What is the Place of Prototyping for Designers?
To answer this we need to first understand what prototyping is and why we use it. So in this article we will cover the following 3 points: What is prototyping, why do we use prototyping, and where does prototyping fit into our design process?
Firstly, What is prototyping? In essence it’s very basic; it is creating a representation of something that can be used to test a hypothesis. It is a tool that allows us to move from the unknown into the known. A prototype could be as simple as a folded card mock-up for a packaging concept or perhaps a very expensive medical device built to replicate the real thing. The key point to the prototype must be that it will provide understanding to something that you didn’t yet know already or were unsure of.
Most prototypes will be inexpensive mock-ups but as the product becomes more refined the prototypes likewise become more complex and require more refined building processes. For example I can cut a piece of foam and shape and mould it very quickly to test a basic form. This could be used to trial ergonomics or semantics, or to find out how the current mechanical layout will affect the overall exterior of the product. This allows us to very quickly generate useful information which we can feed back into our design process. But as we develop the product we may want to test the mechanics of how it will work. So we may choose to machine the components from metal or plastic or more likely we will 3D print the design. 3D printing has revolutionised the way designer’s prototype. At the push of a button we can export our 3D CAD models from the computer and generate a real, tangible working part that we can review. But prototyping is not only tied to physical parts, you can create prototype software or even prototype the user interface for a new app for example. The process is the same as are the aims.
Why do we use prototyping?
We use prototyping because it means we can test and validate a design before we spend considerable money manufacturing and getting the product to market. If we simply take the first idea we have and then draw up a final design I can guarantee the only thing you will get as an outcome is an expensive problem!
Designers spend a considerable amount of time working in the realm of the unknown. We are given a problem and then told to find a solution. There are many things we need to find out such as how will it work mechanically? What is going to look like? Will it be comfortable to use? Will it be strong enough? Will they know how to use it? What material will suit best? Will it be robust and last in the intended working environment? If we didn’t use prototyping we would have no real way to find out any of these answers. We would be continuously reliant on assumption which is a very dangerous proposition. But because prototyping is an integral part of the design process, we are able to iterate and refine an idea before we have to commit to the final design.
The benefits of prototyping ultimately come down to two things. TIME and MONEY.
If we test and refine an idea then we can remove errors. The design can be continually improved upon until we are confident it will work and will be desirable to the end user. But if we don’t prototype then we don’t know if there are problems nor do we know how to fix them. Suppose we went to manufacture, we would be investing large sums of money ultimately to end up with a product that didn’t serve it’s purpose. The market would quickly find this out and you will have a failed business before you have even begun.
Prototyping is an absolutely essential part of the design process but more than that it is crucial to your business because it allows the product to be tested on the target audience before being launched to market. Prototyping allows for an efficient design process because you prove ideas wrong or right very early on in the piece. It allows you to explore a range of possible concepts quickly without burning time and money developing each and every possible solution.
So now that we understand what a prototype is and why we use them, we need to answer the final question, where does prototyping fit into our design process?
The diagram below shows the general flow of a design process. You begin with your initial idea and then feed any number of possible solutions into it and over the course of the process the solution becomes more and more refined until you reach the final stage of manufacture. Now you can begin prototyping at any point; In-fact the earlier the better. But generally speaking your prototyping really kicks off around the concept stage and is most prolific in the development stage for obvious reasons.
The value of prototyping is the ability to test and find out how the problem can be best solved. This allows a micro process to happen within the overall design process. Until the product is fully refined you continue to prototype, test and analyse the design, always learning new information that can be used to better the product. If you leave prototyping to the last step in your process then you will find out you have invested a lot of time working on a design that desperately needs some problem solving. Prototyping cannot be replaced by computer modelling. There is no substitute to finding out quality information other than building prototypes and testing them.
So what is the place of prototyping for a designer? Well it forms the back bone to our whole design process. It is our way to find out answers to the design problems we come up against. Without prototyping we can only hope we are getting it right and this will lead to a failed design. But with prototyping we can develop with assurance a product that is both fit for purpose and beautiful.