Make sure you have a central purpose and then keep that in mind when you build your prototype. It’s important not to lose sight of the purpose, but it’s also important to maintain an open mind. By balancing these two forces, you will build prototypes that are designed to solve a specific problem, but remain open to other lessons and insights it may bring to light.

The results generated from testing the prototypes are crucial. Prototypes are the tangible results based on the data you’ve collected during the first three phases of the design thinking process. They are meant to help you avoid costly mistakes, eliminate weak ideas or solutions early on, and narrow in on solving your end-user challenges in an applicable and appropriate way.

Fail fast, Fail often

Be cautious of falling into the pitfall of becoming discouraged and feeling like prototypes are a waste of time if they fail. Reframe the idea of failure into a learning mentality. That will also help you remain objective, eliminate becoming too emotionally attached, and just build the prototype without hesitation or worry. When you view prototypes and tests as learning opportunities, the results will provide you with more informed feedback that you can use to improve the next prototype.

Prototypes test the data you’ve collected during the design thinking process.

Design Thinking Prototype Steps

So, as we can see, prototypes are a great way to explore problems, ideas, and opportunities within a specific area of focus. They can reveal invaluable insights and experiences that can inform innovative design decisions. By creating a concrete version of your idea, you can observe how your target market physically engages with it, and see exactly what is working and what isn’t. Understanding the problem your users face when interacting with the product in the intended environment will ultimately lead to better products and designs. But then, how do we create a prototype?

Consider prototyping in the form of:

  • Low-fidelity prototyping
  • High-fidelity prototyping
Quickly test design solutions with low-fidelity prototypes.

Low-Fidelity Prototyping

Low-fidelity prototyping is intended to provide you with a basic model or example of the product that requires testing. With a low-fidelity prototype, it is likely going to be incomplete or utilize a limited number of its intended features. It can even be constructed using materials such as wood, paper, or metal, that are not intended to be used for the finished article. Typically speaking, when you design a low-fidelity prototype, you can expect them to be an inexpensive, quick and simplified version of what the final product will be. Some examples of low-fidelity prototyping include:

  • Mockups
  • Simulations
  • Process sketches
  • Storyboards

These quick and inexpensive variations allow for easier changes, to test new iterations, and really encourages design thinking. However, it’s important to consider what you’re testing.

Depending on your product, a basic version may not accurately reflect the nature, appearance or feel of the finished product, and thus may reveal nothing of real value of the eventual user experience. In cases as such, a low-fidelity prototype may not be appropriate for your intended users.

High-fidelity prototypes look and operate like the finished product.

High-Fidelity Prototyping

High-fidelity prototypes are designed to look and operate much like the finished product. This may be a 3D plastic model with movable parts, which lets users manipulate and interact with the prototype just as it would with the final product. The advantage of information high-fidelity prototyping is that it provides designers with a high level of validated and applicable feedback. When a prototype more closely resembles the intended finished product, it gives you a greater sense of how the end-user will respond to, interact with, and perceive the final design or product. The greatest disadvantage of high-fidelity prototyping is the time and cost required to create, and to make changes to.

Typically speaking, starting with low-fidelity prototyping first and then moving onto high-fidelity prototyping during the later stages, when the test questions are more refined, is a good rule of thumb.

Simplify your Design Thinking Prototype Stage with Zight (formerly CloudApp)

Whether you’re designing a low-fidelity or a high-fidelity prototype, Zight (formerly CloudApp) is a great tool for instantly sharing your prototype with others and getting invaluable insight based on direct input and real user interaction.

With Zight (formerly CloudApp)’s GIF screen recorder, simply share your screen recording, and get user feedback to improve your design in any phase. This feature gives you the option to test your prototypes remotely, and can be moderated or unmoderated. Simply share your screen recording, and get user feedback to improve your design in any phase without having to upload to a third platform. Once you complete your video capture or webcam recording, a link is automatically copied to your clipboard that can be password protected and set to expire after any desired length of time.

Learn more about Zight (formerly CloudApp) for designers here.

Create & share screenshots, screen recordings, and GIFs with Zight