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Prototyping: the key to public service innovation

The Digital Innovation Fund’s Accelerator programme is in full swing and to help these project teams and the rest of the Digital Innovators Network understand the importance of prototyping new ideas, we collaborated with The Satori Lab on a prototyping and iteration workshop.

Why prototype?

‘A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world’
- John Le Carré

Organisations that make assumptions about user needs with no user feedback or engagement run the risk of creating a useless solution.

The most important aspect of prototyping, is what you get out of it. Adopting an iterative learning process has many benefits to both the organisation as a whole and the digital innovators themselves. By producing prototypes, you are able to learn from the users and learn from your mistakes. Not only is it easy to throw away a bad idea if you’ve spent little time and little money on it, but testing it allows you to understand what doesn’t work. Gaining this knowledge and combining it with user feedback will help you progress.

What to prototype?

The idea of prototyping a whole new solution was quite daunting to the Network, but Satori Lab showed how even prototyping a small element can have a great impact on the final solution. Their method of demonstrating this was through a storyboarding activity. Producing a storyboard of a potential solution helped the Network decide what part of the supposed solution was "critical to it’s success". This section was then expanded on and prototyped.

How to prototype?

There are many ways to prototype an idea to help gain user feedback. Satori Lab introduced our Network to three key prototyping methods; paper mock-ups, models and roleplay. Each type suits different solutions, and it’s best to use your initiative to decide what method will get you the most out of the process.

Paper mock-ups can be created in very little time, have minimal costings and produce great feedback. This type of prototyping works really well when creating ‘screen-based’ products or systems. This video is a really great example of how paper prototyping can be used within game or app design. One group at the workshop used this method to mock up a phone app for a new timetabling system within colleges. It was great to see the collaboration between the various organisations and Network members and how the idea developed by creating a paper prototype with their input within as little as 30 minutes.

Models are a great way to test ideas when trying to communicate scale, space, aesthetic, form, experience - the list goes on. When running usability testing, users are a lot more open and critical when they have something physical to hold or ‘use’. The Satori Lab showed us that models can be created of products and even of spaces to test layouts of hospitals, reception areas, offices etc. Olivia Kotsifa, the founder of FabLab Cardiff and a lecturer at Cardiff Met, spoke to the Network about what FabLab can offer them in terms of creating models, the benefits of open design and working with other FabLab members. We were also lucky enough to get a tour of the FabLab and talk a look at examples of models made in their facilities.

Roleplay is a great way to get instant feedback from team members or users. One group at the workshop used this method to act out an interactive screen, enabling two way conversation between the screen and the user. Instantly, they realised that unless the user is drawn to the screen, the interactive element is irrelevant, you’ve got to attract people to it first. This was a great example of how role play prototyping can identify problems quickly and effectively early on in a project.

It was wonderful seeing the Network engaging and working on each other's projects. Evaluating their solutions together from various organisations showed how collaborative working can help generate and develop ideas, they were also able to see and plan how the next iteration of prototyping would work. When discussing their thoughts at the end of the day, the Network expressed a really positive outlook of prototyping and could really see the benefits of how these methods could be used within their organisations.

‘People ignore design that ignores people’
- Frank Chimero

Credit: photography by Mark Hawkins


Amy Richards

Amy Richards

Amy Richards

Assistant Programme Manager, Y Lab

Amy is an Assistant Programme Manager at Y Lab.

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